A hands-on guide to the most common (and avoidable) brand story mistakes made by small businesses and startups.
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need an essay on the power of storytelling; you’ve heard it all before. Instead, I’d like to focus on one piece of storytelling that every business should have: the brand story. Whether you already have one, are still working on it, or wondering if you need one, this how-to guide — or rather, how-not-to guide — will save you from some major pitfalls.
Mistake no.1: Not having a brand story.
Sorry for acting like Captain Obvious here — but it’s amazing how many businesses go story-less. They know their own history, of course — but as long as it stays in their heads, it’s useless. They’re missing out on one of the most authentic, non-salesy tools to help them stand out, get new clients, persuade those sitting on a fence, help their audience relate, and build trust.
Your brand story explains your WHY, and as you’ve probably heard 9,045 times, a brand’s WHY is filed under P for Pretty Bloody Important. It’s often the only unique thing about a business, so it would be pretty unwise to just sit on it. People can copy your style, your product range or web design, but no one can take away your story.
So get one.
Mistake no.2: Thinking you don’t have a story.
‘I don’t have anything good enough to put in a brand story.’ Every time I hear this from a client, I call BS. If you’re capable of talking about your business for 60 seconds at a party, you’ve got enough for a story. Which is not to say you should write it yourself: this is where investing in copywriting pays off big time, if the writer knows what they’re doing. In storytelling, the most unexpected object or event can become a starting point for a great narrative. Something that seems trivial to you can turn into The Most Important Point In The Whole Damn Story; but it takes a good eye and some storytelling skill to spot it and make it work.
Mistake no.3: Picking the wrong detail to focus on.
Good writing is as much about what to keep out of the story as it is about what to put in it. If you have the luxury of choice — several potentially interesting details, facts, or starting points — you’ve got to be selective. It will take some insight into your potential clients’ minds to judge what will and won’t resonate, what’s worth including, what’s a red herring, and which milestones from your brand’s history will become valuable much further down the line but shouldn’t be mentioned just yet.
Let’s say you and your co-founder saved money on hiring an expert, and instead took a $5 remote course in ice-cream making before opening your own ice cream parlour. Put that in your story now, and you risk looking like amateurs and most likely putting people off. New companies need to earn customers’ trust, first and foremost, by proving their competence. Admitting that you’re new to the game won’t exactly help with that. But fast forward a decade or two, when you’re running a multi-million business — and suddenly the correspondence course becomes a charming detail that both inspires and endears, because it shows that the founders were just regular guys who really loved ice cream.
Their names? Ben and Jerry. True story.
Mistake no.4: Crimes against humility.
Should your brand story create a sense of credibility and authority? Absolutely. But don’t blow your own trumpet too hard, or you’ll turn people off instead of gaining their respect. This is part of the reason it can be a good idea not to write your brand story yourself: it’s no easy feat to strike the balance between modesty and justified pride when you’re too close to the subject matter. Just like with writing your own bio, you’ve got to be careful not to seem a bit full of yourself; but go too far into self-deprecation, and you’ll miss the chance to impress, or worse, it’ll come across as a humblebrag.
Humour helps, but it’s not right for every brand story; so here are some other ways to replace arrogance with healthy confidence.
DON’T… brag about quality. INSTEAD: describe the effort that goes into the product.
DON’T… use big words and blown-up language. INSTEAD: only choose words you’d use in a real conversation.
DON’T… make claims about superiority. INSTEAD: demonstrate the superiority of your product or service in a measurable way or through an expert’s opinion.
DON’T… report on your stellar achievements. INSTEAD: acknowledge the people and circumstances that helped make it all happen.
There’s a dead-simple test to make your story sound less pretentious. Just read it out loud, as if you’re talking to a real person or audience. Now go back and rewrite every bit that made you cringe.
Mistake no.5: Long trips down memory lane.
Of all the possible reactions your brand story could provoke, the one you really want to avoid is TL;DR (‘too long; didn’t read’). As impressive as your achievements may be, don’t list every single landmark you’ve passed along the way.
A brand story is a short, tight, poignant piece; not the complete and unabridged history of your business with two appendices and an epilogue. There are some exceptions, but unless your brand name gets mentioned in popular culture, it’s too early to hire a biographer. Your story can be as brief as 150 words, and anything over 500 risks becoming a snoozefest. If you must go over, break the story into sections with headings; but it’s better to kill your darlings than lose your reader.
Mistake no.6: Burying your story.
Getting a proper brand story is an investment: a bit of time and mental energy, and probably some money as well, unless you’ve got a copywriter pal who owes you. And like any investment, the payoff will depend on how much you make of what you’ve got. A common mistake is letting your story gather dust on the About Us page for all eternity. Don’t get me wrong: About Us is an essential section of your site, and the right place for the brand story — but it’s not the only place you can put it to work.
A good brand story should be highly recyclable: not only will it become the bio you can give when introducing your business to new people, in pitch decks, presentations, in podcasts and articles. It should also work in condensed form: see if there’s a place for it on your packaging, collaterals (like clothes tags), delivery slips, and any marketing materials you’re creating.
Whether you go with the DIY approach or get a professional to craft it, a well-written brand story will become one of your most valuable assets — and if you avoid these mistakes, your story will be in better shape than most. Just make it authentic, memorable and emotive, stick with your tone of voice, and remember that a bit of humility goes a long way.