Every retail entrepreneur has a story to tell, whether it’s how they founded their company, why they decided to enter this industry, or how they turned a passion project into a lucrative business. These narratives weave together into a brand story.
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 it.
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 that can turn into trust, and eventually, revenue. That’s why it’s crucial to learn how to build a brand story 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. We’ll also share examples of retailers with strong brand stories for a little inspiration.
Table of Contents
What is a brand story?
A brand story is a compelling narrative of how and why your brand acts in the way that it does. It tells the tale of your company’s origins, values, goals, and mission.
This story 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.
The importance of telling a brand story
Brand storytelling helps you connect with customers, foster loyalty and trust, and set your business apart from the competition, which can result in more revenue.
Connecting with customers
Alexandrea 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 want 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 create resounding consumer goodwill and draw more customers to a brand, sometimes customers that may otherwise not have tried the brand experience.”
Building trust and loyalty
Great brand stories allow smaller retailers to attract new customers and keep them coming back for more, even without a big marketing budget.
“When done right, it creates a magical bond and develops a relationship [beyond] 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.”
Differentiating your brand
“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 tell your brand story
Now that you understand why telling your brand story is so important, here’s the scoop on how to tell the narrative around your business. You’ll need to determine your why, understand your product and audience, highlight human stories, and keep your message concise.
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; 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 do we value?
- 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.
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As one of the first steps in building a brand story, he recommends recalling your passion for entering your industry. 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.
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Understand your product
To 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 restitution. Take Chipotle’s Back to the Start commercial as inspiration. Even though they didn’t make the mistake of using 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 build a successful brand story, you 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.
“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, understanding 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.”
Keep it concise and clear
Chances are, you know someone who is bad at telling stories. Instead of getting to the point, they tell you things that distract from it, like what time their alarm went off that day or how many eggs they had for breakfast.
Sometimes, the stories we are closest to are the most difficult to tell. Why? Because we can get wrapped up in details we think are important, but that may actually weaken our central message.
After creating the first draft of your brand story, you must reduce and refine it. Think of yourself as a sculptor starting with a shapeless piece of marble. The more you remove, the more defined—and memorable—the final result.
It can be helpful to share your brand story with someone who hasn’t heard it before. They can point out parts that are confusing because you’ve provided too much information, or not enough.
Highlight human stories
People connect with people, not products or companies. To create a compelling origin story that builds brand loyalty, tell human stories, instead of putting the spotlight on products.
The hero’s journey is a popular storytelling structure inspired by mythology that highlights the challenges the protagonist faces before they achieve their goal. Use the hero’s journey as a template while you form your brand story.
In its simplest form, the hero’s journey includes:
The protagonist is living their ordinary life and encounters a call for adventure.
Your turning point could be encountering the problem you wanted to solve that inspired you to start your business.
EXAMPLE: Blake Mycoskie, founder of shoe brand TOMS, visited Argentina and encountered kids who were too poor to own shoes.
The hero embarks on their journey to solve this problem, and runs into obstacles.
Explain the challenges you faced while trying to solve your goals: sleeping on friends’ couches, delays in your store’s opening, discrimination, etc.
EXAMPLE: Inspired by an espadrille-like shoe commonly worn in Argentina, Mycoskie designed the first pair of TOMS shoes and began selling them around the world. For every pair purchased, he committed to donating a pair to a child in a developing country. TOMS received criticism for serving as a band-aid on the problem of poverty, rather than supporting a long-term solution.
The hero achieves their goal and returns from their mission, transformed.
Share the results of your journey. Did you succeed in launching your business? How has it affected you personally? What effect has it had on your customers and the community?
EXAMPLE: Despite the controversy, TOMS successfully pioneered a new social entrepreneurship business model called One for One that many other businesses have since followed. The company has donated nearly 100 million pairs of shoes since its founding.
Tips for building a brand 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.”
When 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.”
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 either from 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 is so important.
Document your brand story
Documenting your brand story for your reference, and for your employees and customers, will help you tell it more successfully.
Recording your brand story and creating brand 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.
“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 brand guidelines may vary, but here’s a rough list of what to include:
- Beginning, middle, and end of your brand story
- Logo, typography, and visual style guidelines
- Brand voice and tone
- Mission and vision
- Brand values
If you need inspiration, take a look at Shopify’s brand guidelines.
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 who 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.”
They say that people don’t remember what you say, but they remember how you made them feel. As with most cliches, there’s truth behind this sentiment. Emotion is proven to enhance memories, making it easier for us to remember stories or experiences that made us feel a certain way.
Customers may not remember every detail of your brand story, such as when you came up with the idea, or where your first shop was located. However, they’ll remember how they felt when they heard your story. So, tell your brand story in a way that sparks an emotional response. Make people feel something: inspired, empowered, or even enraged and driven to action.
