Back to the Basics, branding, storytelling

Build a Brand – Not a Business


The difference between a brand and a business is stark. Businesses sell products to consumers while brands interact with people and enter into relationships. In today’s heavily saturated markets, relevance and interaction are key to achieving loyalty and advocacy. People need something deeper than transactions and products to feel satisfied – that’s where a brand comes in.

Simply put, a brand is what your business represents in the collective mind of your customers. Think of the brand as the sensory system that transforms your lifeless, transactional business into a living-breathing organism, able to connect with the human psyche and elicit real, often irrational, emotions. These emotional cues become the symbolic currency that people actually trade when they transact with a business. Brands are built from common elements, including:


A brand has a higher purpose than the desire to sell goods or services to make a buck. A brand’s purpose is the human value of what your products and services provide. For example, if you’re a startup in the currently hot Robo-Advisor space, your purpose is not to sell clients stocks or mutual funds that outperform benchmarks, but to help your clients on the road to financial empowerment so they can lead more fulfilling lives. Purpose is often the way to achieve relevance in the mind of the customer.


A business with a brand understands who they are. A business with a great brand understands who they are not. Each of us is distinguishable from the other six billion people on earth through the individualities that make up our persona. Think of any brand (i.e. Apple) as a person – imagine what characteristics they’d have if you met them in Starbucks. Would you want to talk with them? What would you talk about? How would you represent yourself in their presence? These are the same questions prospective customers ask when choosing a company to do business with.


As customers and prospects develop a relationship with a brand over time, they also develop expectations. Customers’ expectations are formed through their experience with the company’s products, marketing communications, and level of customer service. The moment a company breaks consistency, people will feel abandoned and actually more disappointed than if the brand had never existed to begin with. Consistency allows a brand to develop meaning over time and gives customers familiarity in how they feel about their interactions with the brand.

These are just some of the important elements that separate a brand from a business. A lot of research, assessment, introspection, and honesty is necessary to make the transformation from a business to a brand. Many startups don’t have the resources, time or attention to dedicate to a comprehensive brand campaign. However, there is a step that any business, regardless of age or development, can take in order to begin the journey towards developing a real brand that customers will identify with: Brand Narrative.

I read an interesting story in INC. recently that talked about the importance of startups developing a company or brand story. This excerpt really struck a chord in me:

Indeed, many VCs think of themselves as investors in stories, and storytellers, every bit as much as investors in companies. “How well does the founder’s life explain what they’re doing at their company?” asks Scott Weiss, a general partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.

So, how do you get started? Simple. Ask yourself these three questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I doing this? Think long and hard about why you’ve dedicated countless hours, and sacrificed so much to bring your ideas to fruition. Much of it will come naturally. Once you have the answers, share them with your colleagues – with everyone for that matter – and develop the story until it starts to makes its way organically into everything you do, from communications all the way to sales. Eventually, your story will start telling itself, attracting listeners and customers and transforming your business into a what you need for success – a brand.


Your Brand Story Starts with Your “I Story”!


Over the years, I’ve given many talks to large audiences, explaining what my company does, or certain projects I’ve worked on – and typical butterflies aside – as long as I’m prepared, I find it relatively enjoyable. But I also recall a time when I was riding in an elevator and someone asked me what I did for a living, causing me to stumble over what seemed like such a simple question. It should be the opposite, right? Explaining what you do day-in and day-out in a low stakes environment should roll off the tongue with ease. But often times it doesn’t.

When you are a leader in a company, not being able to tell your “I Story” with conviction is bad for business. Depending on your role, your brand would not exist without you. It was birthed from your desires, passions, fortitude, and hard work. Your company is much more than an entity; it’s an extension and embodiment of an individual(s).

You may think as the owner of a Public Relations agency, that when you’re asked what you do, the correct response would be: “I own a PR agency that represents companies to the public.” Or perhaps: “I manage reputation for big brands.” Those answers would be fine if you are OK with being deposited in the collective bank of the thousands of other PR agencies that do just that.  And if you are, good luck paying the bills.

If you are not OK with mediocrity and you wish to rise above the dizzying fray of competition, then maybe your response would be similar to what I tell people I do: “I help brands and individuals tell stories that resonate and drive results.” Yes, I do PR, media relations, content marketing, social media, etc. But those are job functions and responsibilities. I’m not a robot driven to perform tasks until I shut down for the day. I am an individual with unique skills that is driven by purpose and passion, and the desire to help others.

Here are some keys to crafting a compelling “I Story”:

1. Dig Deep

Whether you are a company building widgets, or a person helping small businesses market themselves – why are you doing it? What drives you? Your skills should be secondary to why do you what you do. Show empathy, passion and emotion. What drives me is my passion for storytelling and the fulfilling feeling I get from helping people.

2. Prepare a Script

Write it down. The example I gave above is a personal statement, an abridged story of what I do. Make sure you are able to expound on your personal statement with as much conviction and meaning as the one-liner. Depending on what you do, your personal story will take a while to create.  Run it by people you trust until it’s in good shape and then practice, practice, practice!

3. Own It!

You’ll know you’ve nailed it when it doesn’t feel forced. When you say it out loud and it feels good to say it. It’s possible you’ve been toiling for years, caught in the day-to-day of your business and forgotten why you’ve invested so much time and energy into what you do. But when you deliver that meaningful “I Story” it will all come rushing back to you, reinvigorating you and making you feel proud.

People want to do business with passionate people, not emotionless entities. Do not get lost in the mix; your brand is only as strong as the individual(s) behind it!

So, what’s your “I Story” ?