Sign up
Loading
  • Home
  • Business tips

Small business tips

7 min read

The human side of business: Using your personal story in brand marketing

By Alex Willen · March 19, 2021
personal-story-in-brand-marketing-00-hero

Hi there, folks—I'm Alex, the founder of Cooper's Treats, and my business recently got covered in this Associated Press piece that was syndicated across dozens of news outlets. It led to quite a few sales, a few retail stores reaching out to me, and a proud email from my dad after one of his friends sent him the article before I did.

That might give you the impression that I'm some sort of fascinating character whose life is downright newsworthy. As it turns out, though, I'm just a guy who decided to sell dog treat mix on the internet.

But that hasn't stopped me from getting my name out in the press. Because while I know that my life is pretty mundane, I also know that people love to hear tales of small business. They have all the elements of our favorite stories: a scrappy underdog in a harsh world, lots of setbacks that are eventually overcome, and hard work and perseverance paying off.

So rest assured that, even if you're like me, just trying to make your business work one day at a time, you have a story to tell—a story that people really do want to hear. And that's a powerful asset.

You don't need to be the next big thing to get press. Here's how you can create a press page and automate your PR process to get things moving.

Why your story is an asset

We live and work in an increasingly crowded world, where new competition is cropping up every day, and millions of businesses are vying for consumers' attention. It's incredibly difficult to stand out, particularly when you're competing against huge companies that have not only the advantage of well-known brands, but also the resources to advertise their products constantly. 

The upside, though, is that more and more people are turning their attention away from big names and toward smaller companies. As consumers, we no longer just want a good deal and a recognizable logo—we want to know who makes our products, how they make them, and how they treat their employees. We want to support companies that have a mission we agree with and that were started by people with real passion, not just those who saw the opportunity to make a buck. 

That's why your story is so valuable: it gives people a reason to connect with your business and give your products a try, even though you're not a name they're familiar with. And beyond being a way to drum up business, it's also a way to find the kinds of customers who won't just be one-time buyers, but rather advocates for a brand they can really relate to.

As the owner of a business that sells products to dog owners, I'm dealing with an extremely passionate customer base. I would know—I'm one of them. 

A dog in sunglasses eating a treat
I put sunglasses on my dog, if that helps you understand me a little better.

There are a whole lot of dog owners out there who will find my products appealing for the exact same reason that I made them: the alternatives have very questionable ingredients. Ours, on the other hand, are all-natural and free of added sugar, salt, preservatives, color, or flavor. That's why telling my story is such an asset: the people who buy from me are the kind of people who read the label on their dog treats, so when they understand that this all started because I read my competitors' labels and didn't like what I saw, they can relate. When they realize that I decided to do something about it by making a better treat mix, they love it.

Of course, none of this is to say that a great story is a substitute for any of the critical pieces of a successful business—like a good product, strong marketing, and great customer service—but it's a powerful tool that might lead to customers coming back again and again.

What's your story?

While you may think your story isn't particularly interesting, I'll just be blunt here and say: you're wrong. You live your own life, day in and day out, so you know that it's mostly mundane. But the reality is that all good stories are curated, and yours should be too. Take the highlights—the parts people can relate to—and I promise you've got something meaningful to tell.

Highlight your scrappiness

Let's start with entrepreneurship. If you've started a company, you've done something that the vast majority of people in the world never will. And it's something genuinely admirable. There's a reason that the one thing politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be able to agree on is that we should support small businesses: people look up to those who are willing to leave the comfort of a traditional job behind and start something new.

So start with that, and build from there. Why did you start your business? What inspired you? I'm like a lot of entrepreneurs: I encountered a problem in my life, solved it for myself, and then realized that other people would probably like the solution too.

Pick the right details

Next, go through the details that help people put themselves in your shoes. 

  • Where were you when you got the idea for your company? 

  • What pushed you over the edge from having an idea to actually starting to do the work

  • What was the first thing you did? 

  • When did you decide to leave your job (or whatever you were doing before) and work on your company full time? 

I'm currently living a story that most eCommerce entrepreneurs have lived: my business is growing pretty quickly, but I don't have a warehouse yet. That means I have a whole lot of boxes of freeze-dried meat, egg powder, whole wheat flour, and other ingredients in my living room. My wife has the patience of a saint, but I'm very much straining it because she also likes a clean house. That sort of conflict is pretty low-stakes, but it's the kind of thing that people can relate to. Use that to your advantage.

