How to Build a Brand Story: Lessons from Retail Branding Experts

How to Build a Brand Story: Lessons from Retail Branding Experts

How to build a brand story | Shopify Retail blogStorytelling is a buzzworthy term these days. Although its overuse might make you think it’s nebulous, or even obsolete, term, it’s actually a powerful tool for retailers.

Every retailer has a story to tell, whether it’s how they were founded, why they decided to enter this industry, or a passion project that turned into a lucrative business.

That story is important to more than just yourself. It resonates with your employees and with customers, cultivating a community of brand advocates who stand behind and support your story.

There’s science behind the power of storytelling, too. Our brains process not only stories, but the human emotions behind them. By understanding others’ thoughts and feelings, we’re able to empathize. This creates real emotional connections — connections that can turn into trust, and eventually, revenue. That’s why it’s crucial to learn how to build a brand story — one that’s unique to you and your company.

If you’ve never considered the story behind your brand before, we’ll walk you through why it’s so important and how you can tackle it yourself — along with examples of retailers with strong brand stories for a little inspiration.

How to Build a Brand Story: What Is It?

First, it’s important to understand what a brand story actually is — and how it goes far beyond your website or the story of how you were founded.

Your brand story represents who you are and what you stand for. It sets the stage for every interaction customers have with your brand, in-store and online.

“The brand story should define the purpose of the company to both the staff and the customer,” says Taylor Bennett, CEO of branding and marketing agency MESH®.

The Importance of Your Brand Story

How to build a brand story, Pastrami Bar | Shopify Retail blogAlexandrea Merrell, managing director of Orndee Omnimedia, a PR and brand development firm, stresses the importance of brand story. “[It’s] an essential part of modern marketing,” she says. “Not so long ago, consumers only cared about price and functionality.”

Today, consumers look beyond price tags and good deals.

Consumers wants to connect with a back story and ethos that appeals to their sense of self.

Merrell says: “A [retailer] needs to identify their target market and ensure they are creating and relaying a brand story that engages.”

“[A brand story] is the message that creates a powerful emotional connection between your company, customers, and the general public,” says Paula Conway, president of Astonish Media Group. “A good, strong brand message will resound creating consumer goodwill and draw more customers to a brand, sometimes customers that may otherwise not have tried the brand experience.”

Great brand stories allow smaller retailers to attract new customers, even without a big marketing budget.

“When done right, it creates a magical bond and develops a relationship past products,” Bennett says. “If the brand story is effective, it not only has an increase in sales, but also allows for the company to scale more quickly and with a culture that fosters the brand experience.”

“Effective branding will either convince a customer to buy from you or from your competition,” says Cassandra Rosen, branding expert and cofounder at FK Interactive, a brand development and public relations agency. “If they’ve never purchased from you before, branding and narrative is what will prompt them to take a chance on your brand.”

How to Build a Brand Story

Determine Your Why

When beginning your brand story, always start with the why behind what you do. For example, Nordstrom’s why is good customer service, and prAna’s is sustainability. Here are some questions to help you figure out your why:

  • Why do we exist?
  • How do we contribute to the world?
  • What is our mission?
  • What motivated me to start my business?

Think about the story around why your brand exists in the first place. “Take a step back and look for the purpose of [your brand] beyond products,” Bennett says.

When it comes to the first steps on how to build a brand story, he recommends recalling your passion for getting into your industry in the first place.

Your story doesn’t have to be groundbreaking.

Often the most compelling brand stories started when someone couldn’t find something and went out there to make it themselves,” says Merrell.

But understanding the why can be difficult, especially if you started your business purely to capture an opportunity to make money.

“People don’t buy so that you can make money,” Rosen says. “They’re looking for something to solve a problem they have, personally or professionally, or they’re seeking something to enrich their lives in some way. It’s your job as a retailer to figure out how to do this for them, and do it in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, and their decision, in the process.”

Still stumped? Merrell lays out an example for retailers that sell t-shirts. The brand story for a T-shirt retailer who wants to cash in on an online trend can be uninspiring, but you can inject a new brand story. Here’s Merrell’s suggested brand story for that t-shirt retailer:

“I wanted to do more to help my local no-kill cat shelter than just donate food. When I read that videos of cats doing funny or cute things were the most-viewed on YouTube, I decided to see if T-shirts featuring those same funny poses and sayings would also be popular. I posted five t-shirt designs to start and let people know that 20% of the proceeds would go directly to support the Topeka No-Kill Cat Shelter. People really responded. Now, at the end of every month, I put a tally on the website, showing how much money was donated, and I include lots of pictures of the cat shelter on my social media.”