According to research published by the International Society for Research on Emotion, negative emotions are more strongly linked to recall than positive emotions.
What does this mean for your brand story? Don’t be afraid to include the bad as well as the good. Share the failed attempts you made and criticism you received. These painful memories will stick with consumers.
Consider your storytelling medium
Crafting an effective brand story isn’t just about coming up with a narrative. How you deliver your message is just as important, so consider the media you’ll use to tell your tale.
Think outside the box. Of course you’ll share your brand story on your website through text and maybe video, but how will you convey it in your shop? Consider commissioning an artist to paint a mural that tells your origin story, or play a video on a loop that walks customers through your journey.
Don’t forget to include your brand story on your products’ labels and packaging. Take inspiration from shoe brand Sam Edelman. Each shoebox comes with a booklet that explains the brand’s founding and mission, as told through an illustrated conversation between Sam and his wife and muse, Libby. The result is a brand story that sticks with you, and is too beautiful to throw away.
Here’s a checklist of storytelling formats you may want to use:
- Brand website
- Brick-and-mortar shop
- Product labels
- Retail and shipping packaging
- Social media
- Email and print newsletter
- Press coverage: print media, TV coverage, podcast features
Empower others to tell your story
While you may have lived your story, that doesn’t mean you’re the only one who can tell it. Your employees and customers are powerful advocates for your brand, and can therefore be great storytellers.
Train new employees to memorize the brand story so they can share it with customers. You can even use your story as a hiring tool. In interviews, ask candidates how it resonates with them. Are there shared values and passions? When you find employees who connect with your narrative, you build a team of effective storytellers who will fit well into the company culture.
Customers are your biggest advocates. Encourage them to share their brand story: their experience with your company and its products. Capture their storytelling through social media, online reviews, and other forms of testimonials. Leverage this user-generated content to create compelling, authentic marketing campaigns.
7 Inspiring brand story examples
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:
As you know, footwear and accessory brand TOMS’ One for One mission donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.
Conway and Rosen both acknowledge TOMS’ 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.”
2. Burt’s Bees
Skincare brand Burt’s Bees has a strong commitment to their mission and values, which are also available on their website for all to see.
“There’s 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’s haircare line can be found at salons all over the world. These 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 of their core target audience, and they’re not afraid to alienate customers who aren’t their ideal.
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.”
5. Lucas Candies
Conway worked firsthand with New Jersey-based craft chocolate marker Lucas Candies to develop a brand story that completely changed the 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.
In the 1970s, a 20-something-year-old Atlanta public school teacher named Paula Wallace dreamed of creating a university that would launch creative careers. She convinced her parents to sell their home, move to the then rundown town of Savannah, purchase a crumbling historic building, and establish a college. Almost 50 years after its founding, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is one of the top art schools in the United States and the world.
Unlike most universities, which were founded hundreds of years ago by someone who has long since passed and lived a life most people wouldn’t be able to relate to today, SCAD and its brand story are relevant to now.
SCAD’s brand story is that of a woman from humble beginnings who sets out to change the world through art, and makes a big impact. It’s a classic example of the hero’s journey, which is why it resonates with people and needs to be told. It’s also a fantastic case study for how to leverage media that complements your brand to tell its story.
So, how does SCAD tell its brand story? In a way that only an art school can: through an immersive, 4D walk-through experience that rivals anything you’ll find at Disney World. SCAD Story takes visitors through several rooms, in which an animated version of founder Paula Wallace explains how she founded the university.
To those unfamiliar with Zappos, the company seems like an online shoe store. According to Zappos, however, they are first and foremost a “service company that just happens to sell… nifty shoes, clothing, accessories and whatnot.”
Former CEO Tony Hsieh told Harvard Business Review, “we receive thousands of phone calls and e-mails every day, and we view each one as an opportunity to build the Zappos brand into being about the very best customer service.”
This strategy has paid off big time by turning customers into ambassadors for the brand.
“Our philosophy has been that most of the money we might ordinarily have spent on advertising should be invested in customer service, so that our customers will do the marketing for us through word of mouth,” Hsieh said.
Zappos demonstrates that your brand story doesn’t have to focus on the origin of your company. Instead, it can change over time to express what your brand has evolved to stand for.
Start telling your unique brand story
Crafting your brand story is an exercise that should be taken seriously. After all, this narrative can help you connect with customers, stand out from the competition, and build trust and loyalty. Why are these things important? Because they help you turn first-time customers into lucrative brand loyalists for life.
This post was originally written by Alexandra Sheehan and has been updated by Ana Cvetkovic.
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