Much has been written about the importance of brand storytelling and how the stories surrounding a brand, can either make it, or break it.
Nowhere does that ring truer than for those brands driven by a purpose or ideal greater than themselves and their own success. For them, their story brings them to life. It activates, animates and authenticates their very reason for being.
The humble beginnings of a brand, often does more than just tell how it started.
Be it two nerds in a garage building a different type of home computer (Apple); a coffee-loving guy wanting to create the third place (Starbucks); or a party-going gal wanting a smooth panty line (Spanx), each of these simple stories has crept into our collective subconscious and created invisible connections with those brands – and made them more human.
A story that is especially helpful to the growth of a purpose brand, is what Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, calls a “genesis story.” Genesis stories highlight the motivation behind the brand at its founding. They are frequently either an underdog or battle-weary tale, or sometimes a lucky strike, but essentially they give customers an insight into the foundational beliefs that drive a company’s values.
Genesis stories also provide inspiration and direction. They clarify the ‘why’ of a brand and elicit a deeper empathy or connection by showing how the brand is a response to real and specific needs or issues. Once customers understand how (and why) the brand cares, they become more invested in the brand.
A cautionary tale
However, as time goes on, the same old formulaic garage story may become trite and unbelievable. It is no longer a clear differentiator. A great genesis story must ring true, be based on fact and have genuine, emotive aspects. If the story sounds like the founder was either looking for an ‘opportunity’ or ‘saw the need for…’ it suggests the brand doesn’t really have an authentic purpose. And forcing a brand into a compelling story or mashing one together to fit the ‘hard-luck’ storyline, will hurt your brand in the long run.
A great genesis story is the keystone of your brand narrative and should answer fundamental questions: Where are you from? How did you get here? Why did you do it? When customers hear how you genuinely began – warts and all – it triggers an emotional connection and people feel like they know the brand, as a person. It connects. It sticks. Then they believe in the brand.
Shaping a story
The genesis story of the women’s shapewear brand Spanx, is retold in the normal tell-it-like-it-is manner of its founder, Sara Blakely. It recounts her frustration at not being able to wear white pants to a party, because of a particularly nasty panty line. After a few snips to a pair of control pantyhose, the first incarnation of Spanx was born… and panty lines were a thing of the past.
Blakely went on the research her own product design, write her own design patent, and found a manufacturer crazy enough to produce her product prototype. She then shopped the product around to store buyers, giving them live change room ‘before’ and ‘afters’ in her white pants. Three weeks after the first change room encounter, the brand was on sale in Neiman Marcus and has rocketed to an estimated US $400 million in annual sales, with Blakely being named the youngest self-made woman on Forbes billionaire list in 2012.
The brand has a legion of fans in more than 50 countries, including Oprah Winfrey, who in 2000 publicly announced she favoured Spanx over undies. And what of their underlying purpose? According to the Spanx website, “In addition to keeping butts covered from Savannah to Singapore, SPANX also shapes the world by focusing on their mission: To help women feel great about themselves and their potential.”
But the real connection the Spanx brand story has built with its customers, is best reflected in a story published by Success Magazine, where one of Blakely’s all-time favourite fan encounters was at an airport when, “She yelled at me across the entire airport as she was sprinting to her gate, ‘Spanx and wheels on luggage, the two greatest inventions in the last 50 years!’” A story like that, just can’t be made up!
NOTE: A version of this post under another title, was originally published in INDVSTRVS magazine
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