Let’s Talk About Story

You have a brand, but now you need to be able to tell its story

Felicia C. Sullivan
Feb 18 · 20 min read
Credit: TarikVision/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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Christopher Booker spent 34 years of his life developing the theory that new stories don’t exist, that we live trapped in a world where seven plot archetypes are perpetually recycled in the media we consume. The film about the woman who loses her husband in a tragic car accident and holds her sadness close, guards it, and makes a place for it inside her? It’s been done. The book about the boy who once woke to the sound of gunfire and bombs and then grew into an influential leader who brokered peace? Rinse, lather, and repeat. While much of Booker’s argument borrows from a canon of established writers and, at its best, is reductive and tedious, there is some truth to the commonality of our experience.

But this is life. We love. We lose. We overcome. We break in ways we never thought possible. We climb, ravage, and wreck. While it’s possible that every story has been told, that knowledge doesn’t stop us from reading, watching, listening, and feeling. It doesn’t disconnect us from someone’s unique experience. Instead, we live for the retelling: how individuals bear that which is familiar or common, and how their singular experience feels fresh and new. And the data supports this narrative. According to a Headstream study, 80 percent of people crave authentic stories but wish brands were better at it.

Credit: Felicia C. Sullivan

We live in an age where the veil between company and customer ceases to exist, and people want to know everything about a business down to where raw materials are sourced and the gender and race composition of executive leadership. Here’s a heart-stopping study finding: Consumers want brands to move beyond customer satisfaction to establishing real emotional bonds. According to a follow-up article about the report in Harvard Business Review:

On a lifetime value basis, emotionally connected customers are more than twice as valuable as highly satisfied customers. These emotionally connected customers buy more of your products and services, visit you more often, exhibit less price sensitivity, pay more attention to your communications, follow your advice, and recommend you more—everything you hope their experience with you will cause them to do. Companies deploying emotional-connection-based strategies and metrics to design, prioritize, and measure the customer experience find that increasing customers’ emotional connection drives significant improvements in financial outcomes.

Not only is it imperative that consumers know your story, but that storytelling has to start from within your organization. Employees need to be empowered by your mission, vision, and values, so they feel like they’re part of something larger. They want to know they’re not clocking into a company that only cares about selling widgets. Professional pride and happiness create a domino effect. According to this study, an increase in employee happiness and engagement can directly correlate with heightened consumer loyalty, which is good for a business’s long-term health and profitability. For example, when Johnson & Johnson announced their extended parental leave policy, they embarked on an internal education tour and then empowered employees to tell their newborn-bonding stories. Those stories resonated with consumers.

What does this mean if you’re selling toilet paper?

While there’s not a lot of romance in toilet paper, there’s something to be said about the people behind the paper. The stories that linger with us are bigger than their plot and players. Imagine a book distilled to a single sentence: A woman loses her husband, and it takes her a long time to process her grief. If that was all you got, you’d miss out on the 200 pages where you grew to know this woman intimately, the depth of her specific grief, and her journey out from it. The familiar draws us in, but we stay for the details and narrative because, although we know about the woman, her husband’s death, and her sorrow, we don’t know about their relationship and how that shaped her loss. We don’t know how she climbs her way out of the dark and how she’s altered as a result.

Although toilet paper doesn’t lend itself to intrigue, we can learn a lot about the people who founded and run the company, their vision, mission, and values. Maybe this is a company that has zero tolerance for waste, which not only affects the products they make but also how they operate as a business. Perhaps their offices are powered by solar technology and outfitted with refurbished furniture. Or possibly their ethos is rooted in sustainable living and climate change awareness and education. Or maybe the toilet paper is Bvlgari-scented and cashmere-coated because billion-dollar backsides deserve the very best—even in the bathroom.

The point is, the story of a brand should rise above the products. People won’t pause in front of your website or logo, but they’ll stick around for a good story.

