Branding developer tools: strategic narrative and brand story
Ok, a brand is this box where people put you in.
This thought they have when your brand comes up.
The brand is the reason why very similar tools can feel completely different.
A good brand story is about making this thought memorable, relatable, and important to your target audience.
In this article, I talk about the framework for creating a compelling brand story for your product in 4 (not so easy) steps.
You can apply it to any product but my mind and focus are always on developer tools.
This framework is based on four frameworks created by people way smarter than me. I just merged and adjusted the ideas from:
- Strategic narrative by Andy Raskin
- A small part of a larger story by Chris Savage
- Story brands by Donald Miller
- Made to stick storytelling by Chip and Dan Heat
So by combining all of those frameworks I got to something like this:
- Create a larger story context
- Go through SB7 story brands framework
- Create deliverables (one-liner, purpose, vision, mission, 50-word brand story)
- Audit with "Made to stick" storytelling principles
Let's go through all of the foundational frameworks first but if you just want a how-to, jump to How to create a brand story.
I have first heard about this concept on the Everyone Hates Marketers podcast episode with Andy Raskin and loved it. Andy is a consultant who helps companies build a strategic narrative for their brands.
It is built around the idea of "old game vs new game" in the industry you are playing. A new wave is happening and if you are not part of it you will slowly but surely die. Think about:
- Conversational marketing (Intercom, Drift) vs forms.
- Subscription streaming (Netflix) vs buying DVDs (Blockbuster).
- Shared code repository (GitHub) vs sending code over email.
If you continue playing the game in a way you've been playing it so far, sooner or later you are gone.
But if you play the new game you can get all you ever wanted and more :) You get the gist.
The new vs old game narrative is user-centric branding.
It is built around people's fear of missing out (or being left out).
If played correctly can create a sense of urgency. It can make people act now.
That is because instead of positioning your brand against competitors you position your brand against the status quo.
Think about it.
The vast majority of deals that you lost, the vast majority of people who never tried your tool did not go to competitors.
They just kept doing the same thing they were doing before they found you, led by the power of inertia.
Most people are just not in pain. Not really.
And there are always downsides to trying new tools.
And so people don't change, don't try, and deals don't happen.
Ok, so first figure out what are the new ways of doing things in your industry.
If you are reading this, chances are you already have.
Once you have the "new game" set, figure out what is so hard about getting there.
Now, there are many different "new game" stories you could tell.
Some will be more beneficial to your company than others.
Out of all the stories you could choose, pick the ones where your product helps the customer get to the "new game" promise land.
Where your company is the paddle your customer needs to raft to that happy island.
Be the cocoa water that he will need midway. Be that raft.
So basically the strategic narrative framework (adjusted by me) looks like this.
"OLD GAME is dead. You've been playing it so you felt OLD GAME PROBLEMS.
But some companies are already playing the NEW GAME which gets you NEW GAME BENEFITS.
The only way to survive is to start playing the NEW GAME.
But you see that the NEW GAME is hard to play because of the NEW GAME CHALLENGES.
We can help you overcome those by OUR SOLUTION TO ONE NEW GAME PROBLEM"
To get all the pieces, answer the following questions:
- What is the old game, what is the new game?
- What is so wrong with playing the old game?
- What is so hard about getting to the new game promise land?
- How can you help overcome that?
Strategic narrative, as any branding concept, is long-term, strategic. It is hard to test explicitly. But there are ways of validating it with the market.
Often the best way to validate things with the market is to do outbound sales motion:
- Create an ideal customer persona (ICP)
- Find those ICP folks and approach them
- Ask them about their problems
- Where it makes sense (their problems connect to your story) talk about your brand story
- Look at the reaction
Their comments may even improve your brand story as the best messaging is often the voice of the customer (VOC).
But ultimately IMHO, branding strategy is a long-term bet and very hard to measure.
Once you have it think about adjusting that story a little bit with the second framework.
A small part of a larger story
There are many stories you can tell about your brand.
Choose the one where your product helps with only a small part of that.
That is the only chance to build a true and engaged audience.
This is really interesting and counterintuitive.
Your product should play a small role in this larger user-centric story.
Cause otherwise, it will be hard to create an audience who believes you and listens to you. Especially at the beginning.
People are smart.
If your brand story is all about your product, people will feel like you are selling to them.
They will not genuinely connect with you.
Also if you talk about your product 100% of the time or even 50% of the time it just feels like selling.
It smells like self-interest.
Even if it is great it will be hard for people to follow, share and believe you.
"I often look for, what is the mission that your product helps somebody solve?
Your product probably helps solve a very small percentage of the mission.
If it's done properly, like 5% of the mission.
