Create Small-Business Story for Happy Ending

CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Small-business owners are used to juggling responsibilities. Depending on the day, they might have to be a financial analyst, marketing visionary, conflict-resolution expert or even the office handyman.

Now you can add another title: storyteller in chief.

If writing isn't really your thing -- relax. You're not expected to be the next John Grisham. But part of being an effective leader means crafting a compelling story about your business, a reason customers should seek you out and employees want to work for you.

Hermes
Small-business owners should take a lesson from established companies in telling their "story." Hermes, for instance, tells a story of Old World luxury and craftsmanship.

Certain companies have instantly recognizable images associated with their brand. Patagonia stands for active outdoor adventure with an eco-friendly bent. Hermes promises Old World luxury and craftsmanship. Chuck E. Cheese is all about boisterous -- at times earsplitting -- family entertainment.

Such clear identities are more important than ever, no matter the size of your business. With social media taking an ever more important role in spreading the word about your company, a well thought out and compelling story can be the thread that ties together the messages you send consumers, whether through an email newsletter or a Twitter feed.

Jennifer Escalas, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, says stories are appealing because they connect to the way people naturally process information. When you ask someone to tell you about their life, they don't just rattle off a list of unrelated events; they make connections between what they've experienced.

"We structure everything in our lives as a narrative, with a beginning, middle and an end," she says. "A brand story differentiates you and can guide your marketing communications."

So what makes for a good brand story? For many entrepreneurs, being a small business is their story. They're the little guy, working hard to survive in a tough economy, but never giving up. Don't forget: Americans love a good underdog story.

Other small businesses have family stories. Maybe it's the story of a grandparent who immigrated in search of a better life. It could be the story of siblings who have worked together since they were teenagers. Customers who associate your business with strong family ties will root for you and want to support your success.

Interestingly enough, a story doesn't have to be true to be compelling and meaningful. A fictional story can draw in customers as well, as long as it rings true to life. Does it make sense? Does it have characters people can relate to? Does it correlate with real experiences?

"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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