Who doesn’t love a good origin story? A backstory adds dimension to a character and helps explain their intentions in the narrative. If you think of your brand as a character in this scenario, then your brand’s origin story can be just as important.
Usually, brand storytelling focuses on the who, what, and why of a product or company, forgetting the all-important where. Imagine if Bruce Wayne’s parents had gone to the opera in London that fateful night and not Gotham. Gotham City is important to the plot of Batman—it’s where the Wayne family has roots and has made their fortune. Without it as a backdrop, the story would be completely different.
Figuring out how to locate your brand’s place both literally and figuratively can impact your brand story. While place can certainly shape brand storytelling, it’s the articulation of the consumer’s relationship to that particular place that will resonate. Even as the Internet chips away at brick-and-mortar retail, place is still an important differentiator in how we perceive products, especially in the lifestyle and retail markets.
When it comes to defining place as part of their origin story, brands like Detroit Denim, Ledbury, and Tom’s of Maine have successfully leveraged and challenged assumptions of place to their advantage.
When you think of Detroit, well-made jeans may not be your first association. You may not think of clothing at all. As a Metro Detroit native, I can tell you that cars, Motown, and the movie RoboCop are usually in the top three.
But manufacturing is in the city’s lifeblood, and Detroit Denim, founded in 2010, decided there was a better way to do things. Much of the brand’s appeal is in Detroit itself. In the last decade, Detroit as the “Comeback Kid” of American cities has been a defining narrative.
“Detroit has long history of manufacturing,” explains Brenna Lane, partner and production manager at Detroit Denim. “We make things here. We felt the fallout of what happens when we stop making things here. Even though a lot of manufacturing has left, it still has the culture. Humans using a machine to make a product is a very Detroit thing to do and a Midwest and Rust Belt thing to do.”
The narrative of Detroit Denim is part of a larger one—make things better here. The company website message is to-the-point on the how and why: “The finest quality components. All sourced from American companies. Handmade in Detroit, by Detroiters. To expose the myth that it’s impossible to create a sustainable jeans business domestically. And help diversify the manufacturing base of Detroit, by producing a line of men’s jeans like no other.”
The “where” in this case matters both literally and figuratively. It challenges consumers to support jeans made by a brand committed to producing a quality product in a city once synonymous with “American Made” versus the alternative “where”—an unnamed low-wage factory overseas.
“We want to see our city thrive again and want to see it thrive in a way that’s based on equity and access to fulfilling employment and want to see it successful for all Detroit citizens,” says Lane. “We’re big believers in re-shorting of the apparel industry and can help bring industry here in Detroit back.”
In the same way that Ben & Jerry’s has become synonymous with a Vermont aesthetic and ethos, the luxury men’s shirts and accessories company Ledbury is building a similar symbiotic relationship with Richmond, Virginia. Their New South brand story and marketing are very much tied to the region—think Garden & Gun meets GQ magazine.
Friends Paul Watson and Paul Trible, who met in business school in London, founded the brand in 2009 in the shadow of the financial collapse. Turning from finance to shirt-making, Watson and Trible transplanted the craftsmanship associated with London’s Jermyn Street to Richmond. Trible and Watson saw something in the city nearly a decade ago that connected with their brand.
“I think Richmond is going through a similar situation to a lot of older southern cities or older metropolitan areas in the country in terms of moving away from the traditional manufacturing base they used to have and becoming hubs of new forms of commerce,” says Watson. “To be able to tell the Richmond story is unique for that reason because you have this interesting blend of old history and a new up-and-coming genre of businesses and people in the area.”
With only two brick-and-mortar locations, Ledbury is anchored to Richmond. From Virginia-based names for shirt collections to a catalog that often features local restaurants and businesses, the company has roots in the region. In 2015, they decided to reignite the bespoke tailoring tradition by taking on one of the country’s oldest bespoke shirtmakers, who happened to be based in Richmond.
Luxury brands leverage a visual lifestyle and aesthetic to make their brand come to life (think Burberry or Ralph Lauren), and Ledbury is in a unique position to promote a very Virginia way of life. Because they are headquartered in Richmond, their blog and catalog showcase the stories of local makers and events like their annual Ledbury Quail Hunt, which recently took place in Goochland, Virginia—the heart of horse country.
“It allows us to not be your typical fashion company which is New York-based or LA-based or London or Milan,” explains Watson. “It gives us a more unique perspective that is regional in focus for sure, but interesting enough that we’re not just another New York or LA fashion company. It lends a bit more authenticity.”
When Tom’s of Maine started out forty years ago, it had a mission beyond being the manufacturer of natural-ingredients-only personal care products. The company also wanted to be “a good citizen in the communities where we operate.” This community-centric approach extends from the brand’s origin story in—you guessed it—Maine to the products they produce and outward to the communities they serve. It’s no coincidence that the company website features “Community” as a tab directly under “Products.”
In the case of Tom’s of Maine, the “where” is intrinsic to the company’s identity and values and those of its customers. When founders Tom and Kate Chappell left Philadelphia and moved to the wilds of Kennebunk, Maine, they had a mission not just to simplify their lives but also to seek out natural foods and products.
Natural ingredients and a “can-do” attitude go hand-in-hand in most people’s perception of Maine as a place. “There is this notion of Mainers around ‘What does it mean to live a complete healthy life?'” explains Rob Robinson, integrated marketing communications manager for Tom’s of Maine. “I remember those values being passed on to me by my parents and that was pre-cultural focus on the idea that we would live in world with limited resources and we need to take care of the earth and one another. The cool thing about that is it’s culturally how a lot of Mainers think. It’s also very closely connected to the origins of the company and what the founders really wanted to present as to what the company stood for and this idea of being healthy and giving back to your community and learning, growing, and doing more. It happens to be the values that really set our consumer apart from the general population.”
Sometimes the perception of Maine as a place of extremes can go a bit far in a negative direction. And for a company set on building community, how the “where” of the brand story is told is important.
“Certainly we have cold winters and snow, but we also have absolutely beautiful summers—people consider us Vacation Land—they want to come here during the summer and walk on the beaches with their families and experience the coast together,” says Robinson. “And that’s definitely been something we’ve been trying to show more in our brand storytelling, sort of taking Tom’s of Maine out of the woods and showing people more of the sunny, coastal, beautiful ocean communities we have that are such a big part of the state and definitely influence a way of life for people.”
Understanding how place resonates with your target audience is important. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario—one may inspire the other, but the sooner your brand stories make room for place the better your customers will be able to connect to it.
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Featured image attribution: Hannu Keski-Hakuni