Origin stories aren’t just for super heroes — companies can have them too. And they provide a strong foundation on which to build a brand.
Six years ago, I was in Los Angeles making a living as an actor and occasional screenwriter. I had worked in the entertainment industry for over a decade, and had loved it. I got to travel quite a bit, met some wonderful (and occasionally famous) people, and had a few wild adventures. But in 2008 I was starting to feel dissatisfied — the quality of the acting work I was doing had deteriorated, and the unpredictability of it was wearing me down.
I was also in the midst of an acrimonious dispute over a TV show I had co-created. A cable network had expressed interest in developing it, and at that point, the senior member of our writing team (who had shown minimal interest in the project before then) decided he wanted to cut me and the other partner out of the deal. The upshot was that the show never got picked up — we all lost out. I was jaded and tired of the vagaries of the entertainment business.
One bright point was that during the previous year I had started consulting for companies on their communications. I discovered I liked working with business owners, and that my storytelling experience was useful to companies wanting to get the word out about a product or service. So, I packed up my bags, returned to the UK and started a masters degree in digital media. A year later, I co-founded my company Tribus Creative (then known as Joy & Revolution).
Stories help you stand out
My early work with those LA companies showed me that stories are a key part of strong business communications, and since then, the term “brand storytelling” has become a bit of a buzzword. It is generally used in the context of big brand marketing (John Lewis’ recent TV commercials, for example), but it can also be an economical and effective way for the smaller business to reach new markets and build brand value. To cover it the full scope of Brand Storytelling would require a book, so in this article I’m going to focus on one small component — the beginning.
The truth is your business is likely to be just one in a huge pool of companies all doing or offering something similar. I’m sure you provide something that is different or better than your competitors, but to the uninitiated prospect trying to make a choice, there may be (on the surface at least) little to choose between you. So how do stand out in the marketplace? One way is to tell your origin story.
Superman & super brands
If you’re at all familiar with the modern crop of Hollywood blockbusters, or a fan of comic books, you’ll know of the origin story – it’s Superman being saved from planet Krypton and sent to Earth, it’s Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and transformed into Spiderman. My origin story opened this article. It’s not the full story of my life, it’s the story of why I do what I do, and how I came to do it. It helps me stand out in the market — how many brand communications guys had a career as an actor, writer and short filmmaker before going into marketing? Differentiation is one of the things that small businesses can struggle with, and crafting a compelling origin story can help tremendously.
The origin of giant companies like Apple or Amazon are now the stuff of business legend, but one of my favourites is that of Saddleback Leather. The first time I read the tale of how the owner came to create a company that produces handcrafted leather bags I was drawn in. I got a clear sense of the passion he had for his product, and the care and attention that went into each bag. It was engaging, and entertaining — it stood out and made Saddleback unique.
How do you start to tell your origin story?
So, where do you start if you want to tell your origin story? Well, if we look at comic book movies — almost any successful movie in fact — we can see a structure to guide you. Most successful screenplays adopt a three act structure – essentially beginning, middle and end – with each act being further broken down into a number of key events or “beats” that help propel the action forward. We can use some of the same structural principles in crafting your business origin story.
If you’ve seen the film Ironman you’ll know the story starts before Tony Stark dons the metal suit. We first see him, cocky and cavalier, with US troops in Afghanistan, then a few minutes later he is kidnapped by terrorists. In narrative writing this moment is known as the Inciting Incident — the event or decision that begins the story’s problem. From that point on, life will never be the same. For Tony stark it leads to the realisation that all his wealth and power couldn’t protect him from imprisonment, and it forces him to re-evaluate his life.
Find your inciting incident
To craft your business origin story you need to identify your own inciting incident. In my case it was really a combination of events — the failure of my TV project to get off the ground, my disappointment at the quality of acting work I was getting, and the realisation that I enjoyed working in the field of business communications. What would yours be? What event, or series of events, led to the realisation that something needed to change in your professional life? Perhaps you were frustrated with your lot, or maybe you identified a need and realised you were the one best placed to fulfil it?
In a well-structured screenplay, the inciting incident is followed soon after by the First Turning Point — the action the protagonist takes to solve the problem created by the inciting incident. In Ironman, Stark decides to use his engineering skills to create as armoured suit and repair his damaged heart. In my case, I decided to return to Britain, study a subject that would help me transition to a new communications career, and ultimately start my own business. How did you respond to your inciting incident? What did you decide to do? And why?
A solid foundation for your brand
Why you do what you do, and how you came to do it, may be similar to others, but never exactly the same. If you can identify your inciting incident and turning point, you will have the makings of your own origin story. You may not get to take down The Joker or Lex Luthor, but it will help you differentiate your business from those of your competitors, communicate your company’s values, and give you a solid foundation upon which to build your brand.
This post originally appeared on the HSBC small business Knowledge Centre website.