March 2, 2020

Brand Storytelling, The Virtual CMO Podcast

When we talk to small and mid-sized business owners and marketing professionals, one of the things that we hear over and over again is that finding money to do marketing is tough. What can be especially discouraging is when businesses undertake a marketing campaign and it doesn't achieve the desired outcome. Sometimes, this is because the results they want exceed what’s reasonable to expect. This creates a mismatch of expectations which can make it difficult to receive funding for future marketing activities.  In this series called "Marketing Mistakes," we will delve into some of the most common problems. The goal is to help you generate more favorable returns on your marketing investment by steering clear of these common mistakes. To start, we talk about the importance of a brand story and why having not having one can be detrimental to your marketing results.

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Why is a Brand Story Important?

Stories are at the heart of a brand. They create a framework for how a company is going to relate to its customers and how they will meet a customer's needs. Creating a story is where your value proposition becomes tangible and expectations get set. 

A mistake brands sometimes make is pushing too aggressively, too soon, by trying to make a sale rather than focusing on building a relationship. A relationship builds interest in something beyond just a product or a service; it helps foster belief in your company's mission and values. This is a much strong bond than simply a transaction. It's a connection.

We are currently in a political season and deluged with flyers, online ads, and tv commercials that talk about various political candidates. If picking one was as simple as merely understanding each candidate’s agenda and policies, then making a decision based on those points would be straightforward. But we know it's much more than that, there's also the likability factor. What kind of feeling does this particular candidate generate for the voter? Do people get excited? Is there a movement around a specific candidate? A movement is about much more than just a candidate's policies; it's about who they are as a personality. It's important for brands to recognize that as well. There are many good products and services, but the best brands also focus on being known and liked for what they represent.

Coffee Talk

I want to give you a couple of examples. The Five Echelon Group, which I am the founder, is based in Orlando, Florida, and so I wanted to pick a couple of local examples. I love a cup of coffee, and Starbucks has been a tremendous success story in that space. There’s a location almost everywhere, just like McDonald's, they are practically on every street corner. So if you are going into the coffee business and will be competing against a company like Starbucks, you have to figure out a unique value proposition. Coffee companies are a great example of this because while some might say that coffee is coffee, anyone who truly loves drinking it will agree there are differences in both in taste and presentation. Coffee is much more than just a drink; it's an experience.

I learned about coffee later in life. For many years, I didn’t drink it. But it got to a point where I was regularly meeting friends at coffee shops, but I was ordering an iced tea or a smoothie. I felt I wasn't participating in the full experience. It just wasn't the same by not drinking coffee. There wasn't any real reason that I wasn't a coffee drinker, and so I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I loved it and the various ways it could be prepared. I could enjoy a strong cup in the morning and maybe something lighter or an iced coffee in the afternoon. And I loved the experience of being in a coffee shop, sitting with people reading or working on their laptops, having conversations with friends, the casual business meeting. I noticed that these coffee shops worked hard to differentiate themselves, not only on the quality of their coffee and the way that that coffee was prepared, but in the environment they created in their coffee shops. It was about the experience, the smells, the lighting, and the décor. It all came together to create an environment that drew people in. It was much more than just the coffee itself.

 I think it's fascinating to see how these businesses, in a highly competitive environment, can compete against a company like Starbucks or Panera. For example, Panera is offering a subscription service where you can pay a monthly fee and have unlimited coffee. There is constant innovation, and even in the world of coffee, there is rapid change. So how then do you differentiate yourself? How do you come up with a unique product offering? I would argue that it starts with your story. It is creating an environment for your brand that expresses why you are different. Let's take a look at a couple of examples of this that will help illustrate this idea.

Foxtail Coffee

The first is a local chain of coffee shops here in the Orlando, Florida area called Foxtail Coffee. They're a relatively young company but growing quickly here in the Orlando area. They have opened up multiple locations all over town, and each location is unique. If you go to their website, it's interesting to note that the very first thing that you see underneath their hero image is their story. They describe who they are, what they stand for, and give you a company history. They have a very active blog where they regular updates. They talk a little bit about their menu, but they don't focus on price. They tell you where they are located, talk a little about their beans and unique blends, and provide links to their social media. But if you notice, when you're looking at this website, it's creating an atmosphere. You get a sense of what this brand is all about. I understand that this is common with coffee shops. Many are trying to create a unique environment, but I think Foxtail does this exceptionally well.

