This Guide will enable you to:
Over the past decade, brand narratives have become a foundational component for DTC startups as consumers become increasingly discerning about the nature of the products and services they buy as well as the companies that create them.
Brand narratives, or the story a brand tells, flow from a brand mission, or the articulated reason why a brand exists. While attention is deservedly focused on creating brand narratives for consumers and investors, typically less attention is paid to developing a brand mission and brand narrative with current and prospective employees in mind. This is a missed opportunity for young companies.
Brand missions and narratives can help attract competitive talent who have other options but want to work at places they believe in. They also have additive effects: compelling stories turn the listeners into storytellers themselves so that the brand’s orbit reaches far as its network grows.
A mission answers the question of why a company exists and remains largely unchanged over time. It helps to act as an organizing force for employees, particularly new ones, and also can be a filter through which decision-making happens.
A brand narrative flows from the mission statement and goes deeper into how the brand and company came to be, why it is important, and what it wants to do next. A brand narrative can be personal from a founder’s perspective or can be situational — a reaction to the context the brand operates in. A brand narrative or story can be a foundational part of a company’s culture and inspires people to join and stay at the company.
Why is a brand mission and narrative important for DTC startups?
For many companies, brand missions can feel like an afterthought, particularly if the company’s leadership team or founding team already has spent time and energy putting together a thoughtful and researched business plan and pitch deck. Those documents help articulate the short- and long-term goals for a company, act as a strategic blueprint to set milestones and measure progress, and also show to potential investors or partners how the company is thinking.
Brand missions are not going to replace business plans. But for many startups, particularly those in early- and mid-stages, the biggest challenge is ensuring everyone in the company understands the North Star toward which they are working. Particularly as a company begins to grow and new employees join, they aren’t coming in at the ground level. They don’t know the origins of the company, why it does what it does, and why they’re so important to it. Brand narratives flow from the mission and bring the company’s origin story and progress to life in a well-thought-out and engaging way.
How can a brand mission and narrative be used?
Both the brand mission and the narrative should be communicated in the hiring process. For prospective candidates, educating them on the company’s mission and story is a good way to pique interest in a role or a company. They should also be a part of the onboarding process. Codifying a company’s values and story in a written format can help remind staffers of their place in the company, eliciting better and more productive efforts and happier employees.
Using the mission statement and brand story to then create a regular channel of communication within a company can reinforce this further. Creating a mission and narrative then finding ways to communicate them are of paramount importance for startups. This internal mission and narrative can also then go on to inform other elements, such as external marketing and positioning, or work in tandem with those facets.
In order to do this, companies must:
- Begin with crafting an articulated brand mission. A clear brand mission statement puts together facets of what the company does, who it does this for, and how it does this.
- Move on to developing a brand story. A brand story should include interesting characters and a sense of personality.
- Find ways to communicate the mission and brand story in ongoing employee-focused communication channels.
Figuring this out will provide the building blocks for other external narratives that will help the company grow. This guide provides a framework for answering these questions and creating a solid brand mission to help attract and retain employees.
Starting with a mission
Startups should start with a clear and well-articulated brand mission.
A brand mission is a clear, succinct set of statements that sets out to answer one key question: Why does this company exist? A mission statement is the internal driving force of a company. It should be the backbone of every decision and should give employees of all levels a clear North Star at which they should aim. Mission statements are often thought to be squarely about customers. But they can be equally important internally.
Mission statements give employees a sense of why they are working for the company. They can also double as a decision filter in order to make decisions that are “on brand.” The key is that the mission statement is largely static over time and does not change as the company grows.
The brand’s mission will act as a foundation for the overall narrative of the company and how it is articulated to employees and job candidates.
A company mission takes a brand’s reason for existing and writes it into a call to action. The mission can be thought of as the business’s frame; everything inside of the frame is the parts that make up the whole. The mission statement should be easily repeatable and can be called upon everywhere from elevator pitches to employee interviews. A mission tells employees what a company does, why it does this, and where it fits in. Missions should answer the key question any employee has: How will what I do fit into what you’re trying to do?
Defining a succinct mission is critical: It takes the ephemera that floats around the head of every founder or executive and translates it into a real-life calling card. When effective, a good mission statement instantly tells the world why a company exists.
Here’s how to create it.
- Start with articulating the startup’s biggest strength. This should be a relatively simple undertaking. For founders or executives, knowing the one big strength they have — whether it is their hero product or their selling model — is probably the way they’re already marketing themselves. The “strength” doesn’t necessarily have to be connected directly to what a company sells. It can be, for example, a commitment to sustainability.
- Next, articulate the company’s biggest differentiator. This is probably closely connected to a company’s biggest strength. As the consumer startups category becomes increasingly saturated, homing in on a key differentiator is necessary for a brand’s mission statement. What sets a brand apart could be anything from the materials it uses to how it runs a customer service team. It should be the stand-out feature. This should also take into account the company’s competition.
