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Create Small-Business Story for Happy Ending

"When consumers are in story mode, they don't fixate on details," says Escalas. We can identify with the characters in Star Wars or Twilight even though we know those worlds don't exist. "We don't believe in vampires, but we can relate to falling in love with someone we shouldn't," she says.

For a lesson in fictional branding, take grocery chain Trader Joe's (which actually was founded by a man named Joe). The company has created "international" versions of its namesake for the packaging of ethnic foods: Trader Ming on boxes of pad thai; Trader Jose on frozen burritos. Customers aren't expected to believe there's a real Trader Ming whipping up noodles in Thailand. Instead, the labels foster the message that Trader Joe's brand is consistent no matter what the food category.

Giving your business a compelling story and characters -- whether it's the real-life founder or a "Trader Ming" persona -- can help you build an appealing brand message that's consistent from your website to your brochures to your Facebook page. Simply pushing product is no longer enough to set you apart from competitors. Consumers are skeptical of marketers, and often turn to other consumers for advice (through sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor).

If you want to generate that word-of-mouth marketing, you need customers to be invested in your characters. "People talk about things they care about," Escalas says. "You have to create a story to build that emotional connection."

Whether you're building on real-life experiences or creating an entirely new identity, the right story can not only set you apart from the competition, it can encourage customers and clients to have a stake in your success. In the best-case scenario, your story takes on a life of its own -- no sequel required.

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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook and writes for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.
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