How to tell your brand's story

So, what's your story?

In a crowded marketplace (digital or otherwise), it can be tempting to think that you need to figure out a way to shout the loudest, or look the shiniest, in order to get noticed in the swirl and buzz and bombardment of messages.

With or without the glitter exterior, though, if the substance of what you're all about doesn't hold together...then, you've lost me. As a consumer — a buyer "of bread and ideas," to quote the name of a lovely bakery I once discovered in Paris — what I really want is for you to tell me a story that matters. Tell me story that I can recognize myself in; a story that I want to be part of.

(Branding is, after all, a two-way conversation.)

Great, you're likely thinking. But how exactly do I do that? 

Introducing: the Brand Story Clarity Map. 

I've been working on this idea for a while, and am so excited to finally share it with you! This small-but-mighty exercise is a tool I've designed to help you develop a clear, cohesive brand message using the powerful framework of story. Print it out, find a pen and a quiet spot, and watch your brand open up in new ways as you think through and define the key elements of your story.

What is it?

The Brand Story Clarity Map is a creative exercise designed to help you discover and define the essence of your unique brand, by looking at it through the lens of story.

Why story?  

Whether you’re just starting out, stuck in a marketing rut, or rebranding your business, putting words around your brand as a story will help bring clarity to your message. It also creates a useful framework for understanding and communicating who you are and what you offer the world. What’s more, it will challenge you to think creatively about the people you need to reach, and how you can meet them where they’re at and serve them exceptionally well.

So, without further it is!

Click here to download your free copy of the Brand Story Clarity Map! 


I'd love to hear if you find it useful (or, any suggestions to make it better)! Leave a note in the comments or drop me a line at

October Playlist

Just for fun, here's a little roundup of some of my current faves in culture, art, storytelling and creativity. A few of the things I’m loving these days:

Listening: The On Being podcast — How have I only recently discovered this?? The host, Krista Tippett, is a magician of conversations. She recently was honored at the White House for…and I quote…“thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” Check out one of my favorite conversations here: Yo-Yo Ma, “Music Happens Between the Notes.”

Cooking: Food52 is an incredible online food community with THE best recipes, food ideas and cooking tutorials. Plus their email newsletters are so beautiful, I want to eat them. On my table this week: Roasted Salmon with Crispy Coconut Kale and Coconut Rice (seriously. it’s delicious.)

Reading: How the World Sees You, by Sally Hogshead. Written by a branding and marketing veteran, this book is a new spin on personality typing (and totally relevant to brands, as well as people) — it explores how to best use your unique personality advantages for truly impactful communication. I think she’s onto something.

Perusing: Brain Pickings, and their fascinating free weekly “interestingness digest”(!). (In a nice little Brand Story Clarity Map tie-in, today’s lead article celebrates the sidekicks behind a slew of history’s creative geniuses.)

Watching: C’mon, Royals!!

Sticky stories and the poetry of business

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a story stick.

Have you ever heard a song for the first time, and it just grabbed you? I don't mean because it has a unique sound, or because you like the band, or even because it's great music. I'm talking about those rare, unpredictable times when you cross paths with a song, and you could swear it was written specifically for you, in that particular moment. The song gets you. It speaks your language (perhaps a language you didn't even know you had). Maybe not all the lyrics match up to your life or circumstances, but there are pieces — a melody that feels exactly right, or a perfect line or two — that speaks to you in a way you can’t escape. There’s something in a song like this that you recognize, and it helps give both shape and validation to your experience (here’s one of mine).

Songwriting is, of course, a form of poetry. This is the stunning power of poetry, and of story: it is both deeply connective and transformative. It helps us understand the world, and locate ourselves in it.

The poetry of business is brand storytelling.

Marketing, of course, is no longer just about spinning the right headlines, or feeding the public a carefully-crafted dose of messaging about your product. We’ve all gotten too smart for that (also, too socially networked). Today, building a smart and successful brand (and business) is largely about resonance and emotional connection. It’s the art of connecting with your audience by crafting a story they can understand and believe in — a story that intertwines with their own story in a way that they recognize. A story that helps change their lives for the better.

My favorite example of brand storytelling in action? In 1989, Robin Williams played charismatic English professor John Keating in the film Dead Poets Society. Twenty-five years later, Apple borrowed Keating’s words, elegantly repurposing them in its Super Bowl ad for the iPad Air. You’ve likely seen the ad (and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch it here). It’s a sweeping tapestry of fast-moving shots, woven together with expert cinematography: people standing on the brink of a majestic waterfall, in the thrall of a live music show, marching in a sports stadium, flying in helicopters and dancing on city streets, standing atop snowcapped mountains and writing quietly at a darkened bus stop. There are kids and adults, alone and in groups; all accomplishing great things (with the help of an iPad, of course). Underscoring the scope-of-human-endeavors video reel are these words, spoken by Williams:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion….” 

Aha! Poetry and passion? Seems like odd subject matter for a technology company, doesn’t it? Of course, Apple has always been about more than just technology. During the entire 90 seconds of this ad, no words ever appear extolling the high-tech usefulness of the iPad, its features, its portability, its versatility, or even its distinctiveness.

Instead, it’s just the voiceover of Williams, going on to speak of business and the sciences, and then circling back to poetry and art. He quotes Whitman. He philosophizes. And he ends with this: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse…what will your verse be?

BAM. It gets me every time. Goosebumps.

Apple's advertising in recent years has garnered adjectives like "anthemic," and deservedly so. These 90 seconds showcase a rich visual landscape of adventure and possibility; a brand story that resonates in the context of "regular" daily life as much as in boundary-pushing feats of physical and intellectual courage. This much is true: Apple knows how to seamlessly combine words and images to tell a cohesive story that inspires, on many levels.

They also know a very, very powerful secret.

Certainly, in order to build a strong brand, you’ve got to be able to tell a great story. But here's the secret: contrary to popular opinion, the story isn’t primarily about your business — who you are, what you do, why you’re the best — it’s about the people you’re serving. It’s their story, most of all.

Let me say that again: your brand story is not about you.

It’s about your people.

Make your customer the hero, and your story will stick. This means you have to do the hard work of finding out who your people are, at ground level. Discover what they need, what they fear, what frustrates them, what they’re dreaming about. Talk to them. Imagine with them. Learn to speak their language. And then, tell great big adventurous stories that your people can be a part of — stories they can recognize themselves in.

Tell stories that will call your people to greatness.

How branding boosts your business

We all know good branding makes you look good. Right?


But...well, is that it? Is there more? What's the connection between branding and business success? And, does branding actually impact your bottom line?

Short answer: yes! Here are seven key ways that good branding builds your business:

1. It connects your vision and values to your name & face.

Every brand is a reputation. It gets built, established and strengthened over time. When you take the time to develop a brand based on your vision and values, you're able to lead out with what's most important to your business, and you make a first impression that's solidly in line with who you are and what you offer. As your business grows and your brand becomes more recognized — and, as you deliver on your promises — that connection is strengthened. Apple no longer needs to tell us that they're about innovation, creativity and pushing boundaries: when we hear their name or see one of their products, we know instantly what they stand for. 

2. It builds trust.

We live in an increasingly visually-savvy world. Our collective ability to sniff out anything discordant or disingenuous in an advertisement or marketing message is at an all-time high (and only going up).  When you don't present a unified front with your brand, you look scattered and inconsistent...and if your customers can't trust your image, why should they trust you?

Good branding paints a clear, consistent picture of who you are. It requires knowing your story, and then showing & telling it in a way that's authentic and easy to understand.

3. It shows you’re a pro.

The way you present yourself says a lot about how you operate. When you show up to a meeting in a tailored jacket, heels and lipstick (or if you're a guy, with your suit and tie and snazzy briefcase), it communicates confidence and says, "let's get down to business." In the same way, great branding helps establish you as a serious player (in whatever field you're in) — it's an investment in yourself that shows you're a professional, and immediately boosts the way you're viewed by your community, your colleagues, and by potential customers.

4. It elevates the perceived value of what you provide.

Your branding sets a standard for what we can expect from you, and the price we're willing to pay. (If you're selling high-end, custom-blended perfume at a $700 price point, would you package it in a brown paper bag tied with yarn and printed with a stock photo? Didn't think so.) In the same way, the quality and character of your branding impacts the value of your products and services in your customers' minds. 

5. It helps you stand out, and differentiates you from the competition.

Ladies and gentlemen, communication is everything. In a crowded marketplace — and especially online! — design is a differentiator. Thoughtful branding is your opportunity to stand out; to highlight what makes your services & products unique; and to show why you're the best one to provide them to your chosen audience.

6. It helps you capture people’s attention.

As we're all aware, attention spans are short. You can either grab people's attention with something wild, flashy or furry ( videos), or you can reach them with a message that has depth, interest and focus. Good brands know their audience well, and cut through the clutter by speaking to them directly.

7. It makes your ideal customers feel that you understand them.

Good branding makes your customers feel like you know them, because you’ve taken the time and effort to actually understand them — and then to show them that you do, with brand communication that speaks their language. (Which, in turn, builds more trust...along with brand loyalty.)

What other ways do you see branding helping (or hurting) businesses? I'd love to hear. Let me know in the comments below!

(For more brand-savvy info, check out Branding 101: Three Magic Words You Need to Know.)