That’s a story that will make consumers rally around your brand. “When people can see your passion, they want to be a part of it,” Merrell says.

Understand Your Product

How to build a brand story, know your product | Shopify Retail blogTo know your brand story, you must also understand how and where your product fits into it. A brand story that isn’t relatable to your product might drive an engaged fan base, but few sales.

Conway says that “lack of self-awareness in the product” is one of the biggest mistakes brands make when it comes to their story. “You don’t sell a Mercedes the same way you sell a Kia. They are both cars, but with different quality, performance, experience expectations, and price point.”

To figure out how your product fits into your brand story, Conway recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is the quality and price point of my product?
  • Does my product solve a problem, or should it make a consumer feel a certain way?
  • How is my product different from competitors’ products?

Merrell lays out another example:

“If you started your pasta sauce brand in your mom’s kitchen, using your grandma’s recipe and veggies straight from the garden, there’s a presumption that your sauce is natural, maybe even organic. But if today’s version is mass-produced, full of additives and chemicals, the disconnect between the backstory and the current reality will be an issue for consumers.”

For retailers who have made the above mistake, there’s still a chance for retribution. Take Chipotle’s Back to the Start commercial as inspiration. Even though they didn’t make the mistake of mass-produced food ingredients themselves, they still respond to the issue and make a strong stance for consumers to rally behind them.

Understand Your Audience

To understand how to build a brand story, you first need to know who you’re talking to. The third component to understand when beginning your brand story is to get to know your target audience. Knowing what their passions and pain points are can help you determine how your brand story fits into their lives.

Conway has another set of questions to ask yourself:

  • What is at stake if a consumer doesn’t buy my product?
  • Who is my current customer?
  • Who is my ideal customer?

Narrowing down to your ideal customer can be an intimidating prospect, but it’s essential to carving out a brand story that will resonate. Many retailers try to appeal to all customers, instead of speaking directly to their target.

FURTHER READING: Learn more about reaching your ideal customer with our post on effectively targeting your customer messages.

“In targeting ‘all,’ [retailers] get ‘few,’ because very few products are everything to everybody,” Conway says. “It’s okay to appeal to a broad demographic, but too broad can be a turnoff to some customers. Always be mindful of your product and who is a realistic, interested customer.”

“Don’t try to be everything to everyone” is a sentiment that Rosen echoes, who understands that smaller retailers without large customer bases can find identifying the ideal customer especially challenging. “If this sounds like you, start internally, making a list of values you stand for, and think about the types of customers those values and ideals might appeal to,” she suggests.

It’s not enough to simply understand and relate to your ideal customer. You have to prove your passion and be your brand story to make meaningful connections that will turn into sales.

“‘I want to be the biggest T-shirt manufacturer’ is not a goal that people support,” Merrell says. “Instead, try ‘I want to provide jobs for 500 people and help renovate and reinvigorate the community around our manufacturing facility.’ This is a goal that people can get behind and become a part of through purchasing your products.”

How to Build a Brand: Implementing Your Story

Creating your brand story is one thing, but implementing it across all areas of your retail business is a whole other task. Every interaction counts, and every interaction must bring your brand story to life.

“A brand only has a few moments, a matter of seconds, to communicate and make the sale,” Conway says. “If the brand cannot cleanly and clearly communicate its message and what it stands for in one sentence, or with one glance at a logo, it has failed conclusively.”

If the brand cannot cleanly and clearly communicate its message and what it stands for in one sentence, or with one glance at a logo, it has failed conclusively.

Be Consistent

How to build a brand story, Pastrami Bar | Shopify Retail blogWhen a message or a story is inconsistent, it becomes diluted and less impactful. That’s why the brand story must be communicated consistently, across all channels, to resonate with your target audience.

Some areas to think about include your employees, the design of your retail store (here are 8 ways to bring your brand identity to life and how a brand story can be told through immersive retail design), your social media marketing, your website, your logo — every interaction and representation of your brand.

But you also have to use those channels to live your brand story. “You have to show that your back story is relevant and that you are actively propelling that narrative,” Merrell says. “Through social media, consumers want to see that you’re living up to the original vision.”

Keep this in mind with product development, too. “Avoid creating multiple products with vastly different branding styles,” Rosen says. “Every element of your brand — from story narrative to visuals — should have a purpose. Your products should assist each other, not fight for attention or shelf space.”

Have an Authentic Brand Story

Consumers are smart and can sniff out a phony a mile away. That’s why it’s so important that your brand story authentically represents you, your brand, and your products.

