We love a good yarn — and it turns out, consumers do too. The popularity of brands telling their stories continues to grow and grow. It’s a win-win marketing strategy when you can give your audience engaging content and tell the story of your brand’s history, vision, values and goals.
The bar for good content marketing is certainly high these days, with some brands, like Mailchimp, expanding into podcasts and even streaming video series. But you don’t have to be a huge brand with a big budget to tell your story. We talked to brands large and small to see what they’re doing to connect with customers.
Read on to see how brands including Zendesk, Buffy, and Chanty are finding success in their approach to brand storytelling.
For content to really connect with customers, it needs to be authentic and true to what your brand is all about. We interviewed Suzanne Barnecut, Group Manager of Content Marketing at Zendesk to find out how her team takes on brand storytelling.
Suzanne is the editor of Zendesk’s multifaceted content venture, Relate, and spoke to us about creating content that’s people-focused, sales-free, research-based and, above all, authentic.
How do you strike a balance between being personable, maintaining brand voice and inspiring your target audience?
“Relate is focused on where technology meets the human experience. It’s our space to focus less on the tools and more on the people using technology to build better customer experiences and relationships. Our audience may be business leaders, but at the root of it, we’re all just people trying to be effective and more empathic with our teams and customers. So, in a way, our mission as a publication makes it easy to hew to our brand voice — which is that we’re trying to write toward human experiences in an honest, straightforward and personable way.”
Relate incorporates content, a podcast and an annual event. How do the three work together and relate to one another?
“The Relate subbrand has undergone a pretty significant transformation as we’ve grown as a company over the past 4-5 years. What began as a small, intimate event series and storytelling podcast grew into our annual flagship user conference and a customer experience podcast called Repeat Customer. The relationships are dynamic (as relationships naturally are), but the publication and event overlap to provide thought leadership and insight from our leaders and other experts in our space, to examine the wider trends that impact our customers, and to share content that reflects our brand values and point of view. And in all cases, we love to tell stories about the cool things our customers are doing, both with their customers and in the world.”
How does Relate complement the Zendesk product and website?
“The Relate publication is more focused on brand journalism and storytelling, so it’s a relatively sales-free zone. In that way, it functions as a nice complement to the product site and our more traditional corporate blog, which we call the Zendesk Library, where we publish more product- or operations-focused content and customer use cases.”
What research influences your content strategy? Is one source of data prioritized over another?
“We do always try and leverage our own data whenever possible. Our customers can opt-in to anonymously share data so that we can, in turn, share back industry benchmarks and trends with our customers. For example, we have been analyzing data from the Zendesk Benchmark to understand the impact of COVID-19 on customer experience and engagement.
Our content strategy is built around trying to provide useful content that addresses the questions or pain points that people actually have, and we believe that all our content should be informed by research — both our own and that of vetted experts and industry analysts — and by interviewing subject matter experts first-hand.”
How does your team measure success?
“We’re a data-driven marketing org, so we track our analytics pretty closely. Brand awareness efforts, like Relate, always have that hard-to-put-your-finger-on anecdotal value, but that can lead to tangible things like someone deciding to apply to your company over going somewhere else, for example. At large, though, we’re looking at some traditional consumption metrics — average monthly unique users, page views, organic growth — as well as some business metrics to understand our contribution to the pipeline (we have a multi-attribution model) and the opportunities we impact. This also helps us to know which content is resonating with our audience.”
What advice would you give to marketers trying to tell their brand story?
“Brand storytelling has to be authentic, so it’s never going to work to tell someone else’s story. Think about what your company is trying to do at its highest, most aspirational level. How and why did that journey begin — and where did it lead to next? Under that umbrella — whatever it is — there’s a wealth of stories waiting to be uncovered and brought to life.”
Start with a mission
Brand storytelling can make a brand bigger than just any one product. Buffy — a company that sells earth-friendly bedding and is on a mission to build sustainable business practices — benefited from starting with its mission first and its product development second.
We talked to Matt Breuer, Buffy’s VP of Marketing, and Blair Pfander, Buffy’s Creative Director, to see how doubling down on your mission can result in serious customer engagement.
Matt explained the company’s values-centered philosophy: “Buffy has been a mission-driven company from the start. We set out to create an earth-friendly, cruelty-free comforter and our product assortment has expanded pretty organically from that cornerstone idea. Our mission is to help our customers live comfortably without making the planet uncomfortable. The tough reality is that any company manufacturing new things today is by definition unsustainable; closing the loop on our supply chain by 2030 (an undertaking we’ve dubbed Closed Loop Comfort) is really the only way to show up for our values and take seriously our commitment to the planet.”
The brand shares its plan to achieve its mission openly — complete with a timeline and commitment to how the company will make itself even more earth-friendly.
