Why storytelling is critical for DTC success
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Dating back more than 30,000 years with cave drawings, humans have relied on storytelling to make connections, teach valuable lessons, share raw emotions, and remember important experiences for a long time.
While storytelling isn’t a new form of communication (clearly), it’s only recently that online brands discovered its power to connect them with their consumers in a more meaningful way.
It’s clear that consumers are selective about where they spend their money, and brands that share specific beliefs and values have won the hearts of the modern-day consumer over brands that slap a logo on their product that’s made in the same factory as thousands of others.
But is storytelling the future of DTC? The founders of three modern brands believe it is.
Meet Taran Ghatrora, the co-founder of Blume, Lina Gadi, the co-founder of Aaron Wallace, and Yelitsa Jean-Charles, the founder of Healthy Roots Dolls.
The founders of these brands have used stories since the beginning to connect with customers and foster brand communities—and have done so successfully.
“Honestly, storytelling for consumer brands is so incredibly important. And I think in a world of Amazon, what really makes people buy from smaller brands is the story,” said Taran.
All three of these amazing ladies shared their exclusive tips with us about the importance of telling your brand story and how to do it effectively.
“The story is a journey, and who wouldn't want to be part of a journey rather than just the product? I want to know all of it—the whole story behind it.”
Lina Gadi, Co-Founder of Aaron Wallace
Quick background: What are Blume, Aaron Wallace, and Healthy Roots Dolls?
Before diving into the tips these founders share, here are brief summaries of the stories that made Blume, Aaron Wallace, and Healthy Roots Dolls so powerful today.
Taran and Bunny created Blume to change the fact that 60% of women say their self-esteem plummeted as they were going through puberty.
After discovering this, it became their mission to create effective, clean, and cruelty-free products with gentle ingredients, and to foster a community by showing the real skin of their customers that other young women feel confident about.
“Our mission is to make self-care and periods easier and healthier while smashing taboos through our community-curated products. We talk about a lot of things that people often find uncomfortable, like acne, puberty, periods, sex ed—nothing's off the table,” explained Taran. “We like to talk about those things to normalize them so that people in our community feel less alone and also more educated about their bodies and their skin.”
Aaron Wallace was co-founded by Aaron Wallace and Lina Gadi. Before launching the brand, Aaron owned a barbershop in South London.
After struggling for so many years to find good products for his hair (and for his clients in the barbershop), and noticing a large gap in the market for hair products dedicated to black men, Aaron and Lina came together in 2016 to create a great formula for black men to be able to properly care for their hair and their skin.
“We, as black women, are starting to see more options become available. But black men were even further under-served,” said Lina. “There are black men who've got problems with their hair, they've got problems with their skin. It was shocking to us to realize that there was literally nothing in 2016 for black men to be able to care for their hair and their skin. And that's how we started this journey of ‘how do we solve that problem for them?’”
Healthy Roots Dolls
Healthy Roots Dolls started in 2014 by Yelitsa Jean-Charles, and it was inspired by her own experiences as a young woman growing up in America.
Before founding the brand, Yelitsa was studying illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. Part of her work there focused on issues of representation, and she began telling her own story as a black woman. When she realized she wanted to do more social activism and work with children specifically in her career, she decided to focus on children’s media. The initial idea of the Zoe doll came from a class project.
“I realized I wanted to take the social activism I was doing on my campus and put that into my work… I was in a class where I had to redesign a princess, and I turned her into a little brown girl with kinky curly hair to show other little brown girls that we can be beautiful with our beautiful kinky curly hair,” said Yelitsa. “A lot of my classmates were like, ‘wow. This looks like a doll.’ And that's basically where it started.”
Story and success—they go hand-in-hand
In a world where consumers have constant access to information, they now have a set of standards they expect from the brands they purchase from.
Consumers are passing on inexpensive superstore items in order to support products and brands that are ethical, sustainable, high-quality, and hold true to a common mission—all of which are shared through the brand’s story as the primary way to connect the consumers with the brand.
A brand’s story is its outlet to success—they work hand-in-hand.
“I think it's the emotional connection for sure, and I think it's also about transparency. We're able to actually know more about supply chains, about certifications, and about the standards we can actually hold brands to,” explained Taran. “Before, you had to accept the options on your grocery store shelves. And I think now, with all the choices we have, most of us want to spend our dollars with brands that resonate with our values.”
Connection is at the center of story and success, which is evident in the type of advertisements used today by brands.
Unlike traditional advertising that focused on product features above anything else, consumers are now finding themselves drawn to stories: from the founders and from the brand community.
According to OneSpot research, “92% of consumers want brands to make ads feel like a story.” Also, Headstream found that 55% of consumers are likely to purchase from a brand if they love its story.
Taran and Bunny did a great job of this kind of authentic storytelling when celebrating Blume’s three-year anniversary:
Where do the best stories come from?
According to Taran, Lina, and Yelitsa, some of the best brand stories have several things in common:
- They’re mission-based
- Built on authenticity
- Focused on the greater community
- They make customers feel connected to the brand.