The biggest mistake brands make

Companies are all too often in the All About Eve business. They think their mere existence demands rapturous applause and blank checks. Their website homepage is a navel-gazing soliloquy; their social media is one long humblebrag, and their package copy might as well be a selfie. Before the Internet and social media, brands had the power to project their story onto customers, and it was crafted and controlled. They were the masters of their own narrative and peddled their wares through limited distribution outlets (e.g., television, radio, print, catalog, billboards, etc.)—and people believed them. We bought into the promise, and apart from a catastrophic event, we were loyal to brands that were familiar. Brands, in turn, capitalized on that steadfast faith, and the stories they peddled for decades lost their luster, ossified.

Then the Internet, social media, and the appendage otherwise known as a smartphone changed the playing field. Customers had a voice and they started to use it. From PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2018 Global Consumer Insights Survey: “Over the past decade, social media has changed the way consumers and brands interact, giving consumers more of a voice and placing higher demands on brands.”

For better or worse, everyone became an editor, reporter, publisher, and a representative from Consumer Reports holding court with a megaphone. According to an Accenture study, 54 percent of consumers had no problem switching brands. Their voices were louder than bombs. And they had one more tool in their arsenal: choice.

The unilateral brand to consumer communication evolved first into a bilateral exchange and then into a network conversation. Brands became privy to conversations about them—the good, the bad, and the horrifying—playing out in public, in real-time. Consumers relied on reviews and testimonials from complete strangers before even considering a brand, and while word of mouth isn’t new, what is different is the sheer number of outlets where people chatter.

Suddenly, the quarterly TV spot and mediocre product didn’t cut it anymore. People exercised their voice and choice. As a result, the power dynamic swung in the consumers’ favor. Now, brands not only have to provide superior products and service, but they also have to understand their customer.

According to a Wunderman study, “The majority [79 percent] of consumers said that brands have to actually demonstrate that ‘they understand and care about me’ before they are going to consider purchasing.” Great brands simply don’t push out great products from the assembly line; they offer the highest standard in every interaction with their customer along the buyer journey.

Brilliant brands don’t talk at their customer; they listen and anticipate their needs and communicate that in the products they create and the stories they tell. It’s not about holding up a mirror to your awesomeness. It’s about holding the mirror in front of your customer’s face and letting them know your story starts from, and with, them.

What makes a good story?

These three things are essential to a strong story:

  • Authenticity: A real story is more powerful than you might think. We forge connections with people who proudly wear their vulnerability. Real stories attract the people you want to serve and empower you to communicate with them.
  • Serendipity: How your business launched as a result of a coincidence, an accident, or simply the lucky stars.
  • Specificity: Use specific images, words, and cultural signifiers your customer relates to and understands.

When forming your brand, you need to create two stories—the elevator and the signature. People often get the two confused, but here’s the difference: The elevator is your direct sell to your customer, whereas the signature is a reflection of their perception of you and what you sell.

The elevator

Everyone in a five-mile radius has heard the term “elevator pitch.” In this scenario, your elevator is the story that anchors you, plants your feet firmly on the ground. One of my mentors used to say, “Be brief, be brilliant, and be gone,” and one could employ that mantra to the elevator. The elevator statement is the “cocktail party conversation” part of your brand. It’s the answer to the question: “What does your company do?” The elevator statement doesn’t need to be catchy or sexy; in fact, crafted copy can distract from your offering. The goal is clarity and brevity. It’s not the whole of your brand, but it’s your one-minute overview.

Framing your elevator is easy when you use the be/do/have technique:

  • Be: This is your “why.” Why did you get into this business? What motivated you? Why you?
  • Do: This is your “what.” Define explicitly what your business offers.
  • Have: This is the outcome your customer will experience as a result of using your product or service.

For example, let’s create an elevator story for a nursery design startup, Company A:

Company A was created by moms for moms. We know the process of planning a nursery can be overwhelming and time-consuming. We remove the stress and legwork by selling safe nursery collections that include everything but the paint. You’ll get designer style and expertise with the convenience of shopping online.