Blair talked more about the impact of the brand’s environmental commitment: “We were thrilled by the level of engagement and excitement around our Closed Loop Comfort supply chain commitment back in April. It was the first time — at least in my memory — that we sent emails without any products on them — and customers were still opening, asking follow up questions, and reflecting deeply on the content. The world is a pretty scary place right now, and people have a lot of options when it comes to home goods and bedding, so the fact that they’re coming to us not only for marshmallow-soft comforters and sheets but for important conversations is meaningful to me.”
Buffy’s creative team turned to Instagram to develop a community around their focus on comfy, earth-friendly products with a notion they call “comfy content.” We were curious — how does the team come up with a steady stream of ideas?
According to Blair, “We find a lot of inspiration just from deep Googling and feed scrolling — artists we’re excited about, memes that make us laugh. The occasional 1970s gardening book scavenged on Etsy.”
The team meets once a month to chart a storytelling course both for product stories and culture stories. Blair continued, “It’s important to us that our community has a reason to return to the feed other than learning about what we make. Making sustainable education accessible and fun is something we’re dialing into more and more.”
We asked how the Buffy marketing team approaches keeping a consistent brand identity. Blair’s advice was to use your brand system as a starting point but then deliberately break the rules every once in a while. “We have a saying on the creative team: ‘Keep Buffy Weird.’ So just as often as we dial into our systems — scannable type hierarchy, saturated color, playful information design — we break it by adding an element that feels a little off, or even slightly surreal. The surreal factor is a critical differentiator for Buffy.”
Blair pointed to the brand’s “squishies” — videos showing hands mashing soft materials, like jello or brioche buns — as one example of Buffy’s weird, surreal and fun style.
Embrace (and review) the competition
Making your story stand out from the competition in a saturated market is one of the hardest parts of brand storytelling. Chanty, a team communication and collaboration software and Slack alternative, knows this all too well.
But the brand decided to embrace the confusion (and search volume) that comes with many products, multiple solutions and no clear answer on which to choose. Chanty built out comprehensive comparisons of other apps in their niche in the “Team Chat Wars” section of its blog.
We spoke to Jane Kovalkova, Chanty’s CMO, who told us the brand’s Team Chat Wars has built up their brand as the number-one resource for app comparison in their product category.
“This way, visitors come to our website not only to find out more about what we do, but to get an objective comparison of different team chat apps and how they help meet their needs. For example, we’re currently covering an article on Skype alternatives since we know that the topic gets quite a few searches, so we’re reviewing all of Skype’s competitors now. By reviewing, I mean actually testing them and writing down our experience.”
If you’re interested in doing product comparisons, Jane recommends preparing to put time and some money into it. “There are lots of ‘reviews’ out there by affiliate marketers that never even tried the products they review. Make sure to get some hands-on experience with the products you cover and do your best to give your personal impression. Of course, no opinion is objective (that's why it's an opinion), but people don't want to read facts — they want actual experiences with a product, from a real live human being.”
SEO is (still) king
For businesses with fewer resources and a smaller budget, going beyond your product keywords and embracing your industry to produce educational content around search terms can build your brand in an affordable and sustainable way.
Online Degree — a company that offers free introductory college courses — has built out huge research libraries providing information on careers in multiple industries, types of college degrees and universities in every state in the U.S.
The founder and CEO of Online Degree, Grant Aldrich, told us “Brand journalism goes beyond a corporate blog. It provides the latest news updates and informational trends in your industry. It's also a way to reinforce your mission and values to attract your target audience. In our case, we try to make higher education more accessible and affordable. Our goal is to help people find the best, most affordable educational resources with this kind of content. Not necessarily to drive people to use our services.“
Build community relationships
Natalya Bucuy, Content Marketing Writer at HelpSquad (a U.S.-based live chat service), takes an approach similar to Online Degree with her company’s B2B brand. “We believe that brand journalism that delivers useful content not only to current customers but to the small business community in general is an effective marketing strategy. Even if a piece of content doesn't immediately bring measurable results, such as converted leads and new customers, it helps build meaningful relationships with the community. That, in turn, builds a strong brand presence that contributes to a company's success in the long run.”
She pointed to an example of a recent post on Reddit her team created to drive discussion around behaviour psychology and the reasons behind procrastination that linked to a HelpSquad blog post that discussed the topic further. Reddit is notorious for being very picky about content quality and will sniff out any sales pitch, but this post hit mark with 99% upvotes and 73 comments.
Expert content can work in a variety of venues and help your brand increase its reach. It’s worth brainstorming where you can go outside of your own site and social media platforms to tell your brand’s story.
These inspiring strategies and brand story examples are proof that useful content with some outside-the-box thinking can lead to success. Your brand story, told consistently and creatively, could be just what your marketing plan needs. We’ve got some tips on how to get your whole organization on board for consistent storytelling: Check out our ebook The rise of the design democracy: How to maintain a consistent brand story.