But how do you make sure you do each of these things? Take into consideration the following feedback from the founders of Blume, Aaron Wallace, and Healthy Roots Dolls:
Answer the why
Every brand should have a purpose (which is different from the company’s mission).
What’s the difference?
Your purpose statement is why your brand exists—your reason for bringing the brand to life. Your mission is about what you do for others that’s related to your purpose.
In Taran’s experience building Blume, the company’s purpose is what makes the brand story truly meaningful.
“For us, it was more than coming up with a story. It was like… ‘this was our why.’”
- Taran Ghatrora, Co-Founder of Blume
Strong purpose statements are developed from the founder’s personal experiences, which is exactly what Blume’s story is built from.
After learning that 60% of women say going through puberty caused their self-esteem to decrease, and experiencing this herself growing up, Taran and her sister Bunny worked together to create Blume with the mission of providing young women with a safe space to learn and grow confidently.
“If it means a lot to you, I would just put it out there. Of course telling the story clearly is important, but I think the more you tell your story, your mission, and your ‘why’ over time, the clearer it gets,” said Taran.
Key takeaway: Make your brand story personal, and base its purpose off of an experience you’ve shared with others. Customers will connect with your experience, building a relationship with the brand itself and not just the products you sell.
Have a clear mission you’re working toward
When Yelitsa sprung the idea of Healthy Roots Dolls, it was sparked by a mission to help children feel powerful and beautiful with who they are. When asked how her brand’s story turned into a greater mission over time, her answer was clear: Healthy Roots’ story has always been about her mission.
“I don't think it was ever not a mission-centered brand. When I was developing the concept, it was always about the root issue of representation and the impact that it has on children—how it makes them feel about their own racial identity, their self-confidence, and their performance in life,” she said.
Many brands make the mistake of starting with a product, and then they try to tie in a mission later on when they realize they need a way to connect with customers.
But the stories that matter—or rather, the stories that make a difference—are inspired by a mission you’re working toward from the beginning.
In reality, your mission must come first. Consumers who believe in your mission will then naturally connect with and support the brand over time.
“I didn't have to come up with a mission and connect something because I already knew why this mattered—and that's what was driving the work.”
- Yelitsa Jean-Charles, Founder of Healthy Roots Dolls
Understand what problem you want to solve
Many brands are inspired by something personal: an experience, a vision, a feeling…
But some of the most empowering brand stories are a mix of both internal and external influences.
For Taran, Lina, and Yelitsa, each founder saw a specific problem in the world that they wanted to solve—this is part of what drove the creation of their stories and the inspiration behind their products.
“We wanted to do something really great for black men, not just put together products and say, ‘this'll do.’ They deserve a nice shopping experience, and a nice brand that really cares about solving their problems,” said Lina.
So what should founders do? Take your personal inspiration, your “why,” and your mission, and figure out how you can use it to solve a greater problem that others in the world are facing.
And P.S., Chances are if you’ve experienced something there are thousands of others who have experienced it too.
In Yelitsa’s case, it was the realization that there weren’t dolls that represented her when she was young. She used this personal experience to fuel the creation of Healthy Roots Dolls—a doll that truly represents brown children with real curly hair that they can play with to learn how beautiful curly hair is.
“It's really not a crazy thing… It's a brown doll designed in a way that looks like children that are brown. It's just that it took so long for something so simple to exist that excites people,” said Yelitsa. “But because it’s so simple, it’s a thing that people instantly connect with. They're like, ‘I could have had something like this and it would have changed everything for me. I would have learned that there's nothing wrong with my hair.’ So it just instantly clicked for people.”
Involve your target customers
Your brand’s success is defined by your customers.
Giving customers something to believe in and resonate with is what leads to a loyal fanbase, which is why it’s essential that your story is impactful. One of the best ways to do that, according to Lina of Aaron Wallace, is to actually include customers in the story-making process.
“We got brand ambassadors involved with testing the products and giving us feedback on the branding, the website, every part,” said Lina. “It wasn't just me and Aaron—it was me, Aaron, our brand ambassadors, and a small cohort of customers who were with us. It needed to be right.”
No matter what stage your business is at, there are several ways you can continuously get customers involved and collect feedback. Here are just a few ideas:
- Email customers a survey.
- Interview customers one-on-one.
- Ask a question on social media and have customers reply in the comments.
- Host an in-person or virtual event to talk with them.
- Invite customers to answer questions via on-site chatbox.
While it’s important to hear from your customers at the early stages of your brand, collecting customer feedback should be a continuous effort. As your brand evolves, so will society, and so will your customers. Leverage their opinions—always.
“It challenged us, our perceptions, and our biases. It also made us build our confidence. When we were finally ready to go to market we knew that this was something that was going to be really magical because we had feedback at every stage.”
- Lina Gadi, Co-Founder of Aaron Wallace
Know the feeling you want your brand to give people
While many brand stories are created from something personal, it’s important to remember who you're sharing it with.
Lina believes customers want to feel represented, seen, and heard. Through storytelling that sparks emotions, brands can build a stronger connection with customers.
