Brand Storytelling Has to be Authentic

I came to marketing through a rather circuitous route.

And by circuitous, I mean I started building websites in Geocities when I was 14, someone got talked into hiring me to code at 18, and I got 2 Literature degrees and paid my way through college by coding and marketing.

Thank goodness for those degrees, though, because marketing has shifted to brand storytelling, and man do I enjoy telling stories.

First, What is Brand Storytelling?

I decided to Google this and grab the first definition I could find:

“Using a narrative to connect your brand to customers, with a focus on linking what you stand for to the values you share with your customers.”

Not…bad. And I don’t disagree, per se, but man, when you’re talking about telling a story with your brand it’s kind of a bland and confusing definition.

I look at brand storytelling as something really simple:

Using your marketing to showcase your brand’s authentic self, in a way that drives people to keep reading.

This leaves us wide open to tell a story in a variety of different ways. Think of brand storytelling as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Some will start with you at the beginning, but they’ll divert to where they like to “spend time” with you most. That could be Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TV/video ads (because video ads are way more places than a “TV” these days), and even through billboards, signs, or print pieces. It’s a Choose Your Own adventure, so your customer can divert, but the story has to make sense and be cohesive no matter where they choose to dive in.

The same place I got the bland definition also claims that the customer has to be the “hero” in the story. However, if your customer is the hero in YOUR brand’s story, your brand shifts and changes depending on the reader. That’s not quite right….

You, YOUR brand is the main character. After all, you’re telling YOUR story. Yes, the customer (buyer, browser, reader) has to identify with you; there needs to be an emotional connection of some kind for them to stick around. You want them to want to find out what happens next, right? But how do you form that emotional connection?

Be Authentic to Your Brand

Here’s the really hard piece of this that not every business owner wants to hear: if you’re going to focus your marketing on brand storytelling (which you should), your story better be damn accurate to who you are.

If your story isn’t authentic to your brand as it actually is, people will notice. What happens first is they feel a disconnect. For some reason, something just doesn’t click for them and they’re not sure why. They may give your company a try, once or twice, but they don’t advocate for you and they don’t keep coming back. Why? Your reader can’t emotionally connect with something that’s not real.

This is also why you shouldn’t steal or borrow ideas from other brands, and why when I’m working with clients I would never approach two companies in the same industry as “the same”. They’re not the same. The story I tell for one restaurant, for instance, is not the story I would tell for another of my restaurant clients. They have different stories, different values, different drives that we want to be authentic in communicating to the customer base. In storytelling marketing, I feel it’s almost as important to attract the customers you want as to weed out those you don’t. (Please, someone fight me on this.)

And if We’re Talking Personal Branding….

Dear marketing gods, do not try to copy something you see someone else doing if your brand is a personal one. By a personal brand, I mean you’re a one-stop shop or you, a single person, is the biggest face of your company. Shoot, even me who is part of an agency has to worry about my personal branding (hello shiny new website) and make sure that it’s authentic to who I am.

Just as a simple example, I am a nerd. I am also not a fake nerd. I own comic books and graphic novels, I’ve watched far too many nerdy movies and TV shows, and I was raised on Star Trek: TNG and Star Wars. I also own a rather impressive (if I do say so myself) collection of nerdy/comic book t-shirts that are not, um, professional enough to wear to the office on a regular basis. As we are all on COVID Stay at Home orders, I have been wearing one of my nerdy T’s every day and sharing it to my Instagram story. (You can go check my highlights on my Instagram to see just how cool I am.) But that is part of my personal branding, and it’s authentic and real to who I am. I haven’t bought a nerdy t-shirt since July (my stellar America’s Ass Captain America T, to be precise, and is in the highlights) so I haven’t had to fake any part of this. I’m also pretty sure I can get through a 30 day work-from-home order without repeats.

If I wasn’t sincere and real, you wouldn’t be driven to keep reading my long diatribes and my clients would stop putting trust in the fact that I learned a lot of what I do for them “for fun”.

As Genie Said, Just Be Yourself

(Did you get that solid Aladdin reference?)

Don’t be afraid to be open and vulnerable with who you actually are. People connect with that way better than something that just feels a little…off. Whether your company is a large corporation or you’re a shop of one, your brand’s story has to be who you really are. Remember when your mom or dad taught you not to lie? It’s the same thing. Once the lies and inauthenticity starts, it’s hard to remember all the lies you tell. Eventually, your customers and prospects figure it out. And then that trust you worked to build is gone.

This is all way easier if you’re a small shop or a personal brand. So how do you as a large corporation showcase your authentic brand story?

Simple – talk to those that work in your company. Open a dialogue for what they love about working for you, what drives them to come in every day and do a good job, and start finding the commonalities. Don’t forget to teach new hires your values, morals, and tell them your brand story. Your employees have to buy-in emotionally, too, or the whole thing falls apart. Do your best to work together, and you’ll be surprised what already exists within your company.

Being authentic may also keep you from getting trolled online.*

*I do not guarantee that, because Carole Baskin seems pretty authentic to who she is and I’m pretty sure she’s currently getting trolled. 

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