Foxtail Coffee

The brand is also an active participant on Instagram, and even though they have other social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, they understand the power of creating a brand story. For example, if you look at their Twitter feed, it points back to their Instagram account to emphasize their visual brand identity. They want to express who they are by introducing you to their unique locations—showing why each shop is worthy of a visit. For Foxtail, it’s not the Starbuck's strategy of having the closest location; it's about showing locations that look like interesting places to visit. Not only explaining their product, but showing the experience you'll have in the environment they're creating.

I also want to point out that if you look at their website menu at the very top of the screen, the first thing that they show is “about us.” They want to tell you who they are. They want to tell you their story so that you understand what they're about as a brand. Then if you look to the right, that's where they have their “store.” That's where they’re selling you something. The first thing Foxtail wants you to understand is who they are, and the very last thing is trying to sell you something. The whole idea behind this brand, from its imagery, fonts, layout, and graphics, is to create an environment. If you spend time on their website, the aromas of their coffees seem to come through. You look at their environments and say, that's a place that I would like to sit down with my laptop, do some work while drinking their coffee. It looks like a cozy environment you want to be sitting in. Their website and social media channels use this imagery to create a compelling brand story of what it is to be a customer of Foxtail Coffee.

Barnie's Coffee and Tea

Let's take a look at another example of a coffee shop I also enjoy. It’s a company called Barnie’s Coffee and Tea located here in the Orlando, Florida area as well. It's a wonderful place in a beautiful location, but it's interesting if you look at the difference between this brand and the way Foxtail Coffee present their stories. If you go to Barnie’s website, you will notice they too have some lovely imagery. They've got some food, a cup of coffee but also have a button right on the main screen that says “shop now.”  And if you look at their menu, the very first item is “shop.” There's nothing prominent about the brand’s story, what it stands for, or much that tries to create an idea of the brand experience. If you dig a little bit, they do have a page about their story. It describes their brand and gives some history, but it's mostly through text and a stock image.

For me, as a connoisseur of coffee and someone who loves to experience the coffeehouse environment, I don't believe Barnie’s communicates nearly as well on this website what they stand for and build a vision of what to expect from their environment. They don't create a compelling brand story for the visitor that says, “this someplace that I want to try.” What their website is focused on is sales. If you're a first time visitor to the site, you will get a pop-up box that comes up offering a promotion. This is a very sales-focused approach and a retail designed website.

Barnie's Coffee and Tea

Many businesses make the mistake of not telling a brand story when they market to potential customers. They focus too quickly on the sale. They focus too soon on putting a promotion in front of people and trying to get them to buy. Instead of educating people on the brand and describing their value proposition to build real interest, they move immediately to an attempted sale. Instead of articulating who they are as a company explaining their value proposition, they offer a sales promotion. Helping potential customers understand the brand and develop an interest in its products and services allows a more natural progression into the sales cycle.  

The very first thing I see when I'm on this Barnie's website are the words on “new flavor,  pecan sticky bun, shop now.” To me, if I was a first time visitor, that presentation would do nothing to explain why I would want to visit this shop, why it would be an enticing environment to take my laptop or a good book, and spend an afternoon drinking coffee. Sure, the sticky bun looks good, but the image of the coffee is simply a black cup of coffee. There’s nothing that speaks to the essence of what makes it unique or special.  There is nothing that creates a vision in my mind of what this experience would be like.

Foxtail has done a far better job, and it seems to be working. They have opened many new locations just within the last two years; Barnie's has not. Maybe they have different growth strategies and looking to do different things in the market, but it's clear their approach is different.

The Importance of Building Relationships

So let's get back to the mistakes I think many companies make. I believe this is especially true for companies that don't have a significant presence in the marketplace. Companies that aren't as well understood. How can you create a story that helps you develop customer relationships? I think the challenge is to be real, to be authentic.  To describe why you're in business, what your goals are, and what problems you're trying to solve for your customers. What is the value of doing business with your organization rather than making the mistake of immediately pushing people into a promotion or a sale when they don't even understand what makes you different.

Now maybe for some very transactional products or services, that's appropriate. When you have limited time to get someone's attention, you have to move quickly to the sale, or they will buy it from somebody else. But for many, I would argue that for most products and services in the marketplace, it's more that you want to have those potential customers understand who you are as a company. To develop that relationship, to understand what you stand for, and build that brand value. Then, when you've established that layer of trust, you can move into a sales cycle or offer them a promotion. Work towards getting that closure, but first, help them understand who you are why they should want to do business with you.



The first marketing mistake businesses often make is not focusing enough on their brand story. A story that demonstrates value and builds a relationship with potential customers. Tell a story, create a vision, and build a connection with people you want as customers. A brand is about more than products or services, it's the stories you tell that weave those together with your mission and values. A brand story is a narrative you create to explain why a customer should feel comfortable doing business with your company.

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