The other 95% should be the things that are education, philosophy, other relevant tools, people, a treasure trove of stuff to talk about.
If you figure that out, and you build around that whole 100, then the people who care about the 5% that is your product will find it.
But you have an unlimited number of things that you can talk about."
The reason why you want to be a small part is two leave a lot of room to do things "without ulterior motive".
Just think about two brands, both are selling a fast time series database but they have a different brand story:
- Brand A: "Without scalable databases your team will die"
- Brand B: "Without scalable processes, architectures, and culture your team will die"
I am quite certain that it will be way easier to build an audience for the second brand.
But if you still don't feel it either believe me, go listen to the podcast or just forget it :)
Story brand framework
"This is not a book about telling your company's story.
A book like that would be a waste of time.
Customers don't generally care about your story; they care about their own"
Miller suggests that at the very core people care about survival and the story you tell about your brand should touch that survival focus.
He claims that your story has to:
- be simple and easy to consume so that people don't burn too much energy trying to understand it
- be about your customers' well being, about their dreams and fears
- follow storytelling principles to be engaging, memorable, and easy to share,
How to create such a story? Use Miller's SB7 framework:
"A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it.
At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives, gives them a PLAN and CALLS THEM TO ACTION.
That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS."
The customer is a hero, your product is a guide that helps them fulfill their destiny.
But to nail a crisp story down we need to dive deeper into those SB7 components.
If not you may want to go ahead and do it.
But assuming you have that customer in mind, answer this.
What does your customer want?
Not what your customer wants to do with your product, but what do they want to achieve long-term(ish).
What is their "dream state"? What is the promised land?
And every person has multiple promise lands.
For me it is:
- I want to grow my business 10x.
- I want to enjoy my work environment and want my team to enjoy it too.
- I want to be appreciated by the machine learning community.
- and many more things.
Each of those "wants" is real.
You can choose each one of those to build a story.
But you should shortlist only the "wants" that you can connect to your brand.
Miller argues that out of those, you need to go even further and choose the "want" that is about survival:
- Conserving financial resources
- Conserving time
- Building social networks
- Gaining status
- Accumulating resources
- The desire to be generous
- The desire for meaning
So looking at the wants I listed probably the one about growing our company 10x is the most survival related.
Accumulating resources + Conserving financial resources + Gaining Status.
Oh, and make sure to focus on one thing. I know your tool does way more than one thing.
But you have to focus on one thing to make the story clear.
Has a problem
Who is the villain of the story?
Who is the Lord Vader of your customers' world?
It could be distractions, failing tests, pointless meetings.
Out of many possible villains choose the one that is:
- a root source of a problem your customers are facing
- real and relatable, people can spot this villain easily
Again to make your story clear you need to choose just one villain.
Ok, now that you have it, let's define the problems this villain is causing.
Miller argues there are three types of problems:
- External: a context of the story. winning the national championship, saving the world, finding love
- Internal: hero-related problems. Could be self-doubt, shyness, time wasted on slack
- Philosophical: something larger, the "why" of it all. If you went through the strategic narrative section it is likely "what is wrong about playing the old game".
Miller says that:
"Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems but people buy solutions to internal problems"
Your product helps your customers overcome their internal shortcomings. You use the external and philosophical problems and the villain to make the storyline clear.
Meets a guide
This is where your product comes in.
You guide your customers to the ultimate goal. You help them overcome external, internal, and philosophical problems. But should focus on selling solutions to the internal problems.
Say you are selling a performance debugging tool for backend devs.
You share knowledge about backend scalability, database sharding best practices, fast and scalable architectures, and so on.
But you only sell a tool for debugging. One small, internal piece of this entire story.
To do it, you need your reader to trust that you know what you are talking about and that you understand their problems.
To do that you need to show:
- Empathy: show that you understand the reader, that you are talking to the reader
- Authority: show that you can help them do what they want
To understand the readers and gain empathy you can:
- do user interviews,
- craft user and buyer personas,
- understand their jobs to be done,
- find key points on your user journey
- and more.
Basically, know who you are talking to.
You can do a quick test to see if your message is empathetic to your audience.
- Take your content: a sales page, email, tweet, or blog article
- Picture your ideal customer profile person
- Imagine you are doing a presentation to the room full of those people where you present this content
- How do you expect them to respond? Will they cringe, roll their eyes? Or laugh and nod? Think about it.
When it comes to gaining trust and authority you can use:
- testimonials and reviews
- case studies
- client logos
- reports and awards
- Github stars, Twitter followers
The truth is, for the vast majority of people they just want to know that you can actually help THEM.
They will look for people like them doing similar things that they do and getting results with your product.
