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How to Make Your Customer the Star of Your Brand Story, Part 1

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

I dare you to get specific.

So if you want to know what makes a good brand story, many will tell you it’s to clearly define your brand promise (or your value proposition) and make sure within it you’ve differentiated yourself from the competition. This is true! A brand story should articulate the value you deliver and the special way that you do this that makes you unique. The key element that so many brand stories lack is a focus on for whom you are delivering this value.

In looking at several brand promises while writing this article, so many fall short of including the “Who.” Just look at this list. Granted, many of these are advertising campaigns, and that is just a glimpse into one’s brand story. But still, whose side is Nationwide on? BMW is the “ultimate driving machine” and “driving pleasure” for whom? BMW most certainly has some buyer persona specificity they could weave into their brand messaging. Similarly, I would bet the house that Tesla has a colorful buyer persona or two that they could speak to very specifically in their brand messaging. Isn’t it interesting the vast majority of messages don’t include the for whom? I have a sneaking suspicion that they don’t add this level of specificity because they don’t want to

leave anyone out. My goal in pointing this out is to shine light on the opportunity to first, know your customer and second, speak to them in a way that shows them you understand their world.

One brand that crushes their brand promise IMHO…

“Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” And look closely to the fine print asterisk: “*If you have a body, you are an athlete.” This is bold of Nike. Do you think that everyone who buys Nikes considers themselves an athlete? I can hear the heated discussion around the virtual conference table now. The answer is most likely, “No.” But Nike is giving their target audience something aspirational to strive for. They are saying their products are for everyone, but getting more specific by leaning into

the people who are craving something better on their bodies (innovation) and in their hearts (inspiration). I bet some research into their most loyal customers got them there. Human-centered design pioneers like those at IDEO U call this group that exhibits the highest degree of brand loyalty your “Extreme Users,” Research into this target audience will get you a gold mine of specificity for your messaging, but we’ll save that for another day.

If you want to know what makes a great brand story, it’s this: Make an emotional connection with the very specific set of people you think are most likely to consume your offering, your target audience. To do this, you need to deliver your brand promise via storytelling, and make your customer the star.

So, who is the star of your brand story – you or your customer?

If your customer isn’t yet the star of your brand story, don’t worry. There is a simple way to make your message meaningful to the customer you want and connect with them emotionally. Make it about them! Then weave in all of the goodness you bring to the table once you’ve shown you understand their world. What you say, how you say it, and the context in which you bring it to life will tell your ideal customer whether or not you’ll help her or him.

Start by answering these simple questions…

💙 Who cares most about what you do?

🎯 What are they trying to achieve?

☹️ What stands in the way?

🥳 How do you help?

To create an authentic brand story that captivates the attention of your potential customers, most of the brand positioning and messaging you come up with should be rooted in the answers to these questions.

Here’s a look at a step-by-step method that will help you make sure your brand story is hinged on what’s important to your customer.

Step 1: Build a Brand Brigade and get their perspective

In a blog post I wrote a while back, “Co-Create Part I: Create Your Own Supergroup,” I share why forming a “Supergroup” is important to solving any complex problem and how to do it. The gist is that gathering diverse perspectives to weigh in from the beginning of solving that complex problem is going to help you create a solution that is meaningful to the people you think desire that solution most.

In this case, your complex problem is how to create a compelling brand story. The people you think care about it most are your customers and future customers. To expeditiously understand the perspectives of these customers/future customers, we’re going to rely on anyone in your organization who knows these customers best. We’ll call this particular Supergroup your Brand Brigade.

So how do you do it?

To create your Brand Brigade, start by focusing on the people within your organization who interact with your customers. This could be sales, marketing, product strategy, support, close partners, and even back office folks who interact with customers frequently, like contracts and billing. Each of these people has a lens into the problem you are solving that is specific, unique, and full of insight you as a marketer probably do not have (for no other reason than because you don’t have visibility into that part of the customer interaction). There is so much goodness and color that will help you bring your brand story to life right in your own backyard! With this method, Marketing’s job is to gather that insight. Later, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do with it.

The bottom line is the more perspectives, the richer the result. Together at one virtual table, this diverse group of people can very quickly progress the impact of your story.

This is a far cry from conventional marketing methods where someone has a great idea – be it executive, strategist, technologist, or other – and then hands it off to marketers to “make it happen.”

The flaw with this approach is limited perspective which leads to one-dimensional solutions. (Read more about that in the blog post I reference above.) In this case, the solution is the story you’re telling, and a one-dimensional brand narrative won’t stand out against the thousands of messages your potential customers are sifting through every day to get to the things they really care about. For a brand story to rise above the noise, you need diverse perspectives.

Your Brand Brigade will share the ideation, prioritization, solutioning, and passion behind your brand story. Ultimately, you own that the story gets created and told, but once you start employing this group to help you, my hope is that you feel a weight lifted off of your shoulders and empowered to do something bigger than you could have done on your own. Your Brand Brigade becomes the co-owner of this story. Together you’ve created something that captures the attention of your target audience, because you’ve turned that target audience into a real person and focused on what is specifically important to that person.

Step 2: Capture every voice on a blank canvas

Now you’ve got your Brand Brigade established. Your brand story relies on the answers to four questions I detailed in the intro of this blog post. You’re going to bring your Brand Brigade together to brainstorm the answer to this first question…

💙Who cares most about what you do?

To do this effectively, I have some recommendations…

  • Start with a blank canvas

  • Value every voice

  • Make the playing field even by establishing, “Storming Norms”

  • Shoot for quantity!

Blank canvas

When you ask your Brand Brigade, “Who cares most about what you do?” bring them together, and give them a blank canvas. This could be a physical whiteboard, a Zoom whiteboard, a blank Google Doc or piece of paper! Put the question at the top of the canvas, and then let them take it away!

The advantage of a blank canvas is you are all starting from Ground Zero together and building something – your story – together. I don’t know if your meetings go this way, but there are so many meetings that I’ve been to that revolve around someone who is getting people together to buy-into an idea or that person needs help executing an idea. This is all solutioning. Very rarely do we carve out time to dissect the problem. Do you often find yourself in meetings that start with one central question and ask everyone for their thoughts, ideas, and observations about that one question? My hunch is no (but if the answer is yes, you are among the lucky ones!). This latter approach might be jarring for some, so the group might need a little warming up for this reason. I’ll have to cover that in another post as well. But ultimately, this Blank Canvas approach helps with time to transformation, or each member of your Brand Brigade adopting and using this story in her or his day-to-day work life.

Every voice matters

In this Blank Canvas step, there is no wrong answer. Every perspective shared is the truth for the person sharing it, so it’s super important that you capture it on that shared canvas. Even better have each person add it to the canvas themselves – they help you build every step of the way.

This method eases the burden on marketers to figure out all of the right answers. Instead, marketing becomes a facilitator, a data and idea miner, then a synthesizer of all of the information collected. The end result is an authentic brand story, full of perspective and context much richer than a single marketer, or even a whole team of marketers could come up with on their own.

Step 3: Co-create “Storming Norms”

Now that you have your group of diverse perspectives (aka: Brand Brigade) in front of a blank canvas, you’ll want to establish some rules of engagement as you brainstorm together. IDEO U calls it "Norms," and I’m going to tweak that a little bit and call it, “Storming Norms.” Ask the group what will make your time together well-spent. You can have the group come up with this in a few minutes of bringing them together. Ultimately, you hope they come up with a handful of tenets that will make this an enjoyable and productive use of everyone’s time. I always like to start with the group coming up with the full list as much as possible. There are some rules that you want to make sure the group hits…

One is that all ideas have value and should be noted. Doesn't mean you'll use all of them now, but we'll get to that when I cover ideation vs. solutioning in another piece. The key thing to know is that the beginning of problem solving is the time for broad ideas and perspectives. If you start judging ideas too early, you might shave off something that is essential, but you haven't identified as essential yet. Or one idea that you never use could lead to some golden nuggets from someone else. As you get farther into it, there will be a time for judgment around ideas, but it's not at the beginning. This is really important to ensuring everyone feels safe enough to participate, which should be another rule on your list. Staying quiet is just another way of judging. It means whoever is quiet doesn't feel safe enough for one reason or another to share her or his ideas. And everyone has ideas. Two other rules you'll want on your list are to have fun and be respectful of one another. These sessions will become a place for people to connect and figure out that each of them is wildly creative. Keeping the tone very positive and productive is really important to that. Finally, shoot for quantity of ideas! This is so important, there is a whole section on it below. In terms of “Storming Norms” if your Brand Brigade misses any of these, you can add them to the list. (Here’s IDEO U’s list.)

Also, establishing your “Storming Norms” is a great way for you and your Brand Brigade to begin practicing the co-creation you are going to have them do on the brand story (i.e. answering the four questions I started out with in this blog post) in a way that is light and low pressure.

Step 4: Who cares? (Shoot for quantity!)

Once you have your “Storming Norms” established, you’re ready to answer the question, “Who cares most about what you do?” Facilitate your group brainstorming the answers to this question using the same method you did for establishing “Storming Norms.”

I recommend playing some instrumental music in the background and asking them to spend 5-10 minutes or so adding to the canvas. You will get many more ideas this way. If you let people talk through their ideas, you’ll get a couple of people who will fill the time trying to sell their ideas, and others in the group discussing those ideas, and others staying quiet.

This is not productive for a few reasons:

  1. Your goal is quantity.

  2. People who are less extroverted likely won’t get their ideas shared.

  3. No one should be selling their idea. At this point, the goal is to just capture thoughts. We’ll have time to talk through them in a little bit.

So play the music for the time you’ve allotted for brainstorming. Then let the ideas flow! Once you’ve reached the allotted time you set…you can add more time if people are still contributing ideas. If there is a lull, you can wrap it up and ask people if they think what’s on the canvas covers it. Ultimately, don’t rush it, and let it get messy! If you’re dealing with a virtual whiteboard, it will undoubtedly get messy, and that is OK. You can move any overlapping ideas around, make things smaller or bigger, so everything is legible, but otherwise, the mess is good!

Now your formerly blank canvas is chock-full of the thoughts and opinions of each member of your Brand Brigade’s brain. Ahhhhh…take a deep breath (and a screenshot!), and take in the view.

Are there some things there you wouldn’t have thought of? If so, you’ve already validated this approach. And you’ve just reached a big milestone – moving from a limited perspective to one rich in color about your ideal customer.

If you can prioritize a brand strategy that leans on getting specific with the people who care about you most, you can rise above the noise and attract and engage more of those people!

I have no doubt that you’re very good and very skilled at what you do. My hope is that you can parlay your (and your marketing teams’) talent by tapping into the power of perspectives via a Brand Brigade where each member contributes to a blank canvas with their answers to the root questions of your brand story. These are the first steps to a brand narrative that means something to someone – and not just anyone, your ideal customer!

Next time we’ll look at what to do with this information – how to categorize and prioritize it, and then further flesh out who rises to the top. After these steps, you will have all of the key ingredients for a powerful brand story.

In the meantime, if you’d like help navigating any of this, let me know!

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