3 ways to power your start-up with storytelling

by Youri Sawerschel , 30 May 2016

If you read my earlier post on start-up branding, you are now (hopefully) convinced about the importance of branding a start-up early. But how do you do get your brand message across in a digitally crowded world with limited time and budgets? In short, storytelling. Consider the two storylines below:

  • A financial app just raised $20 million.
  • Fired after the crisis, an ex-analyst just raised $20 million for his financial app.

Which one catches your attention? Which one is more memorable? Number two, right? That’s the power of storytelling. By giving your start-up context, storytelling broadens the focus from ‘what you do’ to ‘who you are’ and ‘how and why you do it’. This is called creating relevance.

While there are millions of different stories, many of them use similar narratives or plots (according to Christopher Booker, there are seven). Below are three classic brand story narratives with a proven track record for start-ups.

The Brand vs. Goliath narrative

This is definitely a classic story plot, but it’s extremely effective. In the Brand vs. Goliath plot, you need to openly position your start-up against industry leaders. Make sure you criticize, denounce or make fun of your renowned competitors to make your point.

Consider Transferwise, a money transfer service, whose entire launch campaign centred on exposing big banks’ hidden fees. To convey its message, Transferwise even organised a flash mob with naked people and the tagline ‘nothing to hide’. In the hospitality sector, CitizenM, a mid-scale hotel company, regularly makes fun of giant corporate brands, such as Hilton Hotels, in its poster campaign.

Citizen M Marketing Campaign

The founder’s dream narrative

Entrepreneurship is a dream for many but a reality for few. The fact that people give up their jobs or drop out of school to take risks and follow their hearts is a story worth telling on its own. From Michael Dell to Mark Zuckerberg, the list of entrepreneurs who gave up a safe career path is long.

But the founder’s dream plot is not just for Fortune 500 companies. Read the story of Martin Schgaguler, who quit his job at a top Swiss university to follow his passion for floral design. The result? Panamy, a gorgeous-looking rose-delivery service based in Geneva. Or, check out the story of John Voigtmann, who gave up a career as a music executive in New York to open a small townhouse in Tuscany.

The secret venture narrative

Bede Jarrett said, ‘The mysterious is always attractive’. This couldn’t be more true for start-ups. In the secret venture plot, you need to share just enough information to trigger interest but never give the full picture. Think about a movie teaser but for an entire company.

Consider Magic Leap, an augmented reality start-up, or Faraday Future, an electric car start-up. Both of them wrap their activity in a layer of mystery. Faraday Future, for example, has poached dozens of car executives from luxury car companies, and it recently announced a $1 billion factory in Nevada—but nobody knows what car they intend to produce.

Choosing a storytelling strategy is a delicate exercise. If your competitors don’t enjoy a great public opinion, for example, a Brand vs. Goliath plot might be the way to go. If your start-up has the potential to disrupt an industry (and you are sure of it), the secret venture plot can be a good pick.

These are just examples of narratives you can use to make your start-up more attractive and trigger interest. Have you used one of these strategies? Do you know of another one? Send me a tweet at @YouriSawerschel to get the conversation started.

Picture credits: Faraday Future, hospitalitynet.org