In a crowded marketplace, only great brands survive. Great brands are built through humanity’s oldest tool: storytelling.
Nowadays, all you need to start a business is an internet connection.
Easy-to-use services like Shopify and Squarespace have enabled many to turn their entrepreneurial dreams into realities. Combine that with COVID-19, which catalyzed unprecedented levels of e-commerce, and you get a startup boom. In the calendar year following the first March 2020 lockdowns, Americans created nearly 4.5 million businesses.
More businesses means more players vying for the same customers. This increased competition puts extra pressure on each business to distinguish itself, to build a brand that is unique, necessary, and attuned to our cultural moment.
I’ve been in e-commerce for more than a decade. In my early days, I saw first-iteration businesses scaling simply by appearing online and playing the Facebook game. They didn’t have to worry about brand-building or content communities right out of the gate. The perfect example is Dollar Shave Club. Founded in 2011, Dollar Shave Club gained traction with a good solution to a common problem and a hilarious viral video. It took them four years to develop MEL Magazine, the wildly popular publication that emphasized their brand values and attracted the attention of acquirers.
It’s my controversial opinion that Dollar Shave Club couldn’t have happened today, because today’s new businesses can’t afford to wait four years to develop their brand through storytelling and community engagement. In its time, Dollar Shave Club was novel; today, it’s the norm.
Great branding is the backbone of long-term success, and it all starts with a story.
Nike vs. Adidas
It’s impossible to think of Nike and not immediately think of their iconic slogan, “Just do it.” The three-word story, a masterclass in branding, was first introduced in 1988. Since then, it has cemented itself as a timeless phrase, relevant across cultural and demographic boundaries. We all know what Nike stands for: looking obstacles in the eye, and attacking them.
Adidas, Nike’s top competitor, stands for something much less clear. When I think of Adidas, I think vaguely of Europe, soccer, athleticism — but not a brand message as distinct as “Just do it.”
Adidas’s story is a little nebulous. Nike’s is clear as day.
“Just do it” inspires an atmosphere of dedication and achievement. It also enables Nike to take bold stands, as they did in 2018 with Colin Kaepernick. His racial justice campaign both emphasized Nike’s values and sent their stock price soaring to an all-time high.
Start with Story, Build Through Community
In her fascinating book Story Driven, Bernadette Jiwa illustrates the ideal progression for a business launch:
Story → Values → Purpose → Vision → Strategy
Most viable companies know their strategy — the problem they want to solve, how their offering solves it. Some companies have a well-articulated purpose, a why, a values-based understanding of their place in the world. But very, very few companies start with a story, let alone a story as resonant as Nike’s.
You always need a story — a sense of: The world looks like this right now, but it should look like that, because of Reason A, Reason B, Reason C. Your brand will evolve out of your story, a succinct encapsulation of how the world should look.
In addition to defining your brand, your story will act as a roadmap for your content. Nike engaged Colin Kaepernick because he was just doing it — no matter the controversy or consequences, he was doing something he believed in. A clearly defined story will guide you to people living it out, people who will become brand ambassadors, entryways to passionate communities.
Hedge Against Data Crackdowns
Strong content builds community. Community-building lets you engage directly with customers. Direct engagement builds a base of trust, which translates to long-term brand loyalty. Additionally, it gives you a firsthand account of who your customers are — their backgrounds, their preferences, the crucial information that will drive your evolution.
By hearing their customers’ stories, businesses can hone their own. Businesses optimize customer experience by listening to their customers and adapting to their needs. This way, customers build brands as much as businesses themselves do.
As internet data laws grow more privacy-oriented, third-party customer data becomes less reliable. Direct community engagement from day one can help you circumvent this problem.
The moat has been filled in. Every day, more businesses spring into formation, hungry for market share. The good news for you: Most new businesses launch without well-formed stories or channels for community engagement. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens, “When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about…that gives meaning to all [our] experiences and choices.”
The bedrock of great branding is a well-told story.