The be/do/have method works best for me, but you can also try a technique employed by Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences and Technology:

  • First sentence: Define the problem.
  • Second sentence: State your solution.
  • Third sentence: Explain why you’re the one to solve their problem.
  • Fourth sentence: Qualify how your solution is different from other options.
  • Fifth sentence: Show them what to do next.

This is a great resource on creating a variety of elevator stories depending on the medium and audience. And Neil Patel’s post on crafting authentic stories is pivotal.

The signature

The signature is the story you tell relentlessly with passion and conviction. While the elevator is the pragmatic strong sell, the signature centers on connecting with customers through the practical and the emotional. The signature story tackles both the big questions and the minor ones. Why did you create your business? What motivated you? Who do you want to serve and why? Is there a glaring gap in the market that you can fill? What’s your “why”?

But let’s make it plain and simple.

You meet someone at a party. You hate parties because people and apparent feelings of awkwardness and psychological despair. (Oh. Is that just me? Okay.) You make small talk and then you exchange the superficial, “So, what do you do?”

You wouldn’t blurt out copy from a manual or a sales funnel page, right? No, you’d tell them about the business you created and why you did it. Maybe you’d talk about your vision and mission. Not everyone’s in it for the money, and perhaps you want to leave your mark on the world in a particular way. What bolts you out of bed and keeps you up at night? What struggles are you discovering along the way?

You tell this story in your own words and voice. It’s unique because it’s from you. You might speak super fast and become animated when you get excited, or maybe you’re thoughtful, measured, and speak from a place of experience and perspective. But there’s a story you want to tell, and it comes from inside you.

We understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. We feel first, think second. Scientifically, we home in on “mirror neurons”—creating words that simulate your customers’ actions and the thoughts and feelings behind their actions. They feel like you’re talking to them, about them. Customers want to see themselves in you. They want to know that you see them and understand them, and they’re part of your reason to be.

In the sample nursery design elevator above, notice the first two sentences and how they achieve two important things: 1) establish common ground, and 2) acknowledge challenges, struggles, and what’s going on in customers’ lives.

It’s like doing the prep before going on a job interview. You probably researched the company and practiced speaking points on what you can offer them and why you are a perfect match. Creating the signature story isn’t that different.

The point of the signature story is to make your story their story. The signature story is about you understanding your customers’ challenges and providing the best solution. Most brands fail because they talk about themselves. Customers are selfish; they want to know why they should care and why you matter to them. It can be a subtle nuance in messaging, but an important one.

There are some essential things you can do to make signature magic happen for your brand:

  • Inspire your customers’ imagination.
  • Identify their problems and solve them.
  • Make them sit up and pay attention. Give them something they didn’t expect—especially because everyone else’s offering is mass-market.
  • Associate your brand with your fresh take.
  • Project that freshness, imagination, and intrigue.
Credit: Felicia C. Sullivan

Here’s an example of a signature story:

Real talk. Have you ever thought:

How do these Instagram moms do it with their perfect bleached-white nursery, while I know I’ll be combing vomit out of my hair and scraping it off the floor?

I can’t even decide what I want to binge-watch on Netflix. How am I going to figure out which crib is best for my baby? And what’s a glider? Do I need one? Hello?

Am I a bad mom because I don’t have time to research toxic-free sheets?

Preparing for a baby is one of the most magical moments of your life. We know because we’ve been there. As designers and new mommas, we experienced firsthand the excitement of designing a nursery and expecting a baby, but we were shocked at the amount of time spent in the room once our little ones arrived. We realized that sorting through hundreds of products and inspirational photos takes too long, and buying a matching set is boring. We learned that in between 3 a.m. feedings and a game of what’s that smell, a beautiful and functional nursery could be a breath of fresh air (literally).