- Answer this key question: Why would anyone pay for these products? Many people skip this step because they feel it is answered in the first two questions. But knowing what a product or company’s strength is and why someone would pay for it are two different questions. Answering this question in a succinct way can elicit a response that shows how the product can be useful, and what problem it can solve for the customer.
- Answer this: Who are my customers? Relatedly, the mission should include a sense of who the company’s customers are or will be.
- Find the internal differentiators. This one is less product-driven, but equally important, particularly for people operating in crowded categories. Maybe a brand plans to hack social commerce on a nascent app, or has a customer service team that approaches problems differently. Figuring out what makes the team different can be an important part of a mission statement.
- Think about the vision. Missions should include a sense of where the future lies. The company may currently be focused on figuring out the problem right in front of them but the wider vision — where it wants to go — may go beyond that. The mission should include a nod to that if applicable.
Organizing the answers
Using the answers to the above prompts, executives should put together a mission statement. The mission statement does not have to be too short — it can be difficult to get all these thoughts together in a sentence or two. Generally, about 150 to 200 words should suffice for a mission statement that encapsulates most, if not all, of the points above.
Before doing that, it is helpful to run through the answers to the prompts above and refine them.
- Make it specific. Try to work every response down to one sentence. By being succinct, executives can be clearer and fit more information into a shorter amount of time. Attention is scarcer than ever, and companies need to be deft in getting their point across.
- Tap into emotion. The answers should motivate the founders and teams, no matter what they’re trying to build. They represent all the reasons the company does what it does. Let them come through by writing coherently and with feeling.
- Eliminate all jargon. It only trips people up, and clarity is the goal. If there’s an easier way to say something, say that. Jargon evokes an insider vs. outsider mentality for people reading the statement.
- Find the common threads. This should be bigger than the product; it should be the purpose. A new sock brand, for instance, is not born from a need for more socks.
- Finally, reverse engineer. At the end, piece together the statement and attempt to guess the type of brand and founder who wrote those responses. If there’s no clear picture, it may be worthwhile to go back and refine the responses.
Turning the answers into a mission
At this point, the company’s reasons for existing are clearly articulated. The next step is to stitch them together into a coherent, well-articulated mission that can travel and be used to speak to prospective and current employees.
Executives should begin with revisiting the responses to the prompts above and decide on two or three that speak the most to broad appeal and differentiation. The most unique trait of the company should be the one that stands most clearly. That might be the hero product – many companies have come to market with one standout product that spread like wildfire thanks to word of mouth.
But it can also be something else: A better way to make sustainable sneakers or a new way to sell makeup online. Regardless of the business, teams should be careful to not let outsiders dictate the responses.
An important thing to remember about mission statements is that they shouldn’t box the company in. Think of it, again, as a frame. As the company grows, the frame may expand. As long as every new launch fits inside of the frame, the company can keep focus and customers, employees, and investors will be able to understand how the company got to where it is. The mission is also not meant to be enforceable: Employees aren’t necessarily graded on how closely they’re hewing to the mission, although it should certainly be the case that they are. Instead, it acts as an internal North Star for every action every employee will take.
Using the mission to create a brand story
The mission statement can be used to create a compelling brand story or narrative. A brand story is important to have to flesh out the mission, particularly when attracting employees. A brand story takes the reason for the brand’s existence (created via the mission) and appends a past to it. It can also become the foundation for a company’s culture and provide a compelling reason for people to join and stay at the company, particularly for hitherto unknown brands.
A good brand story should have the following key features:
- A cast of characters to root for. No brand is built by one person. The founder may be the main character, but there are support roles: other team members, the first angel investor and don’t forget the villain – people who didn’t believe in the brand become good foils.
- Tension that pulls the reader in. Speaking of the villain, every good story has tension. If it’s smooth sailing, there’s little to root for. Think of a brand’s adversaries. Teams should be comfortable getting vulnerable. For example, founders should tap into what they felt when they thought the company might not work after all.
- The climax – that satisfying Aha! moment that ties everything together. Teams should dig into the details of when the idea turned into reality: The steps that led up to that moment, the big break, the first dollar made. It should depict a moment in time when things click with a clear path ahead for growth.
The story should also ensure it does the following:
- Focuses on human experiences. The most compelling brands are the ones that center their brand stories around human experiences. Customers want to spend their money on companies run by people they believe understand their needs, struggles and desires.
- Avoids cliches. At this point, deep into the direct-to-consumer era of retail, brands have repeated and co-opted the lowest hanging fruit of storytelling. Think outside the box, and don’t underestimate your customers’ ability to sniff out a less than authentic story.
- Stands up during an interview. A good exercise to do is to imagine sitting down and being interviewed by a journalist. Founders should pretend to get “interviewed” by another team member so they can find answers to key questions.