Ditch the rose-colored glasses

Make sure to share the bad parts of your journey too. The article I was recently featured in talks about how I started Cooper's Treats after the pandemic shut down my previous business, which caused me to lose a pretty serious sum of money. 

Our tendency is to hide the bad things in our lives (and post the good on Facebook). Fight that instinct. Stories without obstacles and challenges are boring. Stories in which the protagonist struggles are compelling. They get people rooting for the hero, and people who are rooting for you are going to want to support your business. 

Talk about how you failed or almost failed or broke down crying because of stress. Talk about being rejected over and over. Talk about how the uncertainty put a strain on your relationship. These are all things people can understand, whether they're entrepreneurs or not, and they're things that will put them squarely in your corner.

If you need help crafting your narrative, listen to How I Built This. It's an amazing podcast with fantastic guests that have built wildly successful businesses. It'll really give you a feel for what makes a story compelling, and it might just inspire you to start a business too.

Where to use your story

Writing your story is part one. But you also need to get it out into the world, so let's talk about how to do that.

PR

Pitching your story to a writer can be incredibly intimidating. For starters, it can feel very self-serving: you're trying to get them to do something that benefits you. But remember, journalists are paid to tell stories, so if you bring them a good one, it benefits them too.

With that said, you do still need to make sure it's a relevant story for them. Pitching to every reporter you can find is a waste of everyone's time. Instead, focus on the ones who are a solid match for your story.

  • Look for reporters who already write about businesses like yours, in terms of size, industry, location, or anything in between.

  • Consider outlets that cover your audience demographic. The more your audience matches the audience of the outlet, the more mutually beneficial an article will be (hello, Modern Dog magazine).

Last but not least, if you're looking for press, you should be signed up for HARO. It's a free service that lets reporters ask for sources for their stories—and you can be one of the sources. You'll get an email with the queries three times a day, and you answer any of them that seem like a good fit. This is how I found my way into the AP piece I mentioned above: the writer was seeking folks who'd had to pivot their businesses as a result of the pandemic

Your website

Make your story available to people who want to know more about your company. I give the basics of why I started Cooper's Treats on our mission page, which is linked straight from our main menu. Because people are passionate about their dogs, I know it's the kind of thing they'll care about, so I want it to be easy to find. 

You'll notice the big picture at the top isn't anything wildly professional. That's because the goal of the page isn't to show what an impressive business we are, but rather to remind people that this company is run by a dog-lover like them.

Email marketing

Email campaigns are a great place to tell your story. When folks sign up for my newsletter or make a purchase, I send them a series of emails over the course of a week that are designed to educate them about Cooper's Treats.

These cover our products and their features, but they also speak heavily to our story and our mission. I link to some of the interviews and other press about the company, so they can see some external validation of what I'm telling them.

As you start to collect more emails, here are 4 ways to automate your email marketing for better communication.

Ads

I've spent the last six months experimenting with Facebook ads to figure out what people respond to. I've tried it all: ads that give information about our products, ads that offer discounts if you buy right now, AdS WiTh WeIrD CaPs To GeT YoUr AtTeNtIoN, ads quoting customer reviews, and anything else I could throw at the wall.

The one that worked best? The story of why I started the company.

The Facebook ad Alex used for Cooper's Treats

I was sure it'd be too long to work (at 250 words, it's very long for a Facebook ad). But it turns out that not only do people spend the time to read it, but a whole lot of them click the link and immediately make a purchase. 

Once people know about your brand, it makes sense to advertise the features of your products. But if they have no idea who you are, starting with your story can help them connect with you in a way that drives them to learn more about what you sell.

You're interesting!

Your story is interesting, even if it doesn't seem that way to you. I feel the need to belabor that point because, even though my story has proven to be a huge asset for my business, it's still hard for me to really think that people want to hear about me selling dog treat mix.

So take your story and share it with the world. You'll help your business, and you may just inspire someone else to go start something of their own.

Get productivity tips delivered straight to your inbox

We’ll email you 1/wk, and never share your information.

Alex Willen picture

Alex Willen

Alex Willen is the Founder of Cooper's Treats, a premium dog treat business that he founded during the pandemic. He spent a decade as a product manager in Silicon Valley before leaving to start his own business, and he's never looked back. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Maggie and two dogs, Cooper and Maple.

tags

Related articles

Improve your productivity automatically. Use Zapier to get your apps working together.

Sign upSee how it works