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Branding 101: Three Magic Words You Need to Know

"So...what exactly is branding, anyway? I mean, practically speaking?"

Great question! So glad you asked.

Most business owners I come across know that branding is important, but they don't know quite how to approach it, or where the boundary lines get drawn. To be fair, the definition of branding has certainly expanded over the years (the original "brands" were used only on cattle), and today the term can mean a number of different things, depending on which industry you're in and who you're talking to.

But, good news! Branding doesn't have to be confusing or complicated. I'm going to give you a simple way to look at the foundational pieces that make up the branding puzzle, and illustrate how it actually works — including what you need to understand in order to make it work for your business. It all starts with three magic words:



and Branding.

(Yep, they're different.) Let's kick things off with some clear definitions:

• your IDENTITY is your personality and distinctiveness as a business. It's the unvarnished truth about who you are, what you believe, and what you value.

• a BRAND is the emotional connection you build with your audience, customers and community. It's how you're perceived by people based on their experiences. (Note that you cannot "make" your brand, and neither can a designer — only the collective audience can truly make a brand.)

BRANDING, then, is how you shape the perception of your audience. Branding is about putting the essence of your unique, authentic identity and story out into the world. It's crafting the representation of you as a business, both visually and verbally, that people can connect with and respond to. 

And, let's add one more bonus word to the mix:

• a LOGO is the simplest visual identifier of a business. Your logo is the cornerstone of your branding: it's essentially the brand and identity of your business, all wrapped up in one representative mark or icon. 

Each of these elements is distinct, but highly interconnected. And each contributes a piece to the overall branding picture.

Now, let's break it down even more. This is how I would explain these three powerful words using language that a five-year-old would understand:

IDENTITY = Who you are

BRANDING = Who you say you are

BRAND = Who people think you are

Okay, great: now how can you make these work for you?

Here's a little graphic I made to help illustrate the wide world of branding (featuring the three magic words, and the keys to activating them!):

Take a look at the bottom of each circle (well, oval), and you'll see a KEY. This is what, in each area, has the potential to make it or break it for your brand (and business!). 

The key to unlocking the power in your brand is, first and foremost, being clear about your identity: discovering and honing in on what makes you uniquely YOU, the core beliefs that drive you, and what makes your business different from everything else that's out there. 

Once you have clarity in who you are and what you offer, you're able to forge authentic connections with your audience through branding. The better you get to know your ideal customers, the better you'll be able to authentically reach them in the place where your unique business identity meets their greatest needs and desires.

Great brands emotionally connect with people. How can you reach people and make them feel truly understood? How can you treat them with such respect and over-the-top service that they don't just say, "thank you," as they pay and leave; they say "WOW!" and feel compelled to share the experience with their friends? 

I'll be digging deeper into each of these elements in future posts, so stay tuned!

Was this summary helpful for you? I'd love to hear how it fits with your own experience. What's the area that YOU most need to work on in your own brand connection? Getting clear on your identity? Creating authentic branding? Or, forging deeper emotional connections? Post your feedback (and of course, any questions) in the comments below!


Reverse Marketing: The 100 People Project

(Photo courtesy of Chris Guillebeau)

(Photo courtesy of Chris Guillebeau)

Last week I took my first trip to Portland (loooove Portland!) for the inaugural Pioneer Nation, a conference for creative entrepreneurs put on by the legendary Chris Guillebeau, of The $100 Startup book fame (and a host of other fantastic things). Of the many many MANY high-value things I took away from this event, I want to share the most awesome, game-changing one here: it's called The 100 People Project.

My hilarious, smart and savvy friend Shenee Howard took the stage at Pioneer Nation to trace the story of her wild business-building journey over the past several years (it's fantastic — head on over to her website if you want to read the full version). And, in the middle of her talk, Shenee mentioned something she did early on in her business, when she was trying to do a million things at once (hello entrepreneurship!) and was still a bit fuzzy on how to bring clarity and focus to her business. She embarked on an idea she called The 100 People Project, and before too long, this little brainstorm ended up taking on a life of its own. It became a pivotal "reverse marketing" strategy that enabled her business to really take off. (Note: Shenee's in the process of creating an official 100 People Project guide and materials; I'll post a link to it here when it's available.)

Here's essentially what she did:

1. Find 100 people, and talk to them for 15 minutes each. Shenee started with people she knew, friends and family; and then branched out with referrals and social media to find more of the kind of people she thought would make great clients. She scheduled time slots on the same day each week over the course of a few months, and then gave people options for when they could book their 15-minute slot.

