Story Time

20 Sepbranding

“What Makes Your Brand?”

I’ll bet you thought I left off a word or two.  It should be maybe: “What makes your brand special” or “What makes your brand relevant”.  Something esoteric that assumes you have a brand in the first place. And you most likely do.

Before we can talk about your external brand, though, we need to talk about your brand-brand. Who you are and what your company is, off the paper,  off the computer screen, just the bare-brand-bones.  If you’re down the road with this, think of it as a brand review. It’s worth a review anyway, now & then, to see if your vision for your brand, its mission, is still lining up with how you do business. This is also so important when you have a staff, that they understand the philosophy behind the business when doing work for you.

Brand isn’t just outwardly focused. It’s internal too. The things we’ll cover in this class are going to reach down deep and stir the pot to come up with some solid elements of what makes your story yours, and what makes it special . . . to you, and to the marketplace.

I can promise you that when you get through this chapter & do the homework, you will have a much deeper understanding and a much more solid base on which to build – or renew – your story.


There are many elements to a brand, all of them having equal weight in terms of making your business memorable to your audience.

To recap of all the elements that make up a basic brand we have to list the basics. We’re only going to talk about Story now, but this will give you a hint of where we’re headed.

  • Your Story.
  • Your Ethos.  Your what? Ethos. I’d love to start with that one, but we need to start with Your Story first. Ethos is scary without a story behind it.
  • Your Voice.
  • Your Vibe (also known as your ‘look and feel’).
  • Your U.S.P.

Close your eyes. (Okay don’t, because you’re reading.)

When I say ‘Columbia Sportswear’, what’s the first thing your mind’s eye sees? Possibly that cool knot icon, in cerulean blue, next to the word ‘Columbia’ in Cambria typeface. Or perhaps that old lady they use in the ads, who we all know is Gert Boyle, the mom at the helm of the brand.

How do we know this? That she’s the mom? Because the ads are memorable, yes, but many of us also know her story:  that she lost her husband suddenly and worked with her son to rescue the company from near bankruptcy (their vendors wouldn’t sell product to a woman, they were so sure she didn’t know what she was doing. And they were right.) but, rescued from bankruptcy to build a company whose gross revenues are now over a billion dollars a year. One Tough Mother indeed!

The back story however is not that she was widowed, but that she left Nazi Germany as a thirteen-year-old, with her parents, and spoke not one word of English when she arrived in the U.S.  She managed to go from the first to the seventh grade in two months, got that English down, and later attended the University of Arizona.  Being widowed while busy being a mom and a housewife – in other words having no head for business at the time – is just another example of a strong-willed, determined woman, which is where that ‘vibe’, that ‘One Tough Mother’ moniker came from.  The ad company didn’t make it up; they drew on it from a story.

Columbia’s mission, or ethos, is to make excellent sportswear for a market of vibrant, outdoorsy humans, and help them feel good (and comfortable) doing it.  Their mission statement is “try stuff”, and they do. Markets.  Products.  Sarcasm. The attitude is one of vibrancy, tenacity, some tongue-in-cheek humor, and good, hardy recreation.

So we see these elements, at Columbia: the story, the vibe and voice, the ethos and the attitude. Some would call that a mission statement, but it’s really an attitude.


So (& I love to ask this of people – I love a good behind-the-brand story ), what’s your story? What is it that planted a seed, got you started doing what it is you do? Was it a journey? Training from a grandpa or relative?  A first love?  A good book? A great teacher?  Are there images in your mind you remember; an excitement that bubbled up when you knew that THIS was what you were meant to do in this life? Or, on the flip side, did you see an opportunity to build a business for the sake of selling it later? That’s still a story.

I. Let’s pretend you’re a luthier. You know, someone who makes guitars, violins, stringed instruments. As a child you watched your grandpa make a violin, once, in his workshop that smelled of wood and sawdust, resin and lubricant. His hands on the wood, the control of the adze carving the wood just so, in a way that was kind to the wood. The way the light glowed on its varnished surface as it hung to dry. The tender, virgin melody of notes from its first bowing, down there in the dank workshop…

And then, years later, a chance opportunity to go to the symphony opened your eyes and ears to all those strings playing in concert with one another,  making a magic you just knew you had to be a part of.  And how you dropped your studies in accounting to take an internship with a luthier, and how angry and disappointed your father was. All of that.

II. It might not be so romantic. You may have seen an opportunity in the telecom field that, when invented, tested, patented and launched, provided mass numbers of people a way to communicate faster, easier, more simply, more relevant-ly than before, and you knew you just had to try it. It was a great risk and at times you thought you must be crazy to do it. But you did, and now you are wealthy, but more importantly (we hope), millions of people can connect & share. And your product made it happen.

Whatever your story, your worksheet gives you lots of room to write, draw, doodle, reminisce . . . do all of it. Take a mind trip & write it all down. I told you this was personal. It should be. It’s a story that is uniquely yours. And so is your brand.

“What does all this have to do with branding”, you may ask? Weren’t we going a design a logo? Craft a slogan?

It has everything to do with branding. This is the BASIS of the brand.
(Feel its beating heart. It becomes a living thing, here.)
All that comes after this is window dressing.

After your doodling, write down about 300 words that tell your story. Then, cut it in half and rewrite. And, cut it in half again. Then, trim it a bit more. This will be the refined story that you (& your employees) will tell in your shop, at a conference, in your collateral or bio. It’s not quite an elevator speech . . . it’s better than that . . . we know our audience doesn’t have all day to wax nostalgic with us, so we need to be concise.  That mission statement you need? Might just be hidden in there.

Stay tuned.

Story Worksheet download

Next week :: Your Ethos


Grace Studio designs brands, graphics, and websites for artisan businesses. See her story and other stuff here.