That’s how the idea for Company A was born. We created a first of its kind service combining our interior design expertise and our mom sensibility to design full rooms for your new addition, complete with everything—furniture, décor, accessories, rugs, lighting, art, bedding, and wall coverings—but the paint.

We’re proud to offer a curation process where we hand-select hard to find, unique, and quirky products you won’t find anywhere else—from 100 vendors we absolutely trust. If we wouldn’t use a product with our own children, we won’t sell it. We present the rooms like the ultimate Pinterest board—only we remove the hassle of researching, sourcing, and coordinating delivery to your home.

You have so much going on in preparation for baby—let’s take this one thing off your plate.”

Common story problems and simple solutions

Problem: Your story is as stiff as a board. Remember the 1990s cult classic The Craft and the scene where the witches surround Rochelle, chanting “light as a feather, stiff as a board”? I think about that in storytelling. In a dire effort to sound uber professional or move product, stories devolve into generic sales copy—riveting bedtime material, for sure. No one wants to sound like a chatbot.

Solution: Speak your story. Forget about up-talk and your tendency to ramble. Don’t get stuck on grammar rules that lean toward the starched and robotic. Some of our culture’s most recognized taglines make copy editors weep: “Got milk?” “Think different.” “Leggo my Eggo.” “I’m lovin’ it.”

Say your story out loud. Speak in fragments. Get animated. Record it on your phone. Use your real voice. Don’t be frightened of slang (foreshadow: this exercise will come in handy when we talk about crafting your brand personality, voice, and tone) and swearing. Don’t lose the passion and verve that made you start your business in the first place. There’s a time for copy editing, and story formulation isn’t it.

Problem: Your copy cures insomnia. While your customer won’t be curling up with your cereal box, brochure, or online product detail page, you also don’t want them to finish reading it and say, “Well, there’s 20 minutes of my life that I won’t get back.” Vague language, overused cliches, and sound bites might as well be pallbearers.

Solution: Get specific. Details, scenes, and anecdotes render the familiar fresh and new. Tell the story of your business as if you were at a dinner party with your closest friends and you’re regaling all the details. Provide color commentary and backstory so people listening can see the story unfolding as you tell it. It’s easy to fall back on jargon and Pinterest-worthy platitudes. It’s hard to unpack jargon and speak in plain English. Don’t say that you’re “innovating the influencer marketing space” or that your product is “paradigm-shifting.” Why? Because your customer will likely think, “What does that even mean?” Clarity is key.

Another approach is to make them a character. Use them as the “after” story. Tell them how they’ll think, feel, see, hear, and do as a result of engaging with your brand and buying your products.

Problem: You are all about your product. You can’t shut up about its features. You brag about patents, trademarks, and being the first ever. Your story is all about the technical, rational, and practical. Don’t get me wrong, you need these components in order to differentiate your brand and products, but you’re missing the other half of the buyer equation: the emotion. You have to go beyond what a product does to how it makes your customer feel. What is their outcome or result of buying into your brand and product? How will they be transformed? Will they save time, money, or headaches? Or are they buying comfort and a needed escape? Consumers want to be seduced with a promise.

Solution: Start with your prospects’ problem. While the problem may be pragmatic, it’s also making them feel something as a result (i.e., frustration, rage, stress, helplessness, etc.) Do your research. Get clear about their challenges and the words they use to express them because your story begins with your solution for them. Remember when we talked about how people are wired to respond emotionally first (fight-or-flight response)? They want to know that their problem will be solved and they’ll feel differently. Promise them that end state and then swoop in with the how, i.e., the practical details. When you start from a place of emotional connection, your customers will gravitate to you.

5 tips for telling standout stories

Be honest, have you ever scrolled through Instagram, paused in front of a photo, and thought: How did they do that? How did this company manage to elevate itself from a business that simply sold products to a brand that told stories? And how did those brand stories make meaningful connections with their audience in a way that bolstered their “like,” “know,” and “trust” factor—connections that ultimately converted to sales?