2. Tell them what you're good at, and ask them what they need help with. The format of these 15-minute conversations is dead simple, personal, and can be tweaked to find out whatever it is you need to know from your customers and clients about how to serve them better. By talking to your people and simply asking them what they need, what they'd really love to see, and what problems they're having in the area your business intersects with, you're getting the inside track on how you can help them. It's market research at its most basic, but many of us haven't taken the time to do this (and certainly haven't systematized it!). 

3. Make a spreadsheet to record notes of each conversation. You'll gain immense insight into your target audience with these conversations, but don't just trust yourself to remember the good stuff. Write it down! This will also help you see patterns and crossovers in what people need and want, and what you're great at (your sweet spot!).

Over the course of her own 100 People Project, Shenee gained enormous clarity and insight into the things that people in her target audience wanted and needed that she was naturally great at, and she also got a chance to build her skills and test out ideas as she talked to more and more people. Double win! As her clarity increased, she was able to steer her business toward exactly what her people needed. 

I'm in love with this idea, and mulling over how to implement it myself. How about you? Does this strike a chord? Or, have you ever done something similar? Leave a comment below, I want to hear about it!

Update: Here's Shenee's official 100 People Project page:

Building Trust through Design

Design — good design — isn't just about making things pretty. It's about connecting message and meaning, and making things (and ideas!) accessible, beautiful, and resonant.

And increasingly, smart design is the element that differentiates magnetic, trust-building brands from the rest.

Design is all about relationships. In the world of branding, the relationship between what you're telling people and what you're showing them needs to be strong and consistent, or you'll erode their trust right out of the gate. Even if you've got a top-level service or groundbreaking product, if your website looks like it was shoddily thrown together in 1994, or your logo was made in MS Paint . . . you're going to lose business, along with a degree of credibility. 

"Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn't know it was missing." - Paola Antonelli

Great design, then, takes things up another notch: it tells a story that's unique, authentic and compelling. In the world of branding, it paints a picture of your identity and your core values in a way that people can easily connect with. And when the visual design of your brand is in perfect alignment with your brand personality and message . . . that, my friend, is when the true magic happens.

What's your WHY? Start here!

If you haven’t yet seen the iconic 2009 TED Talk by Simon Sinek on how great leaders inspire trust, cooperation and action, please drop everything(!) and watch it now. His simple but paradigm-shifting model has absolutely transformed the way I think about communication and branding, and I have a feeling it just might do the same for you.

(You can find a link to view it at the bottom of this post.)

What I want to talk about here is how you can apply Sinek’s thinking to your own business to strengthen your story and forge a powerful, personal connection with your audience.

Here’s the thing: you could probably tell me the WHAT of your business without even thinking — what’s the thing you are doing, selling or providing; and what does it look like? Ditto for HOW you do what you do. These are the steps you take, the nitty-gritty details of your service or product, and how it all works together to give people something great or somehow make their lives better than they were before.

But your WHY…your WHY is the underlying belief, goal, or purpose that’s propelling you. If you’re in a mission-driven business, it’s the thing you feel so deeply that you can’t not follow it and, in many cases, orient your life around it as well as your business. It’s a part of your value system, your worldview. Your WHY is unique to you, yet it’s the very thing that enables you to connect deeply with your ideal customers and clients.

Alas, it’s not always as easy to find as it might seem. Hone in on your WHY, though, and the clarity it brings might just revolutionize not only your communications, but your own sense of purpose and alignment. Oh yes!

Most people answer the “Why” question with something like this: “I want to _________ (what you do or provide) for people, so that they can ___________ (feel better, be happier, safer, more fulfilled, etc).” And this is great. But….I want to challenge you to go deeper.

Why does this kind of service matter to people? Why does it matter to you?

Bring on the clarity!

Here’s a simple exercise that can pay off hugely in connecting with and articulating your WHY. Open up to a blank page in your notebook, and write at the top:


Now, finish the sentence at least five different ways (but make sure they all ring true for you!).  Write down everything comes to mind in the place where your deep core beliefs meet — and drive — what you want to do in your business. The goal here isn’t to write a mission statement or belief statement that you’re going to share with others; it’s to help you get yourself clear on the deepest roots of your WHY.

Here are some of the statements that I came up with when I first did this exercise:

I believe that design and communication can — and do — change the world.

I believe that life is about people more than things, and that our stories connect us, make us softer and stronger, and teach us how to see.

I believe that building a community that fosters connectedness, dialogue, inspiration, and good storytelling is some of the most valuable work I could give myself to.

I find myself going back to this list fairly often. It’s really helped me to clarify my own WHY, and it also helps me realign with my purpose when I'm entering a new season of business-building, or when I'm drowning in details and just need a reminder of what's really in my heart, and what I really want to give myself to.

Your turn! If you do this exercise, please leave a comment here and let me know what you came up with. Did it help clarify your WHY?

Here's the link to Simon's TED talk: