Does Your Startup Need a Brand Story?

If you've conducted even a small amount of research into branding and brand identity, you've probably encountered the concept of the brand story. You may have even read that your brand 'must have a compelling narrative', or words to that effect, and perhaps found the language being used and the concepts being discussed to be slightly pretentious, maybe even a little vague. Put simply, a brand story is to a business what a life story is to a person. It's the sum total of everything the brand does, and everything that happens to the brand throughout its existence. The brand story, just like your life, continues to develop and unfold even when you aren't actively doing anything to influence it. In a sense, the question isn't 'does my business need a brand story', it's 'what story should my brand be telling'.

Superheroes have origin stories, businesses have 'founding myths'.

If you're starting a brand new company, you're in an exciting and enviable position - you, at least for the moment, are in complete control of your brand story. You get to write chapter one, setting the tone for everything that comes afterwards. There might even be a 'prologue' to your story; an engaging tale about how and why you were inspired to start your business, or the unlikely epiphany that led to the invention of your first product. And in the same way that your early life experiences shape your personality, these 'founding myths' of your business are crucial to the development of your brand identity. As the term suggests, it's perfectly acceptable to use a bit of dramatic license to give your brand more personality, although I'd strongly recommend against making outright false claims, particularly those that would discredit the business if they were discovered to be untrue. Many brands still try to get away with it though.

Later, as your business grows and begins attracting attention, events beyond the office walls will conspire to wrestle this narrative control away from you. Say, for example, that people begin using your product for something other than its intended purpose, and it becomes a national craze; your sales may skyrocket, but your brand story will have been completely subverted by events. Do you adapt your business to fit the new story, possibly sweeping away your existing brand equity in the process, or do you hire a PR agency to help get the story back on track? There's no universally applicable answer to that conundrum.

But why do we talk in terms of a brand 'story' at all? As humans, we like to project a sense of structure and predictability onto the world around us - we're pattern-recognition machines, and patterns make us feel comfortable. A story is one form of pattern. It has a structure that reflects the real world in a more ordered form, one that we can more readily make sense of and accept (in fact, there are some academics who would argue that every story ever told has exactly the same underlying structure - we are creatures of habit). A well-managed brand story has the same instinctual appeal; it presents a business and its activities in a consistent, structured manner that customers can readily understand and engage with. A sudden, unexpected twist in the plot, like the one I mentioned above, breaks the narrative flow and risks alienating previously engaged customers. Even if the short term publicity seems positive, the long term effects on the brand may not be.

My advice to startups is this; know the story that you want to tell, and try not to deviate. Actually write down your 'chapter one' - an inspirational paragraph that sets out your 'founding myth' and shows what your brand stands for. Use it to guide you when deciding how, when, where and why to present your brand to the public. And if something happens that threatens to wrest control of the story away from you, do what you can to pull it back on course with as little fuss as possible.

If you need help writing your 'chapter one' why not take a look at our Startup Identity Package, and discover what we can do to get your story off to a great start.