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Brand storytelling is all the rage these days and it’s no wonder: you’re competing for your dream clients’ attention online with a lot of noise and very few signals are getting through.
The way to get their attention is to tell them stories they actually care about. But what is a brand story?
A lot of people assume it’s their random backstory or what they like to do on the weekends. Don’t get me wrong, being human helps people relate to you (and that’s important because people hire people they like)–but when people don’t know you yet, they don’t really care and it’s not enough to inspire them to act.
What do they care about? Their problems. What they need, want, and desire. Show them you understand and it’ll get them to stop scrolling and pay attention.
The foundation of good brand storytelling requires knowing:
- Who it’s for (and it better be specific)
- What they need
- How you’re going to help them (is it clear?)
- They way they’re thinking about (so you can join the conversation that’s going on in their minds)
- Why they should care
Brand Storytelling Rule #1: Your brand story isn’t about you
It’s a story about you and your customer.
Where a lot of businesses go wrong is making themselves the hero and forgetting about their customer altogether. It’s all “me me me” and “look how great and qualified I am!” and “My passion for my work all started when I was 5 years old…” but they fail to include their customer anywhere in the story.
Remember that when they see your message, your customers are always thinking, “What’s this got to do with me?”
Think about a story–any story. There’s always a hero. Then, there’s a sidekick — someone who helps the hero get where they’re going.
Who do you think your customers would rather be in the story–Luke Skywalker or Yoda? They want to be the hero, of course. And they’re on the lookout for a Yoda–the helpful sidekick that helps the hero get what he desires.
Brand Storytelling Rule #2: You gotta explain it to me like I’m 5
If we were to meet at a party and I asked you, “What do you do?” would you be able to tell me easily? Would I understand what you offer and who it’s meant for?
If I were to run into someone who fits the description of your ideal customer a month later, would I immediately know this is a person you’d love me to refer to you? Would I be able to repeat to them what you told me?
If someone lands on your website and only spends five seconds before they get distracted, would they have understood what you offer?
If you’re not sure right now, you might have a message problem. If you’re struggling to attract the right clients to your business, it might be because you’re not explaining it in a way they understand.
If it ain’t clear, they won’t get it
Take a look at your website and your social media bios and ask yourself: does how you describe your work pass the 5-second test?
- Is it clear what you offer?
- Is it clear who it’s for?
- Is it clear what they should do next?
If it takes longer than 5 seconds to “get it,” or if it would be hard for someone else to repeat it, keep working on it.
When you think you’ve told your brand story clearly, come back to it later to see if you can make it even more clear. Then keep doing that. Forever.
Brand Storytelling Rule #3: If you’re not speaking their language, they won’t understand
A common mistake businesses make is to describe the problem they solve in a way their customer never would.
Your customers don’t understand your industry jargon, and if you’re looking to your competitors to see how they’re describing it, keep in mind they’re probably getting it wrong. Not only that, but following what everyone else is doing is why most marketing messages sound hollow and fail to capture anyone’s attention.
Say you’re a coach and you’re really passionate about helping people transition from jobs they hate to self-employment. When your customer lands on your website, it reads:
Clear your internal blocks and live your most authentic life!
That sounds nice, but it’s how coaches talk, not how clients talk. They don’t have your experience so they’re thinking about it differently.
- Are there really people out there thinking, “Man, I have so many internal blocks preventing me from living an authentic life!”
- Are they on Google searching for solutions to their inauthentic life problem?
- Are they asking their friends who they know who can help them clear internal blocks?
More likely they’re thinking…
“My job is such a dead end, I am so sick and tired of dreading Monday mornings. I really want to start that business I’ve always dreamed of but I’m scared. I need someone to help me create a plan so I feel confident moving forward.”
What if instead, they land on your website and it reads,
Tired of dreading Monday mornings and finally ready to start that business you’ve always dreamed of? I help you overcome the fears all new entrepreneurs face so you can create a clear plan of action to quit your job and launch your biz.
When you can describe their problem in exactly the way they’re thinking about it, it’s as though you’re reading their minds and that gets them doing a double take: “Hey, that’s me!”
Because you get them—really get them—they’ll automatically perceive that you’re the only one who can help them solve it.
To get noticed by the right people, you must be able to crawl inside their minds and join in on the conversation that’s already going on in there. But how?