Sample questions to ask while creating a brand story include:
- What inspired you to maintain momentum?
- What challenges were pivotal in shaping your path?
- What major milestones have you hit, and how did you get there?
- Who were your first hires and why?
- What were your biggest investments?
- What trial and error got you to your final product?
Numbers and data give a brand story teeth, so founders should be prepared to give a glimpse under the hood.
Communicating a brand story to employees
Once a compelling internal brand story has been established, it forms the foundation for communication with employees, both current and prospective.
For many companies, marketing is often focused on communicating to a company’s prospective customers. In some cases, this extends to a company’s investors. But employees can be a neglected cohort that should be treated with as much care as customers. Particularly when hiring new employees, it is important to ensure that a candidate feels like they can envision themselves as part of the company’s story. If employees don’t understand or believe in the mission or see themselves as part of the story, day-to-day execution will become increasingly difficult.
For startups, it is particularly difficult because hiring is so hard. Top candidates want to work somewhere that has growth potential for their careers – and to see that, they have to be able to see the company’s growth potential. At the same time, running a team that isn’t able to repeat the mission statement or call upon key parts of the brand story limits that growth potential. Employees can also be the most powerful brand ambassadors, contributing to both the brand halo, the bottom line and attracting other talent.
Early-stage startups often overlook this key component, and without tuning their employees into what’s happening and why, they’ll begin to wonder why they’re invested in the work at all. Unhappy employees lead to turnover, turnover leads to internal breakdowns.
To get ahead of this cycle, companies should set up employee-facing initiatives that give teams a direct channel to hear updates, air concerns and ask questions. Executives are busy, and often use that as an excuse to not get bogged down in daily minutiae. But communication comes from the top, and these initiatives offer transparency while also empowering other key, trusted members of the team to get involved.
The simplest and most effective channel can be a daily, weekly or quarterly email sent to all staffers. While it can be tempting to only do town halls or meetings, written communication can be more effective so employees can absorb it, and it can also be sent or shared with new employees down the road.
As a company grows, it can explore other ways of communicating internally:
- An internal podcast is a great way to highlight different team projects that others in the company may not understand the ins and outs of. It’s also a good way to explain the mindset behind big decisions.
- Events work best when outside voices can help rile a team. Gauge interest and take company surveys to hear what type of speaker employees would like to hear from, and what they’re interested to learn from an outsider. And execs should plan these talks with intention: Rather than hearing someone discuss what their life accomplishments are, focus it inward.
Importantly, communication goes two ways. Employees feel ownership when they have a chance to raise concerns, ask questions and challenge leadership. Don’t pull back; lean in. Transparency is an essential ingredient in making people understand that your story is real and not lip service. No matter what form this takes, teams should take time every quarter to reflect on what is working and what is not.
Here’s how to begin creating employee-only communication channels.
Have a clear goal for every “edition” of the communication. The goal of every internal communication channel should be to reinforce the mission, provide updates on how far along the company is to achieving key milestones that are part of the mission, and also explain why this is important to the company. This can be done through a variety of ways: A financial snapshot, news about a new product set or marketing campaign, or the hiring of new staffers. Ultimately, each missive should have a clear goal that maps back to the mission and story.
Be consistent. Deciding on a cadence for communication is important. For example, a quarterly town hall-style meeting, accompanied by an email newsletter that recaps the meeting, may be enough for some organizations. For others, a weekly email with a couple bullet points of what is going on may be better. Whatever cadence is chosen, it should be maintained.
Treat employees like an audience. Just as brands do with brand publishing endeavors, employees can and should be thought of as a distinct audience cohort on their own. What do they like and dislike? What do they want to hear about? What is important to them? Teams should use internal communication products such as newsletters, podcasts, or even social media to answer key questions.
Create a feedback loop. At the same time, employees are not simply passive recipients of information. Enable a mechanism to collect questions and feedback from employees where applicable.
There should be a senior executive responsible for the communication vehicle. Whether teams choose to begin with something low-lift such as an internal newsletter or Instagram account, companies should have a senior executive, ideally a founder, in charge of this. CEOs and founders should use this as an opportunity to be candid. Their voice should lead. This isn’t about marketing, but about communication: The channel should be used for reinforcing the mission, updating teams on where the company is in its pursuit of the mission, and what team members should know about it.
Bring in the company spirit. This can be a place to highlight accomplishments, share important news and reflect on failures. That means that it shouldn’t simply be a CEO’s stream of consciousness. People want to hear from their team leaders and their peers.
Summary and next steps
Brand story and mission statements are critical pieces in a company’s strategy. They work to recruit customers, employees and investors and when successful, they build in the power of word of mouth support that can spread a brand’s awareness beyond its immediate bubble.
Successful brands should ask themselves the following questions when developing a brand mission and story: