brand stories

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.


A Story about Public Relations and Advertising

With its latest TV commercial, Subaru shows storytelling and advertising can combine to deliver a powerful brand message in just 30 seconds.

With its latest TV commercial, Subaru shows storytelling and advertising can combine to deliver a powerful brand message in just 30 seconds.

Public relations and advertising are separate disciplines. Sometimes fiercely separate. It is fun to see the virtues of both come together to tell a brand story.

Subaru is airing a TV commercial for its Forester model titled, “A Life Story on the Line.” In a brief 30 seconds, the ad traces the life of a young couple through school, marriage, the birth of twins and a devasting traffic accident. The family survives and credits their Forester for “keeping their story going.”

The commercial conveys the Subaru brand promise in a nutshell or, more precisely, in a story line.

In previous years, Subaru storytelling ads talked about their vehicle’s durability through the eyes of a dad cleaning out memories from a car he is giving to his grown-up daughter. In a well-known series of ads, a dog family puts a Subaru through its paces in human terms from vacation traveling to a front-seat first kiss.

TV advertising earns its way by pushing messages in a visual envelope. But the creative instincts needed to produce an eye-catching 30-second spot are closely related to those employed by filmmakers to produce movies. They also are the stock and trade of public relations professionals. Storytelling may not work to announce a furniture sale, but Subaru used it effectively to promote the safety of its cars in flesh-and-blood terms.

Mac Schwerin, writing in Adweek, pans the use of storytelling in advertising. He says globalization has eviscerated brand stories, which tend to be tied to a specific place. Stories, Schwerin claims, are parochial and advertising needs to be global.

“Advertising is an objectively terrible format for storytelling,” he adds. “Commercials are not given enough breathing room to reward characterization, voice, humanity and a bunch of other nuanced literary stuff.”

Ana Gotter of Disruptive Advertising disagrees. “Stories communicate messages in highly specific and emotionally impactful ways,” Gotter says. “They’re memorable and give us something to identify with and hold on to. Statistics tell us what the reality is – stories tell us why it matters and why we need to care.”

Subaru has taken Gotter’s advice, not Schwerin’s, when producing TV ads. A simple, fast-paced narrative with a beginning, a moment of truth and a happy ending gives viewers a potent 30-second brand message: Subaru vehicles are safe.

The ad doesn’t try to lure you to a dealership with a discount or special promotion. It only tries to convince you that could save your family’s life by driving one of its cars. By anyone’s measure, that’s a powerful story – and an effective brand story.

The age of content marketing has achieved a lot, including bringing PR and advertising professionals closer together. The notion of paid advertising no longer is the exclusive territory of the Don Drapers and creatives who work on beanbag chairs. Paid advertising extends to storytelling in print, video, audio and social media formats.

Stories can sell, often better than confetti, screaming typefaces, overbearing announcers and unbelievable celebrity endorsers. Check out your own brand story and think about ways to share it with your customers and prospects.

Brand Stories Where Brand and Story Are Inseparable

The best brand stories are ones where the brand and the story are inseparable, like GoldieBlox, which makes construction toys for young girls to spark their interest in eventually becoming engineers.

The best brand stories are ones where the brand and the story are inseparable, like GoldieBlox, which makes construction toys for young girls to spark their interest in eventually becoming engineers.

Storytelling is in. Brand stories and storytelling are the vehicles of choice for content marketing. But not all stories are created equal.

One of the better brand stories is by GoldieBlox, which was launched in 2012 as a way to "introduce girls to  the joy of engineering at a young age.” Founder Debbie Sterling earned a degree in mechanical engineering and was struck by how few women studied to become engineers.

“Construction toys develop an early interest in science, technology, engineering and math,” the GoldieBlox website says. “But for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered boys toys. GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. We aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

The young company, which went from Kickstarter funding to a $1 million in orders in six weeks, features BloxTown on its website. This is a storytelling showplace. There are videos, apps, toys and “The Gang” – four young multiracial women who personify the goals of GoldieBlox. There is Goldie Blox (mechanical engineer and Ms. fixit), Ruby Rails (software engineer and dressmaker), Li Gravity (daredevil who calculates the physics of her stunts) and Valentina Voltz (gadget lover and musician). They even have their own compatible pets, like Nacho, Goldie’s basset hound sidekick who “eats, farts and drools.”

Products are placed on the web page as just another avenue to adventure.

GoldieBlox has a blog with frequently updated content, typically featuring women engineers and technologists, who are called #goldmodels. The blog invites stories from women with careers in scientific and engineering fields (“Engineers in the Wild”), as well as from young girls whose interest in those professions has been piqued.

GoldieBlox is an excellent example of a brand built around and fueled by a story. The story and the brand are inseparable. The GoldieBlox brand story works for several reasons:

  • The story about the brand is authentic
  • The story has human appeal
  • The product and the brand story are closely linked
  • There is a clear call to action.

Too many brand stories are forced or superficial. They come closer to brand hype than a brand story.

Like any other good story, a brand story needs to resonate with its audience, to touch as many of their senses as possible so people feel transported to where the story takes place. That place can be as close as the family living room where a young girl constructs her first whirligig.