“You're not just selling a product, you're selling a feeling, an experience, a journey—that's what customers want to buy into now. They don't want to just buy a product; they want to buy into a story and feeling,” said Lina.
Tip: For a story to evoke emotion, ask yourself: “What do I want my customers to feel when they read my story?” Answering this question will help you decide what details to include, the tone you use, the scenes you create, the promises you make, and the overall mood of your narrative.
Don’t just tell a story, connect a community
When you think about the brands with large communities, there’s a common reason why consumers of those brands are brought together in the first place. Usually, it’s because they believe in a common mission or purpose, they like the feeling the brand community gives them, and they desire connectedness with like-minded people.
“Even when I think about myself and the things that I buy—from makeup to clothes—I'm connecting with the story that's being told to me,” shared Yelitsa.
Telling your brand’s story to a targeted group in a way that influences and inspires them is key, according to Yelitsa, Taran, and Lina. But there are three important tips they shared on how to make sure your story connects your community together.
- The importance of consistency
When it comes to storytelling, consistency is key—not just what your story is but also the way you tell it.
Taran and Bunny have kept the Blume story consistent since day one. And while the brand has evolved over the years, the brand’s mission and purpose have remained the same. According to Taran, consistency is the best way to make sure customers will remember it over time. The details, tone, and mood should be the same on every channel.
“For brands, repetition is important. Be very clear about what your mission is and then repeat it, so your community has the chance to wrap their head around it,” said Taran.
- But also know when to adapt—profitability is still key
While consistency is important, Yelitsa points out that it’s also important to know when something requires change.
It’s not often that a brand can get their positioning, messaging, and story perfectly right the first time around, so if you notice something isn’t working well with your audience it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
“The other thing that people don't realize is if you're not putting out good work it doesn't matter. So it's not enough to just do the same thing over and over again. If you're doing the same thing for 10 years, and you're not seeing any real results, that's telling you something—you have to change it,” explained Yelitsa.
Sharing your story and connecting a community is important, but your brand needs to be profitable first.
Adapting can be difficult with a brand that’s created from something personal to the founder. So how can you learn when to adapt? Getting direct customer feedback is a good way to understand if you need to change anything about your story to make it connect stronger with your customers.
- Above all, be authentic
When asked what advice she would give other founders about creating a successful brand story, Lina said, “Be authentic.”
Many marketing and brand experts claim that consumers have become intelligent. But the truth is consumers have always been intelligent.
The difference with today’s consumers compared to the past is the access they have to information. There’s now more choice than ever, and consumers can easily choose not to purchase products from one brand and find another within seconds.
Now that consumers have a choice, they aren’t just purchasing from anyone—they’re searching for an authentic connection that they can invest in.
“Consumers get to vote with their money. When they love your story, when it's an authentic story, and when they feel connected to that story, they want to invest in the business by being a customer,” said Lina.
So how do you ensure your story is authentic? Tell it in the most natural way, and don’t worry about where the experience comes from. Many brands fear looking “too small,” so they create a story that makes them look bigger than they are. And Lina says this makes brands lose their authenticity.
Chances are, your brand isn’t a corporate machine that randomly popped up in a factory. Consumers don’t like that anymore, they want to support real brands—and they find those brands through the stories that impact them the most.
“If you created your product in the kitchen, tell people—that's a beautiful story. Don't shy away from it. Don't hide from it. It gives humility and a feeling of connectivity to your customers. My advice is to be authentic and tell the real story because that's what people want to hear.”
- Lina Gadi, Co-Founder of Aaron Wallace
Where should you tell your brand story?
The short answer is, everywhere.
Your brand story should be baked into everything you do— from the emails you send, the blog posts you publish, to even speaking to your customers in person.
You don’t have to retell the story every time you’re communicating, but the same values behind your brand story should remain consistent and clear.
So where are all the places you can make your story shine? According to Taran, there are many areas on your website and in your communications to highlight your story, mission, goals, and purpose that brands don’t tend to use. For example, the footers of emails are prime real estate to include a quick one-liner story.
“Use whatever touchpoints in meaningful ways. So, using that real estate on your email footers, making sure that your PDPs have the mission on them—wherever you feel are the important places for your customer to see your ‘why.’ I think that's really important. You don't want it buried only on your about page,” said Taran.
Staying true to her own advice, every product page on Blume’s website highlights the brand’s mission with a link where customers can read more about it.
It’s not about you—it’s about your customers
While a brand story is built from something personal, in the end, it’s not about you. The reason you’re sharing your story is for other people to hear it, and the purpose of creating products inspired by your story is to make life easier for people that relate to it.
So first and foremost, it’s always about your customers.
Yelitsa explains this well: “You are not your customer. It's not about you, it's about them. So you have to understand them: their pain points, your solution for them… If you’re focusing on your own opinion, nobody cares,” she said.
In order to keep your customers at the centre of your story, Yelitsa suggests having actual conversations with them and taking the time to do your research. By hearing directly from your customers, you’ll learn what’s most important to them and how to communicate that in a way that matters.