Betabrand, or the secret of great brand storytelling

This entry was originally posted on September 24, 2013 on www.ulliappelbaum.com

Storytelling is the one of the buzz words du jour. And in a sense this recent focus on storytelling represents a major leap forward in the way brands and their agencies think about engaging customers. In fact, storytelling implies a narrative that is involving for its audience (very different from hard sell functional messages), a narrative that can evolve over time and should evolve across channels (very different from the “matching suitcases” approach) and, implied, a narrative that appeals to the emotions of its audiences.

One brand that exemplifies storytelling in the 21st century (does anyone still use this term?) for me is Betabrand (www.betabrand.com). Betabrand is a San Francisco based clothing company that only sells online.

Betabrand does a lot of things that are really smart. They are set up to be able to evaluate an initial consumer interest even before entering production, they produce in small limited batches, they invite co-creation and crowd sourcing, they are great at social media and they are great at inviting their customers to tell and share their own stories and in the process promote Betabrand. When you think about it, the name already is brilliant. You can read about their story here and here and here.

So the superficial conclusion would be, Betabrand is great at crowdsourcing and consumer involvement. A great example of a Web 3.0 company. And I do not want to downplay the importance of these factors.

But that’s not what makes them so interesting in my opinion. And so successful. What’s really interesting about their approach is that their storytelling starts at the product level. Not only with the way they speak about their products, but the product themselves.

Take for example the “Dress Pant Sweatpants”, they look like dress pants ideal for business but are made out of (and feel like) sweatpants.

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Or the “Geisha Cordarounds” with “Incredible horizontal corduroy” (as opposed to the traditional vertical) and quirky prints inside the pockets.

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Or the “Grey Executive Pinstripe hoodies” (the name says it all).

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Every single product in their catalogue has a great, funny or quirky built-in story. On top of that they layer a great narrative describing the products, their features and the product’s story. Here for example the story of the Geisha Cordarounds:

” Praise science and the incredible times we live in! Through sheer scientific marvel, Betabrand has fabricated corduroy that goes sideways instead of up-and-down, lowering drag coefficient by an amazing 16.24%!

The result are Cordarounds, our famous horizontal corduroy pants. Finally, aerodynamic cords to keep up with our fast-paced lives — even accelerate them!
But that’s not all they do! Unlike vertical corduroy, which produces friction that can heat your crotch to uncomfortable, even dangerous levels, Cordarounds’ horizontal wales mesh evenly, lowering the average wearer’s crotch heat index (CHI) reading by up to 22%.

We’ve always thought our Cordarounds were cooler than common cords. Now we have the data to prove it.All Cordarounds are made in limited batches, with uniquely designed buttons and pockets. We think they’ll be some of the most sublimely small-talkable trousers you’ll ever buy.”

And as every guy knows, the CHI is a big deal. Simply brilliant.

So I believe that the secret to telling a great brand story is to start with a great product story. When I wear a pair of Betabrand pants (and I have acquired a few over the last few years), I am guaranteed to get comments from people around me. The products themselves are great conversation starters, which often involves me into conversations that go way beyond my own fashion comfort zone.

In a sense that’s the secret behind the Apple branding. While the Apple branding is genius, it is so because it highlights as opposed to overshadow its products. Apple doesn’t do great advertising. They do product demos and side-by-side comparisons, a format invented by P&G to convert housewives to buy their detergents. The Apple advertising is so great because it doesn’t get in the way of the product stories, which are great.

Telling compelling brand stories is becoming an increasingly complex process in today’s always-on, multi-touchpoints, multi-screen and multi-everthing world. And this complexity makes it very easy to get distracted from the real secret behind great brand storytelling: great product story telling.

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