Are You Telling Stories? The Difference Between a Bland Brand Voice and a Brilliant One

When does an anecdote become a story of urban legend proportions?

When it’s about a brand, it’s almost never by accident.  Brands use stories to paint a picture of themselves that stay with the consumer and gives clients something to talk about.

Tell Me ABRANDStory

Take this story from Ritz-Carlton, for example:

A family with three young children arrived at the hotel for a business/leisure weekend. On the last night of their stay, they dined in the hotel’s signature restaurant, The Vernona, which specializes in entirely organic cuisine.

Upon closing of the restaurant, the server attendant found a small stuffed animal tucked underneath a seat cushion. A server immediately recognized that the stuffed animal belonged to one of the young children who had dined at the restaurant earlier that evening. It was too late to return the stuffed animal then, so they planned a fun way to present the toy the next day. They grabbed the community camera behind the front desk and positioned the stuffed animal to look like it was dining in the restaurant, playing the piano and cooking in the kitchen. At each location, they captured the moment on camera, and then made a storyline to go with each photo. They then printed all the photos and created a book of “animal adventures” for the young guest.

The picture book and stuffed animal made its way to the guest’s door at 9a.m. the next morning. The young boy was jumping out of his skin with excitement when he saw his lost companion, and his mother responded, “The Ritz-Carlton always goes that extra mile – this is why my family will only travel to your hotels.”

Ritz-Carlton “Stories That Stay”

Even if you’ve never stayed at a Ritz-Carlton, you might tell someone else that story, because it’s touching and fun.  But from the Ritz’s point of view, it demonstrates how committed their staff are to an outstanding guest experience—without ever using any of those jargonny buzzwords.

These sorts of stories tend to go viral in this day and age; just check out this fun list of the best customer service stories from Mental Floss. (And if you read them, I bet you’ll be telling one of them to friends within the next week.)

Using stories to build a brand voice

At a conference I attended earlier this year, I heard Dennis Goedegeburre, an SEO strategist for AirBnB, talk about the confluence of product design and SEO strategy.  He said, “SEO is the outcome of a great product, designed to maximize the user experience,” and went on to describe the great lengths AirBnB have gone to to create a strong story around their user experiences.

He mentioned that the company has a “giraffing” team — because in their version of the Ritz-Carlton story, the lost toy was a stuffed giraffe — whose entire job is based around creating memorable user experiences for AirBnB customers like the Ritz-Carlton stories.

I mean, is that an awesome job, or what?

They’re given a budget and carte blanche to make experiences for users. So, for example, when they found out a musician was staying at an AirBnB place for his record launch, they sent champagne to the location to help him celebrate. When a nutrition author used AirBnB, they sent a platter of locally sourced, organic fruits and vegetables to her accommodations.

And they’ve built their entire brand voice and strategy around these sorts of stories.

How to make stories work for your brand

Right now you might be thinking, “That’s great for companies that have a zillion dollars to spend on marketing,” or, “Yeah, but my business is TOTALLY different from a hotel…”

Hold the phone.

Every business has a compelling story to tell. You just have to find it.

Bernadette Jiwa of The Story of Telling says, “It’s your job to give your customers a story to tell.”

I’ve touched on this before when I talked about the importance of having a brand hook, but this is digging a little deeper.

A hook might be that one concept or image that people associate with your brand, but your brand story encompasses:

  • who you are
  • what you do
  • why you do it
  • your company/brand/personal history
  • the people, places, ideas, causes your company thrives on
  • the foundation that keeps you grounded and/or growing
  • why your products or services are special
  • your passions
  • your company culture
  • how you make life better
  • why people should do business with you

And it does all of that in a pithy story no longer than the Ritz-Carlton example above — and sometimes much shorter.

The key to all of this is that oft-overused buzzword AUTHENTICITY. You can’t fake your brand story. It must be real, it must be conversational, it must be human.  And it can’t be a gimmick, manipulative, “artsy,” or especially boring.

A great brand story is the kind of thing you end up spilling out over your second cocktail to someone interesting at a conference or networking event.

“So, how did you get into this business?”

“Well, it’s a funny story…”

I’m working on documenting the process I use for discovering a brand’s voice and message, but until that’s ready, here are some prompts to get you started:

Ask yourself:

  • How did you get started in this business?
  • What inspired you to start your business?
  • What was the one event or turning point that set you on your current course?
  • What makes you (the founder, CEO, chief cook and bottle washer) uniquely suited to this business?
  • What’s an amazing transformational story of something you’ve achieved for/with a client?
  • What was your biggest failure?
  • How would you explain your business to a five-year-old?

Take some time to brainstorm answers to these questions. Don’t censor yourself. Write out any stories that come to mind — you can always pick and choose the best bits later.

Where to tell your brand stories

Your brand story should infuse every bit of your brand from your website to your tweets to your products.  But some good places to get started incorporating your stories might be:

  • On your about page. This is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s an excellent place to get started.
  • In your mission statement on your website.
  • Integrated into your social media. If, for example, you sell running shoes because you love the clarity and creativity that comes from a great run, you could write stories on Twitter (in 140 characters, of course) that feature running.
  • On your blog. One of my clients has an eco-friendly clothing shop and frequently blogs her instagram photos of her lifestyle, eating organic veggies, going to yoga class, hiking, etc.

Some more great brand stories for more inspiration:

Still stuck? Each of these brands have a strong brand voice and story. Click through to each website to study how they do it.

  • Moleskine notebooks: “The legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin.”
  • Method cleaning products “believe in making cleaning products that are, well, clean. Naturally derived ingredients are our superheroes, and we keep the planet in mind with every bottle we design. The bottom line? We’re a pretty package—inside and out.”
  • Warby Parker eyeglasses: “Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses. Every idea starts with a problem. Ours was simple: glasses are too expensive. We were students when one of us lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so high that he spent the first semester of grad school without them, squinting and complaining. (We don’t recommend this.) “

Remember: Your brand story is unique to you. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. The only way to be wrong is to not have a brand story at all.

Got questions? Got a killer brand story you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Jilted Ballerina via Compfight cc

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12 thoughts on “Are You Telling Stories? The Difference Between a Bland Brand Voice and a Brilliant One

  1. That is something I work on all the time, telling stories. Sometimes it is so simple and other times I find it a struggle.

  2. I love that Ritz Carlton story – genius marketing! I think I’ll go back and revisit my website and think once again about how I can make my brand a brilliant one, using your examples as food for thought!

  3. I’m still thinking about this one and how to incorporate it. I pulled your list of questions to write about tomorrow. Funny, your the first blog of yours that caught me was about story too.

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