Potential customers can read through poorly crafted advertising or sales copy in seconds, and it isn’t going to help your business make sales,” says Rosen.

“A lack of authenticity in branding usually comes from either not really knowing why you’re in business, not being able to explain it, or not clearly understanding the customer,” says Rosen. That’s why laying the groundwork first is so important.

Document Your Brand Story

With consistency and authenticity being such vital characteristics of your brand story, documenting it for your reference, and for your employees and customers, will help you be more successful.

Documenting your brand story and guidelines keeps your employees on the same page, and reduces the chance of the story being misrepresented or mistold. Since every component is essential to telling your story, down to the font of your storefront sign, documented guidelines serve as a reference to which every aspect of your business should align.

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“As a business owner, telling your story might come easily, but as you expand, staff must be trained to understand your brand too,” Rosen says. “Be sure they have a clear picture of your mission and vision for the business.”

The components of your documented brand story may vary, but here’s a rough guideline for what to include:

  • Beginning, middle, and end to your brand story
  • Logo, typography, and visual style guidelines
  • Brand voice and tone
  • Slogan
  • Mission and vision
  • Brand values

Documenting your brand story is also helpful if you’re outsourcing, especially as it relates to design and marketing. “Once the story is clear, get creative, using typography and color to communicate on your behalf,” Rosen says.

“If you’re not an experienced designer, find a partner that can create both an authentic brand story and visuals that show your brand essence, and ensure you look like something your customers will trust and value.”

Examples of Great Brand Stories

We asked our experts to share some examples they’ve worked on or seen of retailers with great brand stories. Here’s their round-up:

TOMS

Footwear and accessory retailer TOMS’s One for One mission donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.

Conway and Rosen both acknowledge TOMS’s commitment to social good. “You feel good about buying these shoes because you know you’re giving something to a child in need,” says Conway.

This also provides unique marketing opportunities, full of social proof. “User-generated content is central to the brand, with an enormous community of customer advocates,” says Conway. Customers want to share about the good they’re doing by purchasing a pair of shoes from TOMS.

“It wasn’t just about making money—it was about giving back,” says Rosen. “Combine that with a high-quality product, and consistent marketing to keep your story top of mind, and you’re well on your way to loyal fans and a strong brand.”

Burt’s Bees

Skincare retailer Burt’s Bees has a strong commitment to their mission and values, which are also published on their corporate website for all to see. “There’s also an entire section on the company website with a narrative on who [they] are and what they stand for,” says Conway.

Burt’s Bees has undoubtedly nailed the concept of documenting the brand identity, which is likely a large part of why it’s so ingrained in their company culture. Their commitment to all-natural, earth-friendly products is what their customers support.

DevaCurl

DevaCurl’s line of haircare products can be found at salons worldwide. The products are specially developed for women with curly hair—and that’s what their entire brand story hinges upon.

Visit their about page, and you’ll see a company timeline that describes the journey of women committed to finding ways to embrace and care for curls in a healthy way. Curl Ambassadors strengthen the brand story.

DevaCurl demonstrates a true understanding with their core target audience, and they’re not afraid to alienate customers who aren’t their ideal.

Coca-Cola

Coca Cola doesn’t have a strong social good or environmental mission, but they still have a brand story that resonates with their broad target market. “Coca Cola is not selling just carbonated sugar and water,” says Conway. “They’ve always been about happiness, friendship and fun.”

Coca Cola is committed to consistency. “They push [their] messaging consistently through all of their media, from Facebook to advertising campaigns,” says Conway. “The timeless designs, fonts, images, and color pantones are instantly recognizable.”

Lucas Candies

Conway worked firsthand with New Jersey-based craft chocolate marker Lucas Candies to develop a brand story that completely changed their business. A 100+ year history of Greek emigrants with traditional recipes, the chocolate shop’s story hadn’t yet been told.

An overhaul to the logo, product packaging, website, photography, messaging, and product descriptions conveyed the newly told story. “The result was national media, including the Today Show, CBS News, Cosmopolitan, and Forbes,” says Conway.

Moving Forward With Your Own Brand Story

Now that you have a better idea of how to build a brand story, it’s time to get started creating your own.

Which retailers have you seen with strong brand stories? What’s your brand story?

Photo of Alexandra Sheehan

About the Author

Alexandra Sheehan is a freelance writer/editor and content specialist. She’s worked with retailers ranging from Fortune 100 companies to Etsy shop owners, and is always looking for innovative ways to help her clients.

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