5 Blazin’ Hot Steps for Telling, and Selling, Your Product’s Story

The labelswebsite and social media accounts all tell the same tale: “Rufus Teague made some sauce. He put some in a jar and shared it with the boys. They kept painin’ him ’til he fixed up another batch. Next thing he knew he’s makin’ sauce all the time. It’s damn good.”

Every day countless grocery shoppers across the country choose to buy Rufus Teague brand sauce, never having tasted it, instead of a more familiar (and cheaper) blend of ketchup-’n’-spices like Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce. Why would that be?

For most first-time buyers, the story of Rufus Teague and the label’s faded photo of the grizzled old man himself are emblematic of what good barbecue sauce should be. The imagery is too enticing to pass up, especially when compared to the generic offerings of multinational conglomerates. Here’s the thing, though. There never was a Rufus Teague—or at least not a Rufus Teague who made Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. The sauce boss is simply a creation of J&J Group LLC, a food company started in 2004 in Shawnee, Kan.

“[The concept] is a little something we came up with,” J&J founder John McCone told the Sacramento Bee last year. “[His portrait] is a couple of different pictures put together and modified. A buddy of mine and I came up with [Rufus Teague’s backstory], but it does have a bit of true meaning to it; we just kind of twisted it. I came up with all the recipes myself and we did [create the sauces] in a sauce pot….

“There are hundreds of barbecue sauces here in Kansas, and I thought, How am I going to compete with that? But it’s moving right along, and we’re doing better than I ever thought we would.”

No matter whether their industry is condiments or consulting, small businesses and solopreneurs attempting to battle the big boys must differentiate themselves. One of the smartest ways to do that is to represent yourself with unique content that is consistent across all channels. If you’re selling a product like barbecue sauce, for which quality is a matter of taste, it’s possible that a fictional background would work. But if you’re selling yourself or your service, honesty and authenticity are important.

According to experts in the field, storytelling is the heart of content marketing, which—with its many branches—is equal parts art and science. “I think it comes down to the personality of your business and what you want your business to represent,” says communications and marketing strategist Martin Waxman. “For solopreneurs or anyone who is out in front—the face of a small business, which will usually intersect with their personality—their personality becomes the business’s culture.”

Follow these steps to make your narrative one that people will want to believe in and buy.

1. Know who you are.

When millennial men’s fashion retailer Frank & Oak was launched in 2012, founders Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani had little more than a name, a URL and a few products to sell in their online store. Song, the company’s creative director and social strategist, says it took about three weeks to put together a branding strategy and a vision for written copy. Frank & Oak’s materials appeal to smart single guys especially, with imagery of sharp city dwellers and copy that can appeal to iconoclastic youths through phrases such as “challenging convention” and “transforming great ideas into movements.”

Although the plan has been honed over time, that initial step was a crucial foundation for the company that now boasts more than 1.5 million users and loads of venture capital backing.

“Most people, when they start writing content, they have absolutely no idea what they stand for,” Song says. “As a company, you should clearly define the values of your company and products, and what the people who work at your company stand for. And then create content based on that.”

Consistency is vital. The voice of your brand should be the same in the words on your website, at your physical location, on social media and in advertisements. A disconnect in your language and tone from one channel to the next will probably cause your brand to appear inauthentic.

“What is your personality?” Waxman asks. “You need to figure out whether you’re playful or joking. Are you informative or educational? If you’re too dry, people just aren’t interested. You probably want to educate but also entertain a little bit.”

2. Know your customer.

After you’ve identified the values of your company, it’s much easier to know the type of person who is likely to do business with you—someone with whom your values resonate.

“Once those values become understood by the people consuming your product, they will actually associate with it,” Song says. “And they will associate with other people who associate with it. And if you can do that, you start to build a community…. People can have a product or project similar to us, but they won’t be able to have the hearts of our community.”

The branding of Frank & Oak won’t appeal to nine out of 10 men, Song says. But it will connect on a deep level with the late-20s, early-30s guy living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “You may think, Oh, look at that hipster, but that’s perfect because that’s our guy,” Song says. “Because you stand for something, that one person who will connect with you will do it 10 times. That is more powerful at an early stage than having a shallow connection with more customers.”

3. Have no fear.

Not everyone is comfortable communicating in taglines or blog posts or on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t let doubts about your writing ability slow you down, though.

Take this page from Mark Twain’s playbook: “Write the way you talk,” says Jean Tang, the founder and chief copywriting strategist for MarketSmiths, a content agency headquartered in New York. “I can’t tell you how many times people will say, ‘When I’m doing a sales pitch, this is what I say to my prospects. But I don’t know how to write it.’ I’m like: ‘Write that!’ Or at least start with that, and then you can work backward and take a critical eye to it. I get that writing content is a bit like being a painter. You have to have a certain level of talent, practice and skill. But I definitely think people can take a crack at it. The important thing is not to psych yourself out. Just write. You know your stuff. So just write it in a way that will make a client want to engage with you.”

For older generations, the prospect of interacting with customers and building a company reputation through social media is particularly daunting. Try to start simple. When in person, ask your customers how they would be interested in hearing from you.

“Just say, ‘Hey, where do you find information and news? What do you like? Would you be interested in seeing stuff from us on Twitter?’” Waxman advises. “Chances are they’ll say yeah. Or they’ll tell you they’re never on Twitter, so it’s not worth your trouble. ‘But those email updates you do? Those are great.’ ”

If you’re still not comfortable putting words onto paper, Waxman suggests enlisting help. When you’re just starting out and money is tight, that probably means asking a word-nerd friend to edit your work or offering a modest scholarship to a marketing student who will help you on a volunteer basis. That experience might look good on the student’s résumé.

4. Even if you have a budget for outsourcing your copy, don’t neglect Steps 1–3.

So maybe you want to refresh an established company with a fancy new website. Maybe you want to hire a content marketing agency to manage your social media accounts. First make sure you’re picking a winner. As you decide, keep your values in mind and remember your target customer.

“You should definitely look at the copywriters’ work, the stuff they’ve done in the past that’s relevant not necessarily to the same industry you’re in, but to the same format,” Tang says. “If you’re hiring them to do an email campaign for you, look at their other email campaigns. If you’re hiring them to do a website, look at other websites they’ve done. If you’re a B2B company, look at the B2B websites they’ve done.”

And just as it’s important to be fearless when writing your own narrative, don’t be too hesitant to speak up if your outsourced content isn’t quite what you’re looking for. Constantly refer your out-of-house storytellers to your vision if they’re not delivering.

“That happens to everyone in copywriting,” Tang says. “For us, there have definitely been times when a client says, ‘This isn’t quite right. It’s off-brand.’ But they can’t describe why. So the clearer the picture your writers have of why things don’t work for you, the easier it will be to fix.”

5. Keep it moving.

Just as your company is always evolving, so should you be tinkering frequently with your content marketing approach to improve results. Tang suggests A/B testing to see what stories appeal to more of your customers, and Waxman advises that you constantly monitor your progress and make necessary changes as you go.

Be realistic. “After six or eight months of doing the same thing, if you’re stagnant, you have to ask yourself if what you’re saying is resonating with people,” Waxman says.

All the while, realize that you’re probably never going to produce perfect stories and content that last a lifetime. Although your values may be timeless and the stories you tell are classic, the work never stops.

Ol’ Rufus could tell you that. 

Don’t know what your story is or want to refresh the narrative? Check out 4 ideas on how to uncover great storytelling material.

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Josh Ellis

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