When we see a red bullseye, we think of Target. We see a swoosh and think of Nike. When we think of high-touch customer service, Jet Blue, Amazon, Apple, & Chewy come to mind. Standout brands create show-stopping experiences. From the images we create and the stories we craft to how we treat and build relationships with our readers, followers, and customers, the way to step out of the shark-infested red sea is to be singular. And singular is not about simply creating “valuable content” — that’s a minor league play.
Being singular is about products, services, experiences, stories, and a voice that is wholly memorable and distinctly your own.
In marketing, there’s a term known as “positioning,” which is a fancy way of saying how one is different from the pack. The way people determine what they buy is first by grouping their options under what’s known as point-of-parity (people who produce or sell a similar product or service) and the narrowing of those options comes from point-of-difference. We define that point-of-difference through our purpose (our “why”), how we do the thing we do differently or better, and what we create and the results people experience when they engage or buy from us.
A pile of people make leggings, but there’s a reason why you buy leggings from a specific retailer. It can be price, sustainability, quality, style, fit, and design, etc. And maybe all those things are amplified by how each brand connects with and serves their customers throughout the experience.
A slew of graphic designers can build a website or visual standards, but there’s a reason why you select one from the lot and that reason has a lot to do with how they’ve presented how they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.
When I work with clients, one of the first questions I ask is what do you want to be known for? For me, it’s “a bold storyteller with strong opinions.” The rest of our work is building and shaping the perception of that knowing, which is a brand.
So many people get the definition of a brand wrong, and it’s fucking grating to read when people get something so wrong, so publicly, without apology, and I’m just going to let it go because I’ll be dead in thirty years and I don’t want that rage blackout life.
What people often mistake is what a brand is versus how a brand is expressed. The expression comes down to how you bring your brand to life in the stories you tell and how, where, when, and to whom you tell them. It’s your brand distributed. Your brand isn’t your Instagram story or the email you sent — that’s your brand broadcasted to the world where the channel is the delivery mechanism not the brand itself.
I’m a writer and marketer — both are expressions of who I am, not what I am. Denzel Washington once famously said, I’m a human being. My job is acting.”
But I digress.
The point here is we live in a world of noise. SO MUCH NOISE it can crush and cripple you if you let it. We live in a world of options and we’re often paralyzed by choice especially when all the options look and sound the same. I talked about this in last week’s Sunday dispatch regarding experience design.
Since everything we create has to align with our values, fulfill our vision, mission, and purpose, and communicate our difference (cough cough, many of the elements that comprise a brand), we need to design a signature approach in how we convey who we are, what we do, why and how we do what we do.
You want your customers to read something you’ve written or shared and know it could have only come from you.
One of the most frequent things I hear about me is that my voice is distinct, and it took me a while to get there because we’re often trying on voices like outfits, hoping something will fit. But here are six simple ways you can fast track all that trial and error (you’ll still suffer immeasurably, but the suffering won’t be Odyssean, my friends).
- Origin Story: 3Ws
- Personality, Voice & Vibe
- Visual Voice
- Human Connection
- Bold Opinions
- The Zest Factor
Everyone has a story. It’s the story you come back to and repeat in pieces. It’s the story that reminds people of who you are and how you got here. The story can be the origin of your business or the origin of you and your journey. But your story is yours. When I work with brands, I ask them to consider the 3Ws in crafting their story:
- The Why: The why is core to your identity. Your “why” goes deeper than the products & services you offer. It goes deeper than revenue. It’s a governing purpose driven from within that impacts the people you serve. It’s your origin story, your calling codified.
- The What: The what is what you do and who you do it for, which is a result of your why and your “how,” (i.e., how you do what you do).
- The Wow: The wow is your difference. It’s how you’re different from the pack.
Sketch that out for yourself without thinking about making it pretty and perfect. Just get the raw goods down. Then, flesh it out a bit:
- The Why: This is where you can talk about what motivated you toward your purpose. This is why you got started and how you identified your purpose.
- The What: This is where you can go into a little more detail about the products and services you offer but only as it relates to the benefits & outcomes a customer would experience. This shows you’re activating your why through the products and services you sell.
- The Wow: This is where you go a little deep about your shine, pulling from your positioning and reason to believe.
I use components of this exercise & the positioning exercise above to start to build my content strategy using the Story Core Tool. Everything I share with my clients starts from a deeper place. So, there’s no room for algorithm-baiting and formulaic writing if what you create is coming from within.
Personality, Voice & Vibe
I’ve written about this more times than I can think, so I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but your personality, voice and vibe distinguish one storyteller from another because of how you convey facts, figures, and stories.
What’s your style? How do you express yourself? How do you behave? What are the words you use, your lexicon? How do you say hello? If you think of your brand, your personality is the house, and your tone, voice, and language are your curtains, furniture, wallpaper, and fancy aromatic candles.
