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Shark Tank Case Studies of Good (and Bad) Brand Stories

Shark Tank  is a great place to check out good (and bad) brand stories that show how a product works, what problem is solves and why it was created.

Shark Tank is a great place to check out good (and bad) brand stories that show how a product works, what problem is solves and why it was created.

Shark Tank affords entrepreneurs a high-profile opportunity to seek a business-building investment. The popular TV show also serves as a case study for telling a compelling brand story.

Entrepreneurs typically enter the “shark tank” by showing how their product works and describing the problem it solves. In conversation with the investor-sharks, entrepreneurs share their back story, relevant financial information and the channel where their product is sold. In other words, they tell their brand story.

Sometimes, the brand stories click. Other times, they flop. The best brand stories hang together – from brand promise to value proposition. The worst brand stories break down because they aren’t convincing or fall apart under questioning.

Too often the concept of brand story is conflated with slippery marketing goo. Brand stories focus on why a product is wonderful and neglect explaining why it’s useful. Brand stories should avoid turning products into heroes and concentrate instead on demonstrating how a product can make users heroes.

Like any engaging story, a brand story needs to strike a chord with its intended audience. On an episode of Shark Tank, three Clemson University entrepreneurs told how as beer drinkers they grew tired of lugging heavy ice chests to events, so they invented a sleek, lightweight container that fits perfectly around a six-pack. For extra appeal, they add an exterior with logos from universities or sports teams. Their brand story featured an affordable, reusable and customized cooler you carry with a shoulder strap. [Mark Cuban invested in the company.] 

On the same episode, two entrepreneurs displayed their patented door block, designed to thwart a forced entry. They demonstrated how it worked by repeatedly kicking and ramming a door without it flying open. Even though the demonstration was impressive, the entrepreneurs went away empty-handed because the sharks viewed the price-point as too high to attract a mass audience. This was a case study of a brand story that didn’t prove its value proposition.

Interestingly, the door-block entrepreneurs mentioned off-handedly a recent purchase order from a school district looking for an affordable way of securing vulnerable classrooms from intruders. This throwaway mention would have enriched their brand story much more than the exhaustive demonstration of how the door block works by showing an unanticipated, scalable use.

Back stories can be critical to brand stories by humanizing products and their inventors. Back stories can illuminate how an entrepreneur came up with his or her idea or what expertise they bring to their nascent business. We live in a time when consumers, especially young consumers, want to associate with a brand. Back stories are gateways to such associations.

Brand stories are important because they convey values, not just value propositions. The sharks frequently decide whether to invest in a new product based on the values of the entrepreneur. Consumers make a similar judgment.

Nike’s embrace of Colin Kaepernick and Patagonia’s longstanding commitment to public lands protection are examples of value-forward brand storytelling.

Authenticity is critical for a brand story to resonate. You cannot assume consumers are gullible. Treat consumers as an invited audience into your brand living room to share real information. In sharing, steer clear of hype, hyperbole and self-aggrandizement. Save that, if you must, for the 30-second TV ad. Best advice, leave your ego back at your garage or wherever your startup started.

Emotive content fits better in brand storytelling than almost any other marketing tool. Who hasn’t bought a pair of TOMS shoes because the for-profit company posing as a charity donates a pair to children in poor countries. TOMS has taken pains to flesh out its brand promise with 360-degree videos of its shoes being delivered to delighted children in Central America. It wouldn’t be surprising if some asylum-seeking families at the US border have children with well-worn TOMS shoes.

The best brand stories – like the ones that capture investments on Shark Tank – are fulsome. They don’t stop with the “what” of a product; they continue with the “why” and the “how.” Entrepreneurs need to be prepared to go deep. Websites allow layered storytelling that can accommodate more complex and complete stories. So can videos.

It goes without saying that brand storytelling on Shark Tank is visual. There aren’t any fact sheets, backgrounders or instruction manuals. It is an entrepreneur facing a skeptical audience waiting to be impressed. What the product does is important. How the entrepreneur explains what it does is more important. Did I mention videos?

Shark Tank, for better or worse, is ubiquitous on television, so tune in and check out visual brand storytelling at its best – and often at its worst. The winners are the ones with a clear demonstration of worth and an equally clear picture of value.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Sticking a Wet Nose into a Messy Issue

The Oregon Humane Society expanded its message from being humane to animals to being humane to humans in a classy, subtle advocacy advertising campaign that began at the height of vicious verbal attacks on immigrants and asylum-seekers during the end of the midterm election campaigns.

The Oregon Humane Society expanded its message from being humane to animals to being humane to humans in a classy, subtle advocacy advertising campaign that began at the height of vicious verbal attacks on immigrants and asylum-seekers during the end of the midterm election campaigns.

Debate will continue over whether businesses and nonprofits should stick their noses into public controversies. Perhaps the debate should be over whether they can avoid sticking their noses into public controversies and remain on the cutting edge.

Rating these entries into the public arena should rest on the skill by which they extend their noses, as a new campaign by the Oregon Humane Society demonstrates.

Titled “A More Humane Society,” a 60-second video asks viewers to “imagine a place where kindness and love prevail. A society in which all beings have a place, a purpose and a sense of belonging.”

The imagery is of dogs, cats and chickens, but the message is inescapably aimed at humans.

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The timing of the #bemorehumane campaign coincides with a midterm election campaign that featured vicious verbal attacks on immigrants and asylum-seekers. That wasn’t just a coincidence.

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The video leverages the organization’s name that contains the word “humane.” We associate the “Humane Society” with animals, but the video encourages looking beyond our companions to ourselves as humans.