1. Talk about transformation

No one can resist a journey and the highs and lows, twists and turns someone experiences along the way. Whether we embark on an emotional or physical trip, transformation can be a potent storytelling technique and a means of demonstrating your brand’s direct impact on someone else. It’s the story of “how this brand’s product or service changed me.” People forge visceral, emotional attachments to the stories they experience, and science backs this up through neural coupling and mirror neurons.

Credit: Felicia C. Sullivan

Neural coupling occurs when a story activates parts in the brain that allow the listener to turn the story into their own experience. With mirroring, listeners will not only experience similar activity to each other, but also to the storyteller. In short, our brains are wired to empathize for, and make connections with, others and the stories they tell. Our reactions are primarily emotional until the rational, more pragmatic side of our brain kicks in, which means, stories have the power to draw people in immediately.

A great brand transformation story example can be found in Patagonia. The brand’s mission and vision are ambitious—awareness and action about one’s global footprint—and they imbue every facet of the company. This kind of goal starts at home through corporate responsibility: clean and transparent manufacturing and supply chain processes, a fair wage for workers, and a company rooted in social and environmental activism. As a business, they’ve made bold moves to message on clothing waste, conscious buying, and recycling. And their commitment to activating people across the world for social and environmental change is unparalleled in the apparel industry.

2. Keep it consistent

There’s a lot of noise out there and whether we know it or not, we’re exposed to over 10,000 messages a day, according to the AMA. From the product labels on the cereals we eat, to the billboards we drive by on our way to work, the online ads that pop up on Facebook, and everything in between, brand messaging constantly bombards us. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

While chameleons are fine for fast fashion and seasonal runway looks, they’re not for brands playing the long game. Consumers crave comfort, stability, and reliability. They want your values and promise to consistently align and not change with trends over time. Consistency isn’t boring unless you make it boring.

Soul Cycle is an excellent example of brand consistency and cohesion. Their mission is simple: bring soul to the people, a business built on human potential. Soul Cycle has made empowerment marketing central to their brand strategy and story and has earned cult status in the boutique fitness industry.

From their studio’s inspirational, positive mantra-filled wall and upbeat music partnerships and collaborations (e.g., The Chainsmokers) to their signature bright yellow décor (down to branded candles because it’s all about the details) and merchandise, the cycling studio’s vibe is consistent in its storytelling. Bright colors, bold music, and badass instructors cultivate a community’s physical and spiritual transformation.

3. Pull back the curtain

Before the Internet and social media, brands were shrouded in mystery. Maybe you caught a 60-second TV spot where a founder pitched the company’s origin story, but for the most part, brands focused solely on selling their wares. Why they went into business was incidental, and brand communication was unilateral.

Now, the consumer is in the driver’s seat, and when presented with so many options from which to choose, they care not only about the products and services you offer, but also about your story, your “why.” The millennial generation is known for being more skeptical of brand messaging and attracted to businesses with transparency and purpose, and this predilection has become the norm across generations of customers.

Consumers want to know you. They want to cultivate a relationship and be seduced by your story. Regale them with your cocktail party classics.

Setting aside the obvious profitability factor, why did you go into business? What motivated you? What gaps existed in your industry, and how did you envision filling them? What struggles did you face at the start, and how did you overcome them? Talk about your passion, vision, and mission and how they’ve impacted your brand. Talk about how your business operates in a tangible way.

An honest origin story humanizes your brand. It allows prospective customers to form a relationship with a person (or team) with a vision instead of being a cog on their income statement. Beyond the origin story, you can give insight behind your process without giving away the secret sauce. Have employees give insights to aspects of your business. A little behind-the-scenes footage can go a long way in gaining consumer trust and inviting them to be part of the narrative.

Everlane was one of the first online B2C businesses that built its brand on radical transparency. From Everlane’s “About” page: “We believe our customers have a right to know how much their clothes cost to make. We reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labor to transportation—then offer them to you, minus the traditional retail markup.”

4. Play to your passions

In its most simplistic definition, positioning is a brand’s point of difference; it’s what sets them apart from the pack. Positioning acknowledges players in the space but articulates your brand’s special something. Why not play out your strengths on a grand scale? What are you known for? Take pride in your hard work and shout it to the masses with a megaphone. The best brand storytellers show their shine.

It’s no secret that Trader Joe’s has a fiercely loyal following. When it comes to grocery stores, they’re first-rate when it comes to customer experience and satisfaction. With quirky, conversational retail packaging; their Fearless Flyer “magazine”; staff product recommendations and friendly, helpful service while you’re shopping; and a speedy and efficient checkout process, every part of the shopping experience feels special and personalized.

5. When it comes to your customer, be a CIA operative

There’s an old adage in marketing: If you’re marketing to everyone, you’re marketing to no one. Executive Seth Godin once said, “If you make the audience you’re initially serving too big, you will dilute the very thing you set out to make; avoid critical mass, and compromise the magic of what you’re building. You’ll make average stuff for average people instead of something powerful for the few.”

As a marketer, you’re not a stranger to audience segmentation and customer profiles. However, it’s interesting to notice how often marketers shove a square peg into a round hole. They create personas that reflect the customer they want to serve versus what the data is actually telling them.

Metrics dictate what matters. They tell you about your audience and the kind of content they want to consume. Analyze the engagements and conversions from your content strategy. Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing that works with the kind of customers you want to target. Understand their search patterns and pain points. Determine how and where they want to consume stories because the content is only as good as its distribution.

You don’t want to tell a remarkable story only to be greeted by tumbleweeds and crickets.

Data is the means by which you gather information about your customers’ behaviors, habits, motivations, influences, lifestyle, and preferences. Align your story with your customers’ wants and needs and ensure the stories are on the platforms where they reside.

Glossier, the billion-dollar beauty brand, has placed data and its customers at the center of their storytelling strategy. From using data analysts to parse through social media comments and feedback and CRM systems (source) to tap into a network of uber-fans who give feedback on existing and new product launches and customer user-generated content, Glossier leveraged qualitative and quantitative insights to create covet-worthy products in the voice of their core customer.

Glossier has mastered mirroring in the way it knows its customers’ language, lifestyle, cultural cache, and product needs—data that fuels their content and brand strategy.


Additional resources


The signature story and elevator drive your brand story in the way that you combine the emotional with the practical. Your story highlights your values and belief system, as well as what you do, why you do it, why clients should trust you, and how they ultimately benefit. All of this is key to forming your positioning statement as it zeros in on what makes your brand special. It’s important to center your customer because you’re creating a brand you want to attract the people you hope to serve. Start with the two fundamental stories and use them as a means to branch out.

Crafting good stories is hard, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If it were easy, every brand would be doing it. You want to share aspects of your business that will leave an indelible mark on your customer. Stories are about forging and nourishing relationships; they’re not about posting a pretty photo and a hundred hashtags.

Now that we’ve got the key elements of crafting a brand story down, let’s talk about positioning and purpose.


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The Anatomy of Marketing

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Felicia C. Sullivan

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Published Novelist & Marketing Exec. I build brands & tell stories. Newsletter: https://urlzs.com/8CLu Hire me: https://is.gd/uqGWX5; Buy my brain: t.ly/OrgbJ

The Anatomy of Marketing

F*ck faux marketers. You’re getting 21 years of my data-driven marketing & brand experience

How to Build a Brand
How to Build a Brand
How to Build a Brand

About this Collection

How to Build a Brand

Leave the logos and lead magnets at home. Brand strategist Felicia C. Sullivan boils down 8 steps to building a stand-out brand.

Leave the logos and lead magnets at home. Brand strategist Felicia C. Sullivan boils down 8 steps to building a stand-out brand.

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