The ‘about us’ section of your website is likely to have some of the highest page traffic (after the 'what's on' section, it's typically the second or third most visited section on our clients' sites). But it’s often the most neglected content on a website. This short article will guide you through some tips to help you meaningfully engage your audience with your brand story.
Prompted by books such as Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, the last 10 years has seen companies scramble around for meaningful brand purpose - a reason to exist beyond making money.
Arts and cultural organisations are lucky in this sense. Many are charities, who are required to revolve activities around a specific purpose. And by virtue of their heritage and funding models, they tend to sit on a wealth of genuine stories about their purpose, history and vision for the world.
But all too often brand purpose is communicated in unemotive ways (usually a rather generic sentence placed sporadically around the website).
‘Brand story’ is just a catch-all phrase for the different building blocks of content that tell your unique narrative. It’s a powerful tool. Done well, it can help to:
- explain what you’re all about to your audiences
- build emotional connections to your work
- drive donations, support and membership
- attract new audiences and talent
Let’s take a look at how we can get there.
1. Gather every part of your story
It’s a useful exercise to collate all the elements that could contribute to your organisation’s brand story. This doesn’t have to be signed-off copy, and not everything will make it to the website. You’re looking to collate things like:
- core brand narrative - like a mission or vision statement, the why you exist stuff
- what you do - a breakdown of the key activities or programmes that you run (basically your offering)
- organisational history - how you were founded and any key moments in your history
- company values - what you stand for and what drives decisions in your organisation
- proof points - activities or stories that demonstrate you’re living your values
- impact stories - case studies or stories from the people you work with
- brand personality - the traits that make you unique. This is typically explored in brand or tone of voice work
If you’ve struggled to get these things, it probably means you’ve got some internal work to do. Run a workshop with folks from across your organisation. You might want to design your own or try something like the Google brand sprint or Margot Bloomstein’s card-sorting exercise.
2. Find a unique hook
Stories are a way of turning chaos into order. A lot of organisations take all the different elements of their story and turn them into separate pages on their website (e.g. our mission, what we do, our history, our impact). It’s a safe approach but it often forces users to drill deeper before they can learn about you. It can also feel a bit compartmentalised. If you can go a step further, taking a more holistic approach by finding a common idea for all of these things, you’ll probably end up with a more memorable story.
Companies like Patagonia have taken this approach, finding a unique hook in their brand story and moulding content around one memorable idea - business unusual. What could have been generic ‘about us’ content is transformed into a story about how their fundamental belief in challenging the status quo created the clothing brand you know today.
Non-arts charities are notably good at creating a strong, focal point for their stories. The Children’s Society centres their message around hope. Short, sharp manifesto-like messaging paired with big, emotive photography help to create a lasting impression.
How do you get to that hook? The world of storytelling methods has a lot to offer. Start by trying to tell the story of your organisation through the 7 basic storytelling plots. Some won’t work at all and that’s ok. You might be drawn to one immediately, but use the exercise as a way of exploring alternative narratives and perspectives. Bobette Buster’s 10 principles of storytelling is also worth trying out. For example, tapping into the ‘gleaming detail’ of a mundane moment or object within your story can elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary. And that might just be your hook.
3. Structure your messaging
The Patagonia example is powerful because there’s a sense of hierarchy. Not every piece of content is given equal weight. There’s a priority message and some stuff that compliments and supports it.
In The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey outlines an exercise to help create some order and structure around your messaging- what she calls a messaging framework. I’ve adapted it slightly to focus on the content that lends itself specifically to brand story.
The framework includes three sections:
- First impression - What first impressions do we want our audience to have when they interact with our brand story?
- Value statement - What do we want our audience to know or believe about the value we provide?
- Proof - What will demonstrate that what we want them to know or believe is true?
Let’s apply the Patagonia example to the framework
- First impression - “This company goes against the grain”
- Value statement - We want our audience to believe that Patagonia truly respects people and planet
- Proof - The things that will demonstrate this are:
- Our humble roots and the story of our founder
- Our family-friendly culture
- Our support of responsible businesses
- Our passion for the outdoors
- Our commitment to environmental action
Every piece of content you create should support the framework. So you can use it as a springboard for content ideas, or as a way to make content decisions.
4. Show, don’t just tell
Stories are not just words, they’re whole experiences. I situated this article in the context of the ‘about us’ section of your website. But brand story should go beyond that. In Content Strategy for the Web Kristina Halverson puts it bluntly:
Incorporating your brand into your content strategy doesn’t mean finding a bunch of places to stick your brand promise. You can’t just tell the reader, “We are seriously committed to x, y and z.” Nobody cares.
You want your audience to be invested in your story and to feel an emotional connection with you. That means showing that you are walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Content can help you do that. If you say that you’re committed to making your theatre accessible, make sure your content is accessible too. If you’ve pledged to be more environmentally friendly, check that your website delivers on that promise too.
Your brand story should permeate through every corner of your website. From the way you present your staff page to your approach to writing microcopy and your choice of content formats.
5. Be succinct and consistent
There’s a tendency for organisations to either say very little or to overload audiences with too much information. You want to be pithy. Just because you have a 5 page document outlining your organisation’s history doesn’t mean it needs to be on the website. Your users are likely to be on a mission that involves another area of your website. The ‘about us’ content is simply background information and context (which is why it’s often so overlooked internally). But it’s still incredibly important. It helps your audience place you within their world.
That’s why consistency is also key. Messages stick when they’re repeated. The Children’s Society echo their message of hope across different parts of the website and different channels. It may seem obvious, but that one-liner explaining who you are needs to be fixed across every communication channel - from your website to your social channels to your company slide decks. Create a single source of truth for all your signed off messaging and make sure everyone in the organisation knows where to find it.
Finally, it’s worth saying that brand story isn’t something you can pin down in a week. It takes time to develop and it is never, in fact, “done”. There will always be more content opportunities to tell your brand story. And that’s exactly what you want. All those proof points you surfaced in your messaging framework are packed with opportunities to engage your audience. Because amongst the chaos of this digital era, it’s stories that will feed our imagination. Or as Will Storr writes, “story is a portal, a hallucination within the hallucination, the closest we'll ever really come to escape”.
And if you’d like more information or have any questions, please just get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling [book and video collection]
- Bobette Buster: How to tell your story so the world listens [book]
- FutureLearn: The Secret Power of Brands [free online course]
- David Hiett: On Purpose [1 hour video]
- Nielsen Norman Group: Presenting Company Information on Corporate Websites and in About Us Sections [report]