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Who’s the Star of Your Brand Story?

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We talk a lot about the hero of a story, but sometimes the hero is not a person or a brand, but a broader concept or a message that resonates with your audience. This is especially true for experiential and image brands. For example, shopping at Whole Foods or having the latest iPhone is not solely based on the product but what it says about the customer’s lifestyle choices.

So, how can you take this very intangible element of how a brand story makes someone feel and build on it so that it resonates with your audience?

Know Your Audience

It all starts with your customer. When you understand their needs and desires, and how best to speak to these needs and desires, the rest of the story falls into place. The best storytellers understand how (and when) to tailor their brand story to fit the crowd, and marketing to a specific audience is no different.

For most brands, it’s the feeling and experience of engagement that will resonate with an audience. Any story comes with expectations—something will happen which will make the protagonist happy or sad. It’s up to you and your market research findings to dig in to the specific features and benefits of what you offer that make your customers’ lives easier, better, or more enjoyable.

Starbucks is the easiest example to use as their stores are their story. You can probably walk blindfolded into any Starbucks in the world and immediately know where you are by the music and the smell of the place. They understand their customer base so well that their CEO Kevin Johnson recently made the decision to hone in on a specific time of day—lunch—“to create new customer occasions that add to the branded experience.”

Experiential brands like Whole Foods and Starbucks know their customers inside and out because they understand the power of the intangible element they are selling. The experience of being in the store itself—the music, the lighting, the staff—weighs heavily.

While you may not have the rhythms of your customer’s day figured out, you probably have a solid sense of why they want to engage with your brand.

How Does Customer Lifestyle Affect Your Storytelling?

A great example of how lifestyle choice can impact a marketing story is Casper Mattress. Until recently, mattresses were an afterthought and certainly not an exciting purchase. Shopping for a mattress was a lonely pursuit that most people would prefer to put off. Casper Mattress came on the scene in 2014 and flipped the script.

Using funny illustrations and ads on subways and in taxis in major cities that targeted the constant pursuit of good sleep, Casper hit a sweet spot with its customer base—professionals living in cities (mattress delivery to a third-floor walk-up, anyone?) who want comfort and a quality product without having to spend hours shopping and scouring consumer reports. The result? Each year they have doubled their sales.

Who's the Star of Your Brand Story?

Building on an interactive experience, on Casper’s Staycation Story Hacks site you can build “a collection of stereotypical summer scenes that are perfect to hack any Snapchat or Instagram Story. It’s so easy, you can basically do it in your sleep.” Their efforts are paying off, and they even launched a pet bed series. Again, audience, audience, audience.

Another example of customer lifestyle branding and storytelling is TOMS shoes. Their one-for-one giving model isn’t solely about selling shoes; TOMS is selling a model of living, one in which they expect their customers to give back and engage with a global community in which volunteering and charity are central. Their website is a great example of a brand story that connects to the lifestyle of their customer—it feels more like an Amnesty International site than an e-commerce site, and that’s the point.

Who's the Star of Your Brand Story?

In this case, TOMS is never the star; it’s always what they will do with your money. Right next to the “Shop” button is the “How We Give” button, which features the statistic that “500,000 people have had their sight restored thanks to you.” The “you” is key. It’s not about TOMS, it’s about the goodness of their customers and the need for thoughtful partnerships. By the simple act of buying and wearing their shoes, you have helped make the world a better place. This is a prime example of a brand that fully understands their audience and turns the tables by making the customer the star.

Make the Customer the Star

The story you tell internally to your board of directors or potential investors is not the same story you are going to tell your target audience. The strength of your brand story can’t simply focus on why you are the greatest. An audience will sniff out bragging from a mile away. You have to shift the focus or risk your audience tuning out.

Think of brands like Airbnb or Blue Apron who rely on customer experience without direct engagement.

Airbnb’s “Live There” campaign focuses on the idea of digging in to local culture.

Airbnb knows their audience will connect with this message because they know their customer wants to experience a city as a local, not as a guest. From this vantage point, they can build a story not from their perspective as a lodging company, but from the perspective of their audience—making the guest the star.

Blue Apron recognized a void and the uptick in people who were becoming novice chefs, and they used good old-fashioned recipes to build interest. A recipe is the ultimate story of what can be. By tickling the palate of their audience through content marketing, they were able to grow by 500 percent in one year.

While you may not be ready to give your audience a virtual experience, experiential marketing continues to gather steam, and there’s something to be said for what this will mean for traditional marketing and branding.

If you build a story around a feeling and a moment that a product you sell can provide, it will resonate.

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Featured image attribution: Jan Traid

Shannon’s love of reading, writing, and the arts has led to many career adventures. When posed with the question “What can you do with a degree in English?” she presents her career as Exhibit A: everything. From her first job as an editorial assistant at the Harvard Business Review to news text editor at Ford Motor Company, to marketing director for bestselling author and story authority Robert McKee’s international seminars, Shannon has honed a unique set of skills. Whether it’s planning an event, a press release, magazine profile, media campaign, newsletter or ad, synthesizing and sharing information effectively and thoughtfully is second nature. In between careers, she squeezed in an MA in Film Studies (University College Dublin, Ireland) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Virginia Commonwealth University). Shannon’s writing has appeared in Virginia Living, RHome Magazine, WORK Magazine, Style Weekly, the Detroit Metro Times, and other publications.

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