In the late 1960’s, coach Bill Bowerman decided his world-class track team needed lighter and more durable shoes than were available, so he decided to create his own. One day, while experimenting with different soles for the sneakers, he poured rubber into his family’s waffle iron. Thus was born Nike’s legendary “waffle sole.” Since, running shoes have never been the same—and neither have the waffles in the Bowerman household.
Now that you’ve heard this story, chances are you will never forget the 6.7 billion dollar company’s origins. But can the same be said for the last presentation of graphs and bad clip art you had to sit through? Not so much.
That’s because while there is nothing particularly fascinating about a pie chart, the image of a guy holed up in his garage using breakfast-making appliances to make sneakers is fun. And equally important is how the story subtly conveys Nike’s crucial messaging.
After all, it’s not just any guy that created the waffle sole—it’s the coach for a world class track team. The takeaway? Nike knows what it takes to make the best footwear for athletes. The founder didn’t just hire some manufacturing company to make his shoes. He crafted them by himself, on his own time, in his garage. The takeaway? Nike goes the extra distance for their athletes. The founder also didn’t check out what other shoe manufacturers were doing and then improve on them. He did something seemingly crazy. The takeaway: Nike is innovative. And most importantly, this fascinating founder had to make these shoes because no other shoe out there would make his runners faster. The takeaway: Nike knows what you need before anyone else.
True, not everyone has such a cute anecdote about their company’s origins at hand. (Twitter didn’t start when Jack Dorsey put his laptop in a waffle iron). But everyone has a story they can use to convey what makes their company unique. It’s just a matter of finding your story, making sure it sends the right messages, and honing it into a simple, interesting anecdote. Here are three steps to finding your own signature story:
1) Delve deep for the why, not the how.
Bill Bowerman didn’t ruin a perfectly good waffle iron because he had gotten high and wondered what sound melted rubber would make. He did it because he cared that much about making his runners the fastest in the world.
Another reason to start with the “why?” That’s where where the stories live. Say you worked for months on your business plan, courted everyone you knew to collect investment money and applied for as many grants as you could. That’s great, but that simply means you’re a hard worker, not that you’re creating something that the world needs. “I started this business because our family moved, and I was trying to find people to be friends with” (Catherine Cook); “I started this business because I was diagnosed with panic attacks but no doctors could help me” (Tessa Zimmerman); “I started this business because when I took my 12 year old sister shopping for her first bra, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her wearing a leopard print push-up design” (Megan Grassell). Finding and explaining the “why” is also a good way to gauge your passion. If the only answer you can come up with to the question “why did I start this endeavor?” is “to bank a mill by the time I’m 30,” you might want to reconsider whether this is how you want to spend your time and energy.
2.) Make it visual.
Ever heard someone say “Oh, I’m a visual learner.” The fact of the matter is, most people are. Try to memorize a brand new telephone number. Now try to memorize a tiny hamster beating the world champion at a hot dog eating contest. Come back in an hour and see which one you correctly recall. A ruined waffle iron. A twelve year old girl trying on a sleazy bra. A teenager having a panic attack in the middle of the street. All these scenarios engage your imagination because when we envision them, we instinctually add details from our own lives. You picture the bra shopping scenario to take place in the department store where you used to shop. You imagine the the panic attack to take place the street where your ex-boyfriend lived. And just like that, when someone adds touchpoints from their own life to flesh out your story, you’ve got them making a personal connection with your brand.
3) Keep it simple.
There’s a lot more to the Nike story than just the waffle iron and rubber soles. Bowerman’s buddy Phil Knight took a course in business marketing and realized that high-quality, low-cost products could be made in Japan. So Knight went to Japan, found a small manufacturer named Tiger, blah, blah, blah.
There’s a reason we don’t know that part of the tale; it doesn’t build on the most critical messages Nike needs to convey. So trim all the fat from your story. If part of your tale doesn’t further your brand identity, then scrap it.
Your history does not necessarily dictate your destiny. Just as people change and grow, so do businesses. But experiences from your past shape who you are and how you’ll move forward in the future. It’s your job to make sure you tell people about the right experiences, and do it well.
Make no mistake, it takes a lot of work and trial and error to get your stories right. But if you want people to remember your brand above all the others, it’s more than worth the effort to become a great storyteller for your business. In the simple, but impactful words of Nike, when it comes to creating a dynamic story for your startup, Just Do It.
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