Get Inside Your Dream Client’s Head
From this point forward, become a collector of their words. You’ll find them when you:
1. Ask better questions
When you’re on a sales call, rather than ask, “What do you need?” and taking their order, investigate deeper: “What’s the big picture outcome you’re hoping for? What’s standing in your way?”
You can also interview people in your target audience. Use a tool like Zoom and record the session so you can play it back and really listen.
2. Do research
Pay close attention to the words your clients use to describe their frustrations, where they get stuck, or when asking for your help. What questions are they asking?
Do keyword research using a tool like SEMscoop and look for related terms to give you clues on how people are phrasing their questions related to your services in search.
Use Facebook groups and other online channels (like Quora questions, comments on blogs in your niche, and forum discussions) to discover how your target audience is describing their problems.
THEN, STEAL THEIR WORDS
Mirror their own words back to them in your sales copy—they’ll think you’re reading their minds and believe me, it’ll get their attention.
Keep track of their words and turns of phrase here or in a separate document so you can use them in your ads, sales pages, and promotional emails. Collect the questions people ask and answer them in your content.
Brand Storytelling Rule #4: Get constructive feedback to nail your message
I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years and I think I know what I’m doing, but I still fall into the trap of describing things in the way I think about them rather than how my customer is.
This is where getting objective feedback from a colleague or people in your target audience can be immensely helpful.
You can also use a site like UsabilityHub to test your messaging with people who don’t know you (and have no reason to sugarcoat it for you).
Ask them what they think about something you’ve written.
How do they perceive you?
Is your brand personality being perceived the way you intend?
Is it clear?
If they have questions, it’s time to rework your copy.
A true, real-life story feedback story
The following is going to sound like something I just made up, but I swear this really happened. Recently, in one of my Facebook groups, a colleague received some feedback from someone he sent a cold (uninvited) email to.
The recipient responded with:
- I don’t like being approached this way.
- I don’t even know what you offer, and I certainly have no clue what you can do for me.
- I don’t think you’ve done your research, because this isn’t relevant to us.
- I don’t see any value in trading my time to learn more about what you’re promoting, so no, I won’t get on a call with you.
- I didn’t get any answers from your website. I did get bored though. Lots of words… so many words!
- I didn’t want to read about what you think. I don’t, as of yet, have any reason to care about what you think. You haven’t made me care.
- I might care how you can help me and how you can make a difference in my business. If the website said all that, I missed it.
My colleague had received a whole bunch of positive responses to his email but this one stung. He called it “abusive.” He came to the Facebook group to get reassurance and encouragement.
I looked at his initial emails and his website and in the truth is, the feedback was spot-on.
His email was cleverly written, and he even included a photo of his cute dog to grab attention. But it never got to the point of what specific ways he can bring value to the recipient.
His website rambled on and on about his random backstory and he even forced music on his site visitors’ by autoplaying it. (BTW, never do that unless your goal is to annoy people.)
After scouring all the pages for clues, I still had no idea what he actually does.
If one person doesn’t understand what you’re about, you can bet there are 100 more who felt the same way—only they didn’t take the time to offer feedback, they just clicked away never to come back.
Knowing exactly what to say and how to say it takes practice. There’s no magic formula—everything is a hypothesis. Remove ego from the equation and test what works and what doesn’t.
When something doesn’t work, for heaven’s sake don’t take it personally. Nobody knows for sure until real customers start interacting with it. Just make a change and test that.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Brand Storytelling Rule #5: Give them a reason to care
This is where most businesses completely fall off. They figure out how to describe WHAT they do for WHOM, and even HOW they do it differently than their competition. But they completely forget about why they do it and why anybody should care.
When your clients are in alignment with what you stand for, making a purchase from you is a meaningful act. It says something about them, and we all long to be a part of a tribe and strive for an aspirational identity.
I talk about a purpose statement as one of the most powerful exercises you can do for your brand. It may seem like fluff–something that’s just not that important.
But a customer’s reason for choosing you instead of all of their other options is always going to come down to how they feel. It’s not just comparing prices and bulleted lists of features. It’s emotional.
What change are you looking to make in the lives of your clients? What are you here to achieve?
Recommended next step: The Brand Story Blueprint to work through the exercises of who you’re meant to serve, the problems they need your help solving, how you solve them differently than anyone else, and the philosophical foundation of why your brand exists. You’ll be ready to put together clear value propositions and positioning statements you can use to build clear, consistent brand stories your dream clients will care about.
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.