The most powerful kind of branding is the kind that creates true emotional resonance with your ideal audience.
But, in order to create that lasting, meaningful connection, you have to give your audience something to connect TO.
One way to do this is to find a way to integrate your personal, human story into your brand story.
But first, what exactly do I mean when I say brand story?
I actually don’t mean your “elevator pitch” or the actual story you launch into at a cocktail party when someone asks you that dreaded question:
“So what do you do?”
It’s not necessarily the kind of story that you literally tell someone. Instead, your brand story is the unique narrative that conveys the heart and soul of your business.
It’s rooted in your distinct background and it blends many different experiences, motivations and emotions together to form the DNA of your brand. Think of a brand story as the melting pot of answers to all those important, juicy, deeply-rooted questions about your business and what it stands for.
What do you believe in?
Why did you get started?
Who are you passionate about serving?
Why do you get up every morning excited about your business?
What led you to this point in your life?
The goal of any story is to tap into your emotions and to take you on a journey, to give you something to relate to.
So your brand story is the foundation to providing your audience with a way to connect to your business. It is what brings an underlying truth and authenticity to your final brand identity.
How do you uncover your brand story?
First, it's helpful to start by finding the pivotal and important moments that led you to this point in time in the first place and where your brand stems from in your past.
For those of you out there that are more analytical, think of these pivotal moments like data points. Don’t worry about trying to connect the data points just yet, just focus on finding the pieces of information that seem important.
Once you find those important data points in both your personal and your professional life, then you can work on connecting the relevant pieces into a strong creative concept.
The first thing you have to realize is that something prompted you to start your business. It didn’t just materialize into thin air. YOU made it. And because of that fact, YOU are an indelible part of the heart of your business (and brand.) So, predictably, the process of developing an authentic brand begins with YOU.
I like to refer to this process of understanding how your business came to be as uncovering your "origin story."
What is an origin story?
In comic book terminology, an origin story is a back-story that reveals how a character gained their superpowers and the circumstances under which they became superheroes.
That’s right, for the purpose of this lesson, we’re going to imagine that your business is a superhero!
Sure, superheroes have all of their powers and the ways that they fight crime, but watch any superhero show, read any comic book, and what makes the characters reallllly interesting? It’s their origin story. It’s finding out what major events had to happen in order to lead them to their heroic path.
The same is true for your business. A superhero’s list of powers is like your list of services or your list of products. They might be cool and all, but the bits and pieces of the backstory that led to all of that? Now that’s the interesting part.
For example, recently I’ve been watching Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix (no, not the mediocre action movie with Ben Affleck from back in the 2000’s - it’s much better, I promise.) Daredevil has heightened senses, a high threshold for pain and a thirst for justice. And I admit, all of that is certainly pretty cool.
Understanding how Matt Murdock, the man became Daredevil, the superhero. He lost his sight in a chemical spill when he was just a boy which gave him his heightened senses. His father, a boxer, raised him alone and always forced him to study because he wanted him to be better than he was. He became a lawyer so he could enact justice and right wrongs, but even that left him feeling powerless to help those in harm’s way.
All of that is what forms his origin story, and all of that is what makes me feel connected to him as a character.
So… that begs the same question for your business: Who was the superhero before he (or she) was the superhero?
Who was the person behind the business (aka YOU), before he/she came to create the business?
That’s what you need to unearth. You want to seek out all those important, pivotal moments that led you to where you are today. What are those events that made everything shift?
I call these “plot points.” A plot point refers to any event or occurrence that moves the story forward. They’re the forks in the road. The points of impact. Those plot points are what we’re looking for in your personal story.
Finding your plot points
I think we can all agree that we undergo a number of metamorphoses throughout our lives. Sometimes those transitions can be caused by where we are geographically, what we’re studying, who we’re dating, what job we have, or a major event that shifts our mental or physical lives in a big way.
As an exercise, I really want you to dig into the memory vault and think about the steps that led you to where you are today. Close your eyes and I want you to imagine your life is a book. (For now, try to focus less on the business necessarily and just think about your own life story, your personal journey.)
If you had to divide up your life into chunks, what do you think would be the major chapters?
What would be the plot points - those important moments that pushed your story forward? What events ended one chapter and opened up another?
Start when you were a kid and move forward on your life’s timeline until you hit what feels like a natural break point -- an event or moment where things shifted directions. When you stumble upon that moment or event, consider the possibility that it could be one of your plot points.
