Founders’ Roundtable: Brand Storytelling with Gowri Kishore

Powerful storytelling impacts the success of a brand. Names like Google, Apple, Lego have become industry icons because of their penchant for storytelling. As an entrepreneur/founder it is not enough to rely on your product or business offering. Building a brand requires traversing beyond what’s written in the copy on your website, the text in a brochure or the presentation used to pitch to investors or customers. Your story isn’t just what you tell people it’s what distinguishes you from the noise out there.

We invited the Ex-Creative Head of Urban Ladder, Gowri Kishore for a Founders’ Roundtable with our startups at The CoWrks Foundry. Gowri is widely known in the industry for helping entrepreneurs and renowned organizations tell great brand stories and connect with their customers. Her work spans startups and decades-old brands across B2B and B2C helping them establish and garner loyalty.

What does it take to craft compelling brand stories? Here’s what Gowri Kishore shared with us at the Founders’ Roundtable.

What are the nuances of creating a compelling brand story?

A good brand story has 4 legs, so to speak:

  • Values
  • Narrative
  • Personality/Voice
  • Community

The values are at the brand’s core: What does the founder believe in? What is his (and therefore, the brand’s) world view? What is right and wrong according to this world view? Defining these values will help define what the brand stands for and be the filter for all decisions, big and small.

The narrative is basically the story you, as the brand, tell the world. It is what goes on your website, sales deck, packaging, email, or social media which tell potential customers what problem you are solving and how you can help.

How you tell this story is what defines your brand’s personality and voice. Take, for instance, Ola and Uber. They do pretty much the same things for you but they have very different personalities; they talk to you differently and evoke very different emotional responses in you, the customer. This personality is expressed through not just ‘what is said’ but also ‘how it is said’: the words, the visuals, the UX, everything.

Last, but perhaps most important, is the community that a brand builds around itself. Who are your people? Focus on finding them and building your tribe right from day one: they are the ones who resonate with your values, understand the way you talk, will try your products first, and tell the world about you.

Indian companies, especially B2B business face a lot of hurdles. What is your view on the challenges faced by them?

For one, you rarely hear success stories of homegrown B2B startups apart from the rare SaaS company like Freshworks that has made it big. For instance, how many know of Udaan, Bizongo, or Grey Orange? These are all well-funded B2B startups trying to solve interesting problems in innovative ways and yet, they are hardly known compared to a Flipkart, Cure.fit, or Ola.

To me, this is a problem because B2B ends up being seen as the unglamorous cousin of B2C and there aren’t enough entrepreneurs out there thinking of B2B solutions in different spaces.

For those who are in this space, there are so few well-documented stories about B2B successes and failures, experiments, and innovations to learn from.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned from your time at Urban Ladder that you share when advising founders?

My 3+ years at Urban Ladder have taught me that authenticity is the backbone of any good brand.

Values are not what one puts down in the vision statement or make up as part of a brand narrative. They come from a fundamental set of beliefs that everyone lives and breathes: not just the early team but everyone who’s hired later, no matter how big the company gets.

A good brand story takes shape when this foundation is strong and has the ring of authenticity, which comes only when the brand’s actions and decisions match the values it espouses.

At UL, honesty and transparency is one of our core values and we have gone to great lengths to stay true to it. We have raised a return request and taken back furniture from a customer’s house because we spotted an issue during assembly that even the customer had not.

Before scheduled price increases, we have proactively reached out to customers and those with items in their cart to give them a heads-up. These have obviously come at a cost to UL but we have always let our values guide us.
Before any decision is made, the question that is asked is “Is this the right customer answer?” That is what has set us apart from competitors and which keeps our customers coming back to us, even forgiving the mistakes we make sometimes.

What are your views on startup accelerators fostering an ecosystem that boosts entrepreneurial growth in India?

Today, to start up on one’s own is no longer seen as foolhardy (except sometimes by immediate family!) because there are enough opportunities out there to be ‘discovered’ and supported and funded.

A few years ago, we were talking about incubators; now, we talk about accelerators. This is more than just a shift in terminology: it is in the value these firms offer to startups. Angels and VCs come in often with the mindset of evaluating pitches and backing the good ideas — which is great, but most early stage startups need more than just funding.

Often there is the spark of a good idea somewhere but because these are first-time entrepreneurs or they are too close to the problem, their approach to the problem may not be right. What they need is the benefit of wisdom and experience, intensive and hands-on mentorship, especially at the early stage to get things off the ground and put in place a customer acquisition engine.

This is what accelerators are trying to solve for and I think that’s a very positive shift.