Messaging and stories that build iconic brands

Published on
September 1, 2023
Amanda McDonald
Head of Strategy
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My whole life, I’ve loved Dolly Parton. 

It started when I was just a small child and would wake up to her music on a Saturday, ‘Coat of Many Colours’ heralding in the weekend.

Throughout my life, as I learned more about who Dolly is and what she stands for, I loved her more.

Her imagination library that provides free books to hundreds of thousands of kids who otherwise may never own one. 

Her commitment to bankrolling college tuition for all her Dollywood employees.

The number of students from schools that had trouble raising funds for the arts, who happily say Dolly Parton paid for their opportunity to perform.

Though already a big fan, as I built my career as a strategist and a writer, it has been the 3,000+ songs she has penned that have truly inspired me the most.

When it comes to writers, she’s all the way up there! 

With songs about eternal love, the pressures of work, abject poverty and bullying, she did something truly amazing — she told stories that resonated with people through different generations, cultures and from completely distinct lived experiences. 

The words she chose were poetic, but the stories she formed with them were truly powerful.

The fact is, as humans, we gravitate towards stories that we like and that we can relate to or that we are moved or inspired by. We hang on to every word, we remember them, we share them. 

When building brands, our stories, and the messages that support and complement them, can be absolutely integral to our success.

Stories are what can take a website, a video, an ad, and breathe life into it, turning it into something people align with, celebrate, feel familiar and at home with.

Introducing messaging 

A brand story is only one part of a suite or hierarchy of brand and product messaging that should all work together to make your brand compelling, meaningful and memorable. 

On the inside of your business, your messaging starts with your goals, your values, and the foundation trio: purpose, mission and vision.

Though these aren’t strictly ‘messages’, they will often be used that way internally. 

Essentially they are promises to yourself, and to your colleagues that you will aim to achieve certain outcomes in the business, you will behave as agreed while doing so, and you are doing all of that in a very specific way, so your business makes a mark on the world. 

On the outside of your business, facing your customers and prospects, your messaging (informed by internal promises and market and customer understanding) continues with your brand value proposition, brand pillars and service promises. 

Rounding it out, your product messaging — the USP, value proposition and proof points — elevates each and every product from something a consumer simply buys, to something they experience and receive multi-layered value from.

The inside messaging

While business goals can seem like quite a simple concept, often, when it comes to actually trying to write them, that simplicity is nowhere to be found. 

And yet, they are critical.

As a strategist, one of the first questions I always ask a new client is what their business’s objectives are — and I mean those old-school specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives. 

Why is that my first question?

Because without them, I can’t do anything. 

I can’t understand what the business is aiming for and how they plan to get there, so I can’t then set ‘SMART’ marketing objectives that guide their strategy and their action. 

Likewise, the rest of the business experiences the same paralysis. Without business objectives, sales objectives can’t be set, and operational plans are aimless other than an unspecific focus on ‘making things work’.

Your goals and objectives are the first North Star of the business, and the messages that guide every leader and every team within it. 

You can learn more about how to start writing business goals in our article, ‘Setting your sights on success: objectives for growth’.

Stemming from your goals, are your purpose, mission and vision.

Your purpose is your ‘why’. Why do you get up to do this every day? Why specifically this? What is it that is driving you and the rest of the business to keep going?

Usually, the why will be deeper than just — we want to make squillions and buy ourselves an island — because that applies to almost anyone in any business (perhaps other than charity). You need to go deeper — you have the skills to make technology solutions in any field, why this one? What is it about this space that needed a solution so desperately, and why were you compelled to solve it?

Your mission is your 'how' — what is it you do, who do you do it for and for what outcome? It’s almost like a quick summary of what you’re bringing to the whole world, in a nutshell. 

It should be concise, guiding and something, as a start-up or scale-up especially, you can go back to and ask, 'Are the decisions I'm making really still taking us down this path'? If the answer is no, are your decisions on track and really aligning with your mission... or has the mission itself changed?

Note that we do see this a lot in scale-ups at this stage. In the beginning, they often come in with a problem they want to solve — they've defined that problem simply, and similarly, they've simply defined where their solution fits in and how it solves the problem.

Usually, about 12 months in, they’ve learned a lot, and it’s time to evolve. They know more about their customer and their needs, they know the problem in a deeper, more intimate way, and they can better articulate the unique role they play in solving it. As such, the mission, and sometimes even the purpose, changes.

Don’t be afraid of that — your messaging should evolve as your understanding does. 

Lastly, your vision is your view into the future. It’s not a business goal as such, it’s so much more than that. A business goal is to make revenue of $1 million in year one — as a vision, that is neither big enough nor inspiring enough. 

Your vision is your invitation to time travel, to wind the clock forward several years and see how the world — and it might be the whole world or just a community — has changed because of what your business is doing. How is it better?

When you bring this trio together, you get something really powerful and special that should resonate with you, as a founder, and with every new hire you make. It’s the basis of a story — every day, we get up because we are driven intrinsically and doggedly to solve this problem, we do that by delivering this solution to these people in this way, and when we succeed, when we solve that problem, the world is undeniably changed.

I don’t think my excitement and passion are misplaced when I say that is some super amazing stuff! And when you first write that for your business or see it, you should want to work every day to make sure it’s true. 

Which brings us to values — how you work every day to make it true.

Success can be achieved in a lot of ways — some are the right, ethical ways that are values-driven, some are not.

We’re all aware of companies that are beacons of both approaches, and the outcomes they experience.

Your business’s values are derived from three main areas: from your business goals, from that trio of purpose, mission and vision, and from your people — the culture you have or that you want. 

Values will be a handful of short statements or even just single words that define how you behave as you go about making your vision a reality. 

In terms of how they relate to your goals, it’s about understanding what qualities the business needs to have to succeed. If your goals and objectives are ambitious, perhaps you'll have a sales culture within which motivation and competition are key values.

If your vision has an element of improving the lives of people, you will need values like integrity, because there’s no point improving lives while being shonky and crooked!

These three categories of internal messages — goals, the trio, and your values, are the internal promises that drive your business, and setting them up and evolving them should never be overlooked. 

The outside messaging

The outside messaging lives in understanding your customers and their needs — not just the obvious ones, but their deeper-level motivations, pain points and behaviours.

From a brand perspective, your value proposition, comprised of a simple line and a description, communicates to your target audience what you are really delivering. And while you might think that’s a piece of software or a cool home appliance, it’s so much more.

Your value proposition should define exactly that — the actual value you deliver.

Your product doesn’t just heat the air, it delivers comfort and focus. It doesn’t just optimise how the hospital runs, it relieves pressure and saves lives. Your device doesn’t just deliver legal advice, it delivers relief and confidence. 

Value is beyond 'what you see is what you get', it is more to do with the outcome you deliver and the feelings that go with it. 

Your brand pillars, on the other hand, are a mixture of both. As the name suggests, brand pillars really ‘hold up’ your brand and support it in every way. They are the four to six or so key messages that cover what you bring and why, from end to end. 

To create these, we ask ourselves, what does the customer really WANT in our solution, again tangible and intangible? 

They are short, clear messages that you will come back to every time you communicate — for every website, brochure, press interview. These are the essence of what you do! They serve as verbatim copy and as guidance when not used verbatim. 

Lastly, at your brand level, service messages or promises talk to the real specifics of how you will deliver and what customers can expect from you. They relate to the type of service customers will receive, how quickly, the quality, and the everyday experience. 

Beyond brand, as noted, you also have product messages; your unique selling point (really make sure it’s unique — it matters), your individual product value propositions, and the proof points that immediately give you credibility (hint numbers and stats are gold here). 

Together, this is the crux of everything you ever say externally, every message you ever send.

Except one.

The brand story 

This is where everything comes together and more. Not only does it convey value and vision, it shares intimate details of why you got started and why you strive to do what you do.

Like Dolly’s songs, it legitimately should be a story, and it should be relatable, moving, inspiring and also, importantly, it should be honest. 

We all know about the tech companies that started in garages, the charities inspired by real struggle, and the products that came about through sheer frustration and determined will to make things better.

Regardless of your product or service, your story is inspiring because building a business and solving a problem isn’t easy — that’s why not everyone does it. Putting yourself out there, putting everything on the line to create a solution when so many other people just wait for that solution, doing nothing themselves, is a story, it’s a saga… sometimes it’s even a movie (Apple TV's 'Air' or 'Tetris', or Open Road Film’s 'Jobs'). 

If you can’t tell, this article is a passion piece for me. I truly believe in the strength of words and in the power of a story to not just sell, but to build brands that become iconic.

Hopefully, having read it, you understand why. If not, if nothing else, my deepest hope is… that I’ve ignited something in you that turns you into a hardcore Dolly Parton fan!