Speaking metaphorically through animals is not new. St. Francis of Assissi once freed a rabbit from a trap, advised it to avoid traps in the future and shooed it away into the forest, only to have the rabbit jump on his lap. Francis is known even today as the Patron Saint of Animals for his expression of love to all creatures.

The Oregon Humane Society has taken the path less trodden before as with its award-winning “End Petlessness” campaign that traded in grim pictures of abused animals for fetching illustrations showing how great life can be with a four-legged friend.

The Oregon Humane Society has taken the path less trodden before as with its award-winning “End Petlessness” campaign that traded in grim pictures of abused animals for fetching illustrations showing how great life can be with a four-legged friend.

The Oregon Humane Society jumped into the middle of one of the nation’s most divisive issues with a subtly compelling video that attests there is no difference between “us” and “them,” no matter who “us” and “them” may be. Coincidentally, the OHS video includes a quick cameo of a rabbit.

The video goes well beyond the common calls for greater “civility” and points to the common ground of life itself. Our differences aren’t so different after all. We love our pets, regardless whether they have fur or feathers. Why can’t we love other humans, regardless of their skin color, religion or politics? 

Unlike the Nike ad featuring Colin Kapaernick that sparked outrage and social media posts of burning shows with a swoosh, the Oregon Humane Society has remained mostly under the radar. It attracted only 7,000 or so views on YouTube since being posted in late September.

However, the video is now attracting wider interest, and it should. The video is a classy example of advocacy advertising. It doesn’t stray from the organization’s purpose – or name. It places its ongoing work in larger relief. It calls people to action, not just to support humane treatment toward animals, but also toward all people.

Hats off to the Oregon Humane Society for sticking its wet nose into the issue of humanity.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Brand Stories: Pets with Cancer, Shoes from a Waffle Iron

A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

Consumers are bombarded by brands, but most remain faceless without a compelling brand story. For companies with a story, it is an opportunity missed to build brand interest and loyalty.

I was reminded of this over the holiday break when I saw a TV ad for Blue Buffalo pet food. The ad was mostly about Blue, a large-breed Airedale that battled cancer and inspired its owners and pals to pursue a pet food company using quality, natural ingredients. A longer version of Blue’s story is on the company’s website.

Blue Buffalo is a now a publicly traded company. The young boy who fell in love with Blue as a puppy is the CEO. The company markets its higher-end dog and cat food around the BLUE Life Protection Formula®.  Dogs are everywhere at corporate headquarters and are treated like family, which led to the company’s trademarked cutline, “Love them like family. Feed them like family.” There is a Blue Buffalo foundation to raise awareness of pet cancer.

The Blue brand story has authenticity, even if the brand has faced a couple of accidents on the rug in its history. Purina sued Blue Buffalo, claiming its ingredients didn’t live up to its brand promise (Blue Buffalo blamed the lapse on some of its suppliers). Some pet owners say the food gave their dogs diarrhea, forcing them to switch to another brand. Despite these blemishes, the Blue brand story continues to attract consumer interest.

Brand storytelling has been used by many other consumer-facing companies, including Nike, which traces its birth to Bill Bowerman’s waffle iron used to mold shoe soles and continues with Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog. Along the way, Nike has employed stories to make its brand more than just about running shoes. Equality is one of its recent brand stories and new apparel lines, which “celebrates differences and inspires change through the power of sport.”

One of the most iconic brand stories comes from Burt’s Bees, whose founders (an artist and a beekeeper) met through a hitchhiking encounter. Burt’s Bees sells natural care products with a side of activism, including efforts to restore areas where bees forage. Its videos underscore the company’s philosophy of treating our skins and our planet with care.

Minnetonka, which makes comfortable and affordable footwear, touts itself as a fourth-generation family-run business dedicated to hand craftsmanship and sustainable employment practices. Part of its brand storytelling is interspersing pictures of stars like Cameron Diaz and Kate Moss with user-supplied pictures of everyday people wearing their moccasins, sandals and boots. Content on its websitedescribes when and how some of its famous moccasins originated

Digital marketer Sujan Patel wrote a recent blog describing seven brands that he says are “killing it with brand-driven storytelling,” including Nike, Burt’s Bees and Minnetonka.

“Telling your story is a critical part of building your brand,” Patel writes. “It helps to shape how people view you and enables consumers to begin forging a connection with you and your company.”

The trick, he adds, is making sure the stories authentic, not fabricated. “Consumers aren’t stupid. If they think you’re fabricating stories and falsifying your brand they will find out. At some point, the truth will come out and the ‘brand’ you built will be in need of some serious damage control if it’s to survive.”

As Blue pet food demonstrates, you need to do more than tell your story. You need to walk your talk and keep faith with your brand story.

Do you have an untold brand story? Do you need help telling or showing your brand story? Share your brand story with us. Maybe we can help. In any case, we would love to hear your story.

Values Over Volume

Advertising can be faulted for failing to state a product's value proposition. But ads also can fail to speak to the hearts of consumers about values.

Digital media has created headaches for advertising executives. Content marketing has confounded them. But in some ways, the revolution in technology has released advertising from its own boundaries.

People don't "believe" advertising, so it makes little sense to pound away at your value proposition. Even Wal-Mart has shifted its advertising from a bouncing yellow ball knocking over price tags on its shelves to ads featuring customers "discovering" they can buy what they need at a lower cost than a competitor store. Same message, but very different context.

In a blog post published by ragan.com, Chad Cipoletti argues that sometimes it is better for advertising to sell values than products. He cites the 1988 Nike ad showing 80-year-old Walt Stack on his daily run. As he crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, Stack says, "I run 17 miles every morning. People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime. I leave them in my locker."