Shark Tank

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.

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


Pitching Subtlety as a Brand Signature

Buck Mason founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn are committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character.

Buck Mason founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn are committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character.

Only in the clothing world could a company turn neutral colors, homespun jeans and T-shirts into a brand differentiator.

Buck Mason is a brash startup all about bucking trends. It sells "classic heartland cool" men's clothes in neutral colors that no contemporary fashion magazine would feature. None of its clothing bears a visible Buck Mason logo. And Buck Mason devotes a lot of its website real estate to a visual explanation of how it makes its classic denim jeans and a mini-movie called "Homemade."

It is just offbeat enough to attract a lot of media attention, including a bit on "Shark Tank," where company co-founders Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn spurned an offer by Mr. Wonderful.

"We're committed to crafting clothing that outlives trends, weathers use and wears true-to-character," says Schnakenberg and Koehn. "The garments we design aren't meant to be different; they're simply meant to be perfect."

The Buck Mason website tells the story of making denim from century-old looms in North Carolina to construction of garments in an old-school clothing factory in Los Angeles. Made in America is more than a tagline. It is a brand definition.

The company shows its contemporaneity by selling its products in bundles for the fashion-challenged software engineer or the guy too lazy to shop for himself. You also can buy Buck Mason's limited wardrobe offerings of jeans, T-shirts, dress shirts, hats and belts a la carte.

Buck Mason is an interesting example of a company using marketing PR instead of advertising. It also appears to be an example of a company that created a story to animate its brand and provide content for marketing PR.

Buck Mason doesn't pitch fashion or value pricing.  It wins the day by promising a classy subtlety that will make a young man stand out in the crowd.

Exposing Your Boxers

Brian Alessi, a high school biology teacher, wants to change the face of boxer shorts — literally. But he will have to do it using the tried-and-true techniques of marketing PR because he lacks the budget or brand power to gain attention.

Alessi is off to a good start. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a full-page article in its Sunday edition about his "21st century" briefs, which include added layers for better absorption, a pocket for credit cards and a fly shifted one inch to the right. Alessi's quest to improve men's underwear was inspired by watching his dad, a dentist, walk around the house in just his boxers. His design has earned a U.S patent.

Named Ubatuba, after a Brazilian beach resort, Alessi's underwear solves problems vexing men for decades, or longer.  "The traditional fly-in-the-middle design is stupid," Alessi says, noting his off-center design prevents unintended "fall out." Extra fabric in the front, he adds, addresses a common problem experienced by any man "who ever wore khaki trousers." The credit card holder serves the same purpose as a woman's bra to hold valuables where a street thief might feel squeamish to look.

Alessi sunk his entire life savings into his underwear enterprise. Now his challenge is to get the word out about his hip boxers.

With limited cash, Alessi turned to contacting reporters and bloggers, asking them to give his briefs a try. Free-lancer Steve Rubenstein did, liked how they felt and wrote a story, which made its way to the Sunday Style section of the SF Chronicle. The full-page piece then earned online mentions on Twitter and Facebook.

However, Alessi may not be doing all he can to capitalize on his earned media exposure. His website is mostly an electronic brochure, lacking the sparkle and wit Rubenstein infused into his article. In fact, there isn't even an online newsroom to include articles such as Rubenstein's that could serve as lively testimonials to the benefits of his boxers.

Video is another obvious choice for a subject like underwear. Alessi has a YouTube video that lacks the pizzazz or humor viewers would expect from an underwear video. Even the lackluster video cannot be found on the Ubatuba website.