I’ve been working with many new clients and prospects in the past few months, and one of the common things that keeps coming up is the lack of a strong brand story. Many small business owners have not taken the time to craft a compelling story, a unique hook, or a remarkable “it” factor to set them apart and make them stand above the competition. Prospects will ask for a website – which is merely a tool – without fully considering the story or content that will make this tool attract, impact and engage their customer. A truly successful website needs to include a combination of concepts, words, ideas, and an interesting story behind the product, service or company.

Finding Your Hook

The key to finding your hook is focused reflection. Take a hard look at your business and determine what makes your product or service worthy of discussion. The easiest way to determine this is to monitor the feedback from your audience. What things come up repeatedly? Why do people say they enjoy patronizing your business? What are they saying about your business in emails, blog comments or social media channels?

Here are some examples that have come up recently in my consulting, which may inspire you to find the hook in your own business:

Community – There’s a local retailer who has a unique problem: They already have all the customers they need! In fact, most of the year, they are operating over their capacity. So the question is, what marketing solutions will serve them if they’re not trying to attract more customers? In their case, they would like to alter their overall brand perception. After digging deeper, I learned that this organization spends 10x more on community donations and sponsorships than they do on advertising. They also work with local farmers and promote all things organic, fair trade and sustainable. However, nobody knows about these things because they do it all pretty quietly. Sure, there’s a certain nobility to anonymous do-gooders, but hey, if you don’t blow your own horn, there’s no music! The solution here is to tell the Community Story with integrity and disseminate it through various channels, which will shift the perception in the minds of their audience.

Fantasy – A prospect contacted me recently for a website project. Her company reclaims and refurbishes home decor items producing pieces that have a well-traveled, vintage look. So far, her online marketing efforts have consisted of uploading photos to Facebook with no description, no titles and no names. While these pieces are indeed beautiful, they don’t quite speak for themselves. With a product like this, a little fantasy would go a long way. Personify the pieces, give them a past, share their history, share their story. Of course, the best example of this is the J. Petermann catalog, which takes brand storytelling to penultimate levels. Make your customers fall in love with the rich, fantastical history of these products, so they want to bring them into their own homes to continue the journey.

Personality – I’m working with a designer who creates user interfaces for mobile and web apps. He’s building an online portfolio of his work and, while his design skills are fantastic, his writing style is very cut and dry. He’s hired me to help him inject some personality into his brand. Sometimes it’s important to create a voice that actually sounds like the owner, leader of figurehead of the business, and sometimes it’s okay to create a unique “character” or personality that stands on its own. We’ve chosen to do the latter and create an irreverent, distinctive brand voice so his prospects, clients and web visitors will enjoy spending time on his site and want to work with him.

Human Interest – When it comes to storytelling, nothing can pique the attention of your audience like a good human interest story. One of my clients runs a retail store that sells hand-made products from over 100 artists and artisans. She is sitting on a treasure trove of stories! These can not only be woven into the marketing message but can also be crafted as content to disseminate throughout the year using various marketing tools. The idea of small batch, hand-made boutique items is very popular with a large segment of our population and offers a great counter-story to the mass market, low-quality discount items that the big box retailers are shilling.

History – Some businesses weave a rich tapestry of history into their marketing. In these uncertain times, it’s both impressive and reassuring to know that some companies have weathered the many ups and downs of the economy. If your company has experienced such longevity, incorporating it into your brand story is a great way to engender trust within the minds of your audience.

Unique Idea – This is pretty rare, but sometimes a company will bring a product or service to market that is so innovative, different or unique, that IT becomes the story! Here’s one example of such a story: Co-founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, steps away from his day job to launch credit card processing platform that turns your iPhone, Android, or iPad into a point-of-sale merchant account. The company is called Square, and while the story is intriguing, it’s the product that blows me away. It’s portable, easy, convenient and I’ve been raving about it to everyone I know who might benefit from being able to accept credit cards. You know you’ve got a great story when your audience shares it of their own accord.

Get Your Story Straight

Once you’ve got a grasp of what makes your business special, it’s time to zero in on your Big Idea. When determining the unique brand story you want to tell, you need to make sure everyone in the organization is on the same page. There may be differing opinions as to what your company’s main talking points should be. It’s essential to work together so everyone feels connected to the message. If you don’t get your story straight, it will not be told properly or consistently resulting in a muddled brand that’s ineffective in connecting with your audience.

Now’s a good time to add that your story needs to be authentic. Nothing kills brand perception quicker than building your story on a lie. When that lie is discovered – and it will be – your company will crumble like a deck of cards. This happened to health-food brand Kashi last year when it was discovered that the cereals they marketed as organic contained high levels of GMO ingredients. This caused a scandal that eroded consumer trust, which resulted in a decline in brand value. So make sure your brand story is not merely a fairy tale.

Spread the Word

Now that you’ve agreed on the unique story your company has to share, it’s time to determine the tools you will use to spread it. Ideally, you will implement the channels you are already utilizing, however, it may be necessary to adopt some new communication channels if they will improve your ability to spread the word.

Company Blog – Obviously, your own online properties are the best place to start telling a better brand story. If you keep a company blog, try to determine how your story can be parlayed into multiple articles revolving around the essential talking points of your topic. For my client mentioned above in the Human Interest section, it would be both easy and powerful to create blog posts around the people and products that are featured in the boutique. For the application designer, creating blog posts featuring case studies about the individual design projects would offer an opportunity to further flesh out the personality of the brand voice.

Website – If you don’t maintain a blog, tell your story on your company website. Make sure your brand story is told through more than just words. Think about how your story can be communicated though images, colors, video and overall feel of the site. Give your story prominent real estate, whether that’s on the home page, or the About Our Company widget or page.

Social Media – Many brands have enjoyed incredible success recently by telling visual stories via hot photo-based social sites Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram. When it comes to video, you can’t beat YouTube as a robust hosting and sharing platform. Of course, Facebook and Twitter can be utilized to great effect as well, and all of these platforms allow brands to apply the power of storytelling to attract, engage and connect with their audience.

Press Releases – Put the power of the press to work for your business by submitting frequent press releases communicating newsworthy activities your company is involved in. This will be especially effective if your brand story revolves around the community benefit or human interest topics mentioned above. Even if the main focus of your release isn’t about your brand story, you can still summarize your story in the boilerplate section of the release.

Packaging – I drink protein shakes on a daily basis and use frozen fruit from Willamette Farms. Right on the back of the package, they have a section called, “Our Story,” which starts off like this: “Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, glorious sunshine, billowing clouds and misty rain combine with deep, rich soil for growing the most incredible berries in the world.” It goes on from there to paint a glorious picture about the farmers working together to grow, pick and freeze the fruit with loving care. As a consumer, reading this story makes me feel connected to the origin of the product more than I would if I grabbed a bag of Dole frozen blueberries.

Word of Mouth – As the Square example above proves, if your story is unique, remarkable and simple enough, your customers will spread it for you, resulting in the best kind of advertising: Word of mouth. Personally, I am a tough consumer who looks for excellence at every turn. When I discover it – which isn’t often – I’m more than happy to share my discovery. I know there are many more consumers like me out there. More often than not, however, I’m underwhelmed by the efforts companies are making when it comes to enchanting their audience with a unique brand story.

Storytelling is a powerful technique that has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years. When done well, it has the ability to differentiate your company and its offering, earn the attention and interest of your target audience and build a loyalty between you and your customers. Taking the time to craft a compelling brand story and communicate it to your target audience through a variety of channels will help ensure that your small business lives happily ever after.