For startups, brand storytelling is about passion and transparency

Sat at a recent Guardian Activate event, I span through my Twitter feed and saw, to my dismay, that #contentmarketingshow was trending across London. My heart sank. As someone with a newly launched content marketing and strategy blog, I was clearly at the wrong venue. I should’ve been there with my people, frothing over our industry, celebrating each others’ successes.

But as the Activate conference got underway, I realised very quickly that I was right where I needed to be. For the most part, I was in the presence of great storytellers – people whose lives were defined by the moment they spotted some way they could make a difference; people who now spent their every waking hour trying to transform that initial idea into a reality.

In my experience, successful entrepreneurs are nearly always great storytellers. It’s to do with the almost evangelical passion they have for what they’re doing. I can’t imagine what they must be like to live with. Today’s event was like a live demonstration of what brand storytelling could and should be, with founder after startup founder taking the stage and spotlighting the problems the world had without their product, the moment they realised how they could fix those problems, and the wonderful people that helped them along the way.

And here’s the thing: the majority of the speakers were involved in the world of finance. Now, call me a cynic, but slapping a sexy hashtag on this subject (#fintech) is hardly going to make it any less impenetrable. And yet, here I was enthralled, with the difference entirely down to storytelling. When asked how he manages to get people interested in his product, Nick Hungerford of Nutmeg told a brief story about how he’d managed to change his sister’s life – how her use of Nutmeg means she’ll be able to retire early. He seemed to be genuinely touched by the tale, and the audience felt it. ‘Frankly, finance is boring,’ he confirmed. ‘Everything is based around goals and people.’

It’s my feeling, and I admit that it is just a feeling, that startups are the most likely outfits to make good use of brand storytelling. This is partly to do with their keenness to evangelize, but also to do with their size. The likelihood is that the zeal and inspiration stems from whoever came up with the initial idea, and – in its initial months and years, certainly – that feeling can be contagious. When the company is still small and the founder is still in a position to be doing the hiring, the company shares a strong central tale, one that none of them ever get tired of telling, or even living. But now we’re talking about Metastories, and that’s (ahem) a story for another blog post.

What also became vividly apparent this morning was that the fintech startups and the younger generation of entrepreneurs (represented by the likes of Emily Brooke ofBlaze and Alex Klein of Kano) shared a common desire: they spoke in almost demanding terms of the need for transparency. For the fintechers, it was almost their raison d’être. Nick Hungerford spoke with barely disguised contempt for bankers who purchase yachts on money made through opaque customer payments, while Taavet Hinrikus proudly showed photos of a flashmob protest against nontransparent services, organised by his company Transferwise. Moments later he uttered what must have been the most threatening statement of the day: ‘We will force the banks to adjust to the new normal – transparency.’

For the Generation Y entrepreneurs, so often referred to as the rockstars of their age, there was an echo of punk eras past. Matt Robinson of GoCardless was adamant that the village elders of London’s entrepreneurial scene (Duncan Bannatyne and Alan Sugar were stuck up on the dartboard) meant nothing to him or anyone around him. It may be that the younger generation, having lived through a period of biting recession, have as much trust in the masters of big business as the fintech folks have in traditional banks. Once again, a lack of transparency fuels their disdain. If these youngsters are representative of their generation at large, then I think we’re dealing with a new wonder of evolution: they’ve got bullshit detectors as sensitive as a sniffer dog’s snout.

All of this makes brand storytelling fascinating. We’re entering an age when startups find traction because so many of them exist to fill a void, or – in the case of the fintech startups and so many of the wonderful crowdfunding companies who spoke today – an injustice that they want to fix. Invariably, this means that they come with a ready made story that requires no spin at all. And woe betide anyone who tries to offer them that spin. For this generation, it’s honesty or out.

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