It’s about the deliberate choices you make in expressing yourself. It’s the difference between how Fenty Beauty and Estée Lauder talk about new product launches.
When I write fiction or narrative non-fiction, how I re-imagine and manipulate language and imagery is core to my voice. My characters will almost always be deeply flawed and there’s always a dark element (whether it be comedy or tragedy) to what I write because that’s where I’m most at home. The dark is a rich territory I’m able to easily navigate.
When it comes to articles and essays, my voice changes a bit to sound more like my speaking voice. The writing doesn’t take itself too seriously and I’m averse to using jargon or trends. I’m direct, acerbic, confrontational, and contrarian.
I have words and terms I use often. Motherfucker being one of them, which makes pearl-clutchers wince, making me happy because I don’t want to work with anyone who can’t tolerate an errant motherfucker.
I’m not a visual marketer or creative director, so I’m not going to school you on what I don’t know. However, the images you use should be deliberate, not arbitrary, and reflective of the personality you want to convey.
This is why whenever I build a brand platform, I hand it off to a creative director or graphic designer to create the visual identity and standards (fonts, colors, logo, photography, illustration, video, blah, blah, blah). It’s the Target red, it’s the way SaaS companies tend to use block illustrations, etc.
This year, I paid a fuckton of money to overhaul all of my collateral (workshop decks, credentials, the whole nine). My designer (the brilliant Krista Elvey) and I spent a lot of time on mood boards, pontificating on fonts, colors, photography vs. illustrations, etc. She was a deft guide to helping me create a visual representation of myself in my business, down to the cat illustration in all of my closing slides.
Be deliberate and consistent about the images you choose to wed to your brand.
Reciprocity is all about how you make your readers, customers, followers, and fans part of your brand and business. It’s how and where you connect with them and the relationships you make. It’s about making them feel as if they’re part of something bigger than the stories they read and the products they buy.
This year, I’ve thought a lot about how to connect more deeply with the people who consume my work (those who don’t creep me out by trying to play doctor or boyfriend or muse — ugh, I loathe that word).
A few weeks ago, I had 10, 30-minute calls with people who purchased my recent story strategy guide/mini-course. There was no sale or pitch because they’d already bought the product, and this was about them picking my brain on topics related to what they purchased and beyond.
Candidly, I was nervous about doing this because I’m not good with new people, and although I was exhausted at the end of the day, I also felt exhilarated. People who trusted me with their hard-earned dollars got to connect with me in a more meaningful, intimate way.
Silicon Valley legend Paul Graham once famously said, do things that don’t scale. And I believe this in my heart to be true, especially in a post-COVID world.
Over the next few months, I’ll schedule more sessions with customers simply because I want to serve the people who buy from me and know the human behind the product.
I’m also in the nascent stages of considering a private membership community for weirdo creatives. More on that soon.
You have to risk alienating people to be singular. I’m not mass-market. I have a lot of unpopular opinions and I’m loud and unapologetic about them. I hate formulaic writing, marketing jargon, and shiny object syndrome. I’ve pissed off a lot of people by going off on how you’re playing a rookie game if you’re living and dying by ROI.
CLTV, people. I will fight you on this.
It’s hard taking a stance because we all want to be loved and popular (I don’t, but I have issues) but our stance makes us stand out. And this isn’t about being inflammatory for clicks. This is about standing up for your values, beliefs, and opinions.
Months ago, I made it clear on LinkedIn that I won’t do business with Trump supporters. I lost followers and connections and I don’t care because I want to serve people who believe in a fair, dignified and equitable society. I wrote about losing my best friend of over twenty years because she’s a Trump supporter and I can’t tell you how many people left me garbage comments before and after I was on NPR.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. Let people unsubscribe and unfollow — they’re not your people. And if you’re marketing to everyone, you’re marketing to no one.
Plus, on the business side, consumers want you to take a stand.
The Zest Factor
Experience design is not about delivering a good product or service to the customer it’s about how you do it. Customers remember the experience of buying from you above all else. It’s about all the little touches you add to your content, storytelling, and customer experiences that make you memorable. It’s the handwritten notes in packing materials. It’s featuring followers on your platforms. It’s going above and beyond for your customers and giving them more than they could ever anticipate.
A few weeks ago, after all my calls with those who purchased my eBook, I sent everyone a link to our call and transcript as well as a slew of personalized resources (links, podcasts, books, and free ebooks from me) that will help them in their journey.
What can you do to add zest to your customer’s interactions and experience buying from you?
It took me years to hone my prose and copy voices. I worried about being too weird and standing out, but showing up as wholly myself while offering my readers, clients, and customers the best experience I could provide is what’s set me apart from the back. People repeatedly tell me they remember my work and that’s because I’m clear, consistent, compelling, specific, and me every step of the way.