As you do that and move toward the present, here are some guiding questions to ask yourself when considering your plot points:
Is this relevant to WHY I decided to start my business?
Did this change my perspective about myself or the world?
Did a major part of my life suddenly look and feel different?
Did my goals or future ambitions change?
id this contribute in some way to how I run my business?
Example: Made Vibrant
Chapter 1: Overachieving kid goes to college
Much of my childhood and adolescence was defined by my need to excel. I was a straight-A over-achiever kid, and just about every ounce of work I put into school was to achieve the external definition of success that I had been taught from an early age.
Plot Point: Switched majors from pre-med to advertising
Something happened though when I got to college. Even though I chose to be pre-med as a major (probably for how it would look to the outside world), as I sat in an Advertising 101 class, I fell in love with the idea of creativity and business.
Chapter 2: Advertising obsessed
Old habits die hard. I pretty much applied my obsession with succeeding to this new creative field, and I became consumed with trying to rise to the highest level of achievement within the advertising world. Not exactly a recipe for happiness and fulfillment.
Plot Point: I discovered my fancy NYC ad internship wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
I landed a highly-coveted internship at one of the world’s leading agencies in New York, and every day I hated going to work. Something about it just felt empty to me. Everyone was stressed out and jaded. Despite how it would look to other people, I made the decision to turn down the NYC ad exec dream life for something that felt happier and more me.
Chapter 3: Disillusionment with agency life
Instead of the fancy NYC agency, I took a job at an advertising agency in North Carolina, thinking it would be slower-paced, less cutthroat and more creative. Unfortunately I was in a media planner position - not very creative - and I could feel myself anxious to do something that used my creative talents more.
Plot Point: Quit my first advertising job just six months in
Suddenly acutely aware that it wasn’t right for me, I quit. Yet again I was learning a lesson to choose my own happiness over the expectations of other people, and it felt really good.
Chapter 4: Finding my creative voice
During this time, I started my own personal blog and began teaching myself design programs at night. I was starting to feel free.
Plot Point: Went to work for Jason’s startup company
My boyfriend, Jason, had a marketing startup company and needed someone to run operations. I convinced him to hire me (who else would be more invested than me?) and I got a taste for what it was like to feel actually valued at a job.
Chapter 5: A new world of work opens up
Working for his startup, I got to wear a different hat every hour it seemed, and I also realized that having the flexibility to design my schedule and motivate myself gave me a new energy I hadn’t experienced before. Meanwhile, I was still teaching myself design and starting to take on side projects.
Plot Point: Startup company closes shop, I decide to start my own business
When it became clear that the company could no longer stay afloat, I had a choice: go try to get another advertising job or try to make a go of it by myself. I chose the latter.
Chapter 6: Made Vibrant is born!
After a few months of freelancing, I decided to take my talents and create a larger brand around them: Made Vibrant.
...And, the rest is history, right?
All of those lessons I learned along the way: the power of choosing your own happiness over the expectations of others; letting go of perfection and the need to excel; searching for a way to express my creativity; teaching myself design; my hunger for flexibility… each one of those shows up in my brand story and contributes to how I connect with my audience.
My hope is that by going through the plot point exercise, you’re able to discover new layers and interesting insights about what led you to form your business that you haven’t yet thought about.
On owning it
As one last point on your personal origin story, remember this: People can feel sincerity.
The more truthful you are about where you come from and who you are, the more sincerely your brand will come across.
It’s not enough to just identify these important moments in your life. You have to also recognize that those are the things that help you stand out. Those are the things that give you power. You have to acknowledge that these elements are crucial to your brand DNA, and you have to see them as strengths.
When I started my design business, I used to be afraid that because I didn’t go to art school, that it was somehow a disadvantage. Then I realized that instead I could OWN the self-taught, self-made part of my story.
The fact that I learned everything myself not only showed that I was dedicated and resourceful (which people like when they hire you), but I also expressed that my method and process was different. I wasn’t weighed down by the “right” or “wrong” way to do things, and that made me more creative. Also, the fact that I had a background in advertising and startup culture showed that I had a working knowledge of how businesses run. This point was especially critical in getting some of my higher paying projects for larger companies right out of the gate.
Never forget: Your differences are your strengths. Take ownership of your personal origin story and it will help you stand out in a vast sea of online businesses.
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