Also, figure out which of those trust-building tools you should choose.
The correct ones can depend on your audience a lot.
For me when I see some statistics from business magazines I tend to cringe.
When I see some 84% of people gained 65% improved their work I want to say "bs what did you measure, what do you mean by improved, have you a/b tested their lives".
But when I see a quirky testimonial from a dev saying "this tool actually doesn't suck that much. Most of the time works as expected" I follow.
This is me obviously, you know your customers so you know what should work better.
Now that you are a trusted guide you need to show them your plan.
Who gives them a plan
Ok at this point the customer believes you can help them.
Now you need to show them how. What exactly should I do to get to my promised land.
Be specific and give them a step-by-step if possible.
Now here is where I think Miller is going away from just brand and more into the product, offer, and conversion but I think it is important to mention it anyway.
He suggests that there are two plans you need to present:
- Process plan
- Agreement plan
The process plan is about how are you going to deliver if I commit. What is the step by step?. For example:
- Sign up
- Install client library
- Connect debugger to your code
- See problems real-life in the application
The agreement plan is about getting customers to commit. It is about handling objections and answering questions.
- Free plan, test it out before you buy
- Dedicated support, we'll help you set up everything if you have problems
- Cancel any time, money back guaranteed
For the brand story, I believe the process plan is the most important. Also, it should be a bit wider than just your product IMHO to give you a chance of building the audience.
And calls them to action
What should your customer do next?
Every content you write, every page you create, every tweet you post. What do you want your ideal customers to do?
What is the next step?
Again, I am not convinced that this part of the SB7 is crucial for branding but it will be valuable for your business.
Ok, so Miller points out that there are two different types of calls to action:
Direct are the ones where your customer should take the "ultimate" action. Sign up, schedule demo, download open-source package.
But some customers, or even the same customers but earlier in their journey don't want to sign up just yet. This is where you can use transitional calls to action.
Transitional CTA is a small commitment that gets people more informed, more engaged, more comfortable with you without fully committing to you yet. Those are downloading ebooks, joining a slack community, signing up for your newsletter.
Miller suggests that you should always have the Direct CTA and Transitional CTA available to make sure there is something for people at all stages of the user journey.
That helps them avoid failure
This is pretty simple, just figure out what are the things your customer is afraid of. What are the big risks that could happen?
What are the things that will happen if they don't take action?
- Your servers didn't scale and crashed
- Your entire infrastructure was compromised
- Your machine learning models started going crazy in the production environment
Out of all the fears, if possible choose the ones that are about survival.
And ends in a success
How does the promised land look like for your customer?
Flesh it out. Make it real.
A great story needs a great ending. It needs closure and customer success is exactly that.
Miller suggests that the best story endings are about:
- Winning power, status, or position
- Becoming whole again, being unified with someone or something
- Experiencing self-realization
What works great here are the before and after stories told by the customers themselves (Voice of Customer again).
How to create a brand story
Now that you know what the underlying frameworks are about let's get to the step by step of building your brand story.
Step 1: Create a larger story context
Let's get the context of your story first.
We'll do that by following "Strategic Narrative", and "Small part of larger story" frameworks.
So start by answering the four questions:
- What is the old game, what is the new game?
- What is so wrong with playing the old game?
- What is so hard about getting to the new game promise land?
- How can you help overcome that?
Talk to your team and get a list of ideas.
Once you have it, filter out the stories where your brand is a large part of the story.
Step 2: Go through SB7 story brands framework
You got the big picture story in the last step.
Now we'll refine it and get more customer-specific.
Start with defining the character, the hero of the story.
But most importantly answer the question:
- What does your hero want?
You should already know that as this should be exactly what the new game promise land gives you.
Then flesh out the problems your hero has:
- Villain: who is your hero fighting against
- External problems: Global problem your hero is solving. Long-term goal, larger mission.
- Internal problems: Local problem your hero is facing. This is where your product comes in to help.
- Philosophical: The "Why". This should be "what is so wrong about playing the old game".
Now introduce a guide. You are the guide but you need your hero to see you as one.
To do that you need:
- Empathy: Show your hero that you understand them, that you are talking to them.
- Authority: Show your hero that you can help them, that you know what you are talking about.
Ok, now what is the plan? How are you going to get your hero to the promised land?
To show it you need:
- Process: Step by step of what should the hero do to get there.
- Agreement: Handle questions and obstacles. Doubts hero has about themselves.
And now you call your hero to action. This is optional There are two types of actions:
- Direct call to action: Do XYZ. Whatever the big ask is
- Transitional call to action: little steps to get hero closer to Direct call to action.
Ok, but what are the things that can happen if your hero doesn't act? What is the failure that we want to help the hero avoid? You have it with "what is so wrong about playing the old game" question.
And what is success? This is the new game promise land that you already have.
Step 3: Create deliverables
Now you have all the pieces you need to create brand story deliverables.
So let's get to it.
This should help everyone at your company answer a simple question.
What do you guys do?
A lot of the time, when this question gets asked, especially by people outside of your niche people mumble. The message is really not clear.
And it should be clear and easy to remember.
To create a one-liner:
- Look into the work you've done on SB7 framework
- Take the Character, Problem, Plan, Success
- Combine them into one short message.
"We provide hobbyist Python devs with short entertaining tutorials they can use to stay on-top of latest tools."
- Character: Python developer
- Problem: Busy, no time or energy to do anything
- Plan: short but entertaining tutorials
- Success: know what tools are out there. Maintain their position and grow their career.
Purpose, vision, and mission
I have to say both brand purpose, vision, mission were concepts I really didn't care about.
I mean you create those or HR creates them and then they sit in confluence where nobody cares. Or maybe somebody puts them on a poster in the common areas. Yay.
It was always too grandiose, too hyped, too detached from reality.
But if you worked through the new game framework, and have the hero and philosophical problems from the SB7 framework I believe you can craft something meaningful.
- Brand purpose: WHY. Why your company exists, Why you are doing what you are doing.
- Brand vision: WHERE. Where you want to get. Where you want your customers to get. What do they want to achieve?
- Brand mission: HOW. How are you planning to get there? What will you do day-to-day?
Let's see some examples of that.
- Tesla: "To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy"
- Warby Parker: "To make eyewear more affordable"
Brand vision examples:
- Datadog: "We bring together data from servers, containers, databases, and third-party services to make your stack entirely observable. These capabilities help DevOps teams avoid downtime, resolve performance issues, and ensure customers are getting the best user experience."
- Gitlab: "GitLab Inc. develops great open-source software to enable people to collaborate in this way. GitLab is a single application based on convention over configuration that everyone should be able to afford and adapt. With GitLab, everyone can contribute."
- Algolia: "When we started Algolia, we had a simple but challenging vision: create blazing fast, instant, and relevant search and discovery experiences. We extended this vision to deliver dynamic experiences that will enable businesses to quickly predict a visitor’s intent on their digital property (web, mobile, or other) in real-time, in a session, in the moment."
Brand mission examples:
- Datadog: "Datadog's mission is to provide observability, analytics and insight into companies' infrastructure environment in the cloud age to solve problems for Dev and Ops teams globally."
- CircleCI: "We shorten the distance between idea and delivery."
- Gitlab: "It is GitLab's mission to make it so that everyone can contribute. When everyone can contribute, users become contributors and we greatly increase the rate of innovation."
- MongoDB: "MongoDB unleashes the power of software and data for innovators everywhere."
- OpenAI: "ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity."
- Algolia: "Empower every company to create delightful Search & Discovery experiences."
Short story (~50 words)
Combine all you have worked on so far in a consistent short story.
Use strategic narrative to talk about the old and new ways of doing things.
Empathize with the Hero and mention the problems he is facing.
Explain how you are the guide who can help them.
Demonstrate risks (failure) and benefits (success).
Show how you actually solve some of the problems.
Make this simple and memorable.
List and combine the following pieces:
- old game, new game
- old game problems, new game benefits, new game challenges
- what hero wants
- heros' problems: villain, external, internal, philosophical
- you as a guide with authority, empathy, and a plan
Imagine you would "pitch this" to every person who fits the ideal customer profile on the planet.
As in you would actually go and say those things.
Does it make sense?
Is it compelling?
Does it make you want to act?
Is it memorable and shareable?
If not let's improve the packaging of the story with better storytelling.
Step 4: Audit for good storytelling
Look at your story from Made to stick storytelling perspective.
See if it is:
- Simple: does it have just one core message?
- Unexpected: does it make you interested to read more? Does it use knowledge gaps?
- Concrete: does it use real-life examples or abstract terms?
- Credible: does it use authority or detail to make people believe you?
- Emotional: does it make people feel anything?
- Story: did you use real stories from real people? Did you use voice of customer (VOC)?
Give you story points for each storytelling dimension.
If your story doesn't hit at least three boxes improve your message.
Figure out which dimension is missing and incorporate it into your story.
What is next?
Now you have your brand story ready to see the world.
Go and spread the brand awareness:
- internally with your team
- externally with the market
Listen to what the market tells you.
Perhaps the story is not as strong as you thought and you need to adjust it. That is good too.
You have a framework to work on it whenever you need to!
Want more insights? Got more questions?
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