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Insights on brand storytelling for product managers
Today we are talking about the problem you solve, the value you create, and the difference you make—and not just you specifically but also your organization. Just like you, I have encountered organizations that confuse me—I’m uncertain what they are really about. This is a branding and messaging issue. As product professionals, we need to help position our products in ways that make sense for customers and the organization. We have to tell the product and brand story effectively.
To help us do that, Sarah Panus is with us. She is a brand storytelling strategist and coach, host of the Marketing With Empathy podcast, and founder of Kindred Speak, which provides editorial brand storytelling services and coaching. Sarah also speaks on topics for humanizing your brand. Before starting Kindred Speak, she contributed to brand and marketing strategy for the Sleep Number Corporation and other companies.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:14] What is brand storytelling?
Brand storytelling is when a brand shares editorial stories with their audience. Editorial stories are not promotional stories. They’re narrative stories designed to engage your audience, attract new people to your brand, and keep them engaged. They’re something your customer base wants more of, versus promotional content that they’re not really excited to read. Brand storytelling educates, entertains, and inspires your audience.
A brand story isn’t solely about the product. Your webpage can talk all about the product features and benefits. Create a story around the problem the product solves . Bring in real people who can talk about their experience. The product isn’t the hero of the story. Your customer or the problem is, and the product gets mentioned as a secondary element that can help solve the problem. These are the types of stories you read in a magazine or on a digital site. You need both marketing storytelling and brand storytelling, but brand storytelling is better designed and what I’ve seen drive leading ROI of attracting the audience and keeping them engaged.
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[6:14] What do you do as a brand storytelling strategist?
Think of me like a rental editor-in-chief. I develop editorial strategies. What are the storytelling pillars that you should focus on? I go through all the data to figure out what the brand cares about and wants to talk about and more importantly what the audience cares about. The sweet spot of those things is the low-hanging fruit .
I use the FED method—focus, empathy, data. One element is figuring out how to get alignment throughout the organization. One big complaint from a marketing perspective is that content can live in silos and there’s no sharing. That can happen between marketing and product. I help with creating the culture of innovation among teams so you’re all working toward the same goal to drive the best results for the organization and have fun doing your job. I help manage blogs, podcast strategy, editorial calendars, and large content partnerships. I help be the extra voice, asking is this good editorial storytelling content? Does it feel humanized? Is it going to connect?
[14:39] How can we use brand storytelling to have more influence with stakeholders?
Brand storytelling can help give you insights into what your audience is most interested in. As a content investigator, I go through tons of data internally and externally, so there might be other pieces of insights that people who are drafting content have that you as a product team don’t.
If you’re launching a product, storytelling helps generate awareness of the product through those stories.
Storytelling is like a marathon not a sprint. Anything that’s upper-funnel or mid-funnel takes a while, but it’s feeding that pipeline. Storytelling can help you understand what is and isn’t working—what messaging or features customers want to know more about.
When you collaborate with the editorial team, you can marry both teams’ goals and share more of what the product team wants to get across. Storytelling amplifies that message and gets it across to more people. Your company will have a consistent voice, and your customers will repetitively see the key messages you care about.
There’s a myth in marketing that if you build it, they will come. Obviously that’s not true. I wonder if in product there’s a myth that if you create it, they will buy it. Marketing and product need each other. It’s so important that storytelling go hand-in-hand with product.
[19:02] How do you manage a shared, consistent voice between the product and editorial teams?
For ultimate success there needs to be open communication between leaders at the C-suite level. Everyone needs to be talking cohesively and be unified on goals. It works best if there is dedicated product person who is the liaison to the marketing team. This person should have monthly calls, shared content calendars, emails, and tons of transparency with the marketing team.
If you want to be that person, bring it up with your boss. If you manage a team and want to identify somebody who could be the marketing liaison, identify someone who wants to do it and is excited about it.
[21:55] Can you tell use more about the FED (focus, empathy, data) framework?
Focus: Have three storytelling pillars. They keep you honed in on the three nuggets you’re going to be talking about as a brand. I like the third one to be a little bit of a wild card that differentiates your company.
Empathy: Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking, and it helps us be better communicators. It helps you relay the best information that will best reach the person. Use empathy filters, which help you better connect with people. One empathy filter is data-informed empathy, for example if you know a percentage of your audience is parents with teenagers at home, you start to get insight into what life might be like for them. Another filter is SEO-informed empathy, for example if we see a large volume of people searching for advice on how to better communicate with teenagers, we can crate content around that. Human-informed empathy is shared feelings we can all relate to, like picking the longest checkout line at the store. Another one is nostalgia, and nostalgia in marketing is incredibly powerful. These are life moments a big chunk of people have gone through together, like experiencing COVID, growing up in the same decade, or having the same favorite toy or cartoon growing up.
Data: Data takes the guesswork out of what you should talk about.
You’re looking for where focus, empathy, and data overlap. A good storytelling plan needs all three.
[25:27] What’s an example of using the FED framework?
When I was at Sleep Number, we created a storytelling program called Sleep 30. One of our storytelling pillars was around health and wellness. We knew from data that a lot of people were asking questions about sleep and there was a lot of confusion about it. Sleep Number is a leader in the sleep space, makes smart beds that help analyze your sleep, and collaborates with the Mayo Clinic on sleep science research. We knew we had an amazing bed that helps people sleep better from the sleep-tracking research, but people still have so many questions and are doing a lot of things during the day that may be sabotaging their sleep without realizing it. We took those insights and created a free online sleep wellness program called Sleep30. It’s a week-by-week plan that gives tips to improve your sleep.
This free program helped generate leads for the business and we got good feedback from people who went through it. It gives them so much value. Customers don’t have to be a Sleep Number bed owner to participate, and it’s a great way to reengage existing customers.
Action Guide: Put the information Sarah shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Listen to Sarah’s Marketing With Empathy podcast or search for it wherever you listen to podcasts
- Learn more about brand storytelling on Sarah’s website
- Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn
“Don’t compare your beginning or middle to someone else’s end.” – attributed to Tony Robbins
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.