Q&A: A Formulaic Approach to Building a Brand through Storytelling

By Emily Ceskavich

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Stories are as essential to our survival as shelter.

Since the first civilizations were formed, people have told stories to navigate their way through life. Stories helped our ancestors learn which berries to avoid and how to avoid freezing to death.

When one person figured out a solution to a life-threatening problem, they shared it with their community. This is how we as humans survived our early years. We evolved through our response to stories.

Fast forward thousands of years later and the value of storytelling has resurfaced. This time, instead of Joe telling Sally to avoid the winding path because he found out that it led to a bear den, we’re studying how Marvin the marketer uses stories to get Joe and Sally to buy.

One marketer who uses the power of storytelling for clients is Matt Certo, founder and CEO of the digital marketing agency Findsome & Winmore.

Recently, I sat down with Matt to discuss the ideas and strategies he shares in his new book, Formulaic, which is a go-to guide for marketers who seek to improve their results, and replicate their successes, by taking a formulaic approach to branding and marketing.


EC: In 2014, you decided to rebrand your digital marketing agency from WebSolvers to Findsome & Winmore. Comparing the business in 2016 to the early years beginning in 1995, what’s one thing you’ve changed your mind about when it comes to branding?

MC: I don’t think there’s one thing that I’ve changed my mind about, but one realization I’ve had is that branding really works when it’s a reflection of what the company really values rather than a veneer.

How does the company differ from others? What makes it special to customers? What do customers see as special about what the company has to offer? Company leadership should be understanding what kind of people they’d like to attract.



Your CMO/Principal Kelly Lafferman explains that the name change reflects the agency’s “respect for tradition, but with an eye on the future.” What has this story-based approach allowed you to do as an agency that you struggled with under WebSolvers? 

We didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into just website development because every element of a company’s marketing strategy should work hand in hand. The world’s so much bigger than websites, so we wanted our brand to reflect the entire picture of what we do for companies.



The stories that draw out the biggest response from readers are emotive. When building or marketing a brand, do you see some emotions as being more strategically valuable than others?

I wouldn’t say there’s a particular emotion that companies would be better off targeting over others, but appealing to emotions is definitely an important part of telling a story that sticks with customers and resonates. Think about your brand experience with someone.

Gillette, for example, used to send razors to people on their 18th birthdays. I still use Gillette razors. John Rivers, owner of the restaurant 4 Rivers, wanted customers to feel a connection to their childhoods so his restaurant has products that work toward that feeling, like throwback sodas.



How can a marketer pinpoint which brand values or event to focus their story around?

Stories that define or illustrate what the company’s all about are good places to start. Why the company started in the first place is a big one. Professor Paul Zak calls this type of story a “founding myth” and describes it as “an effective way to communicate transcendent purpose by sharing [it].”

Websolvers [which has since been rebranded as Findsome & Winmore] started when I was a student at Rollins and websites were just coming out so there was a strong need for the business. Rollins was one of the many organizations that didn’t have a website yet, so they became my first project.



What advice would you give to the marketer who struggles to break through corporate jargon in their copy? Is there an exercise you can share that you’ve found helpful?

Read your own copy critically. Think: does this sound like us? Is this the language we’d use?

At Findsome & Winmore, we think of it like what would the company look like if you held up a mirror to the brand?



What strategies do you use to learn about the audience you’re marketing to?

Many companies think of their audience in terms of demographics and statistics. They want to target 18-35 year olds, for example, but don’t take the next steps to narrow down their focus to their individual customer.

Brands die in the middle, trying to appeal to everyone.

Narrow your focus down to your best customers, then focus on learning as much as you can about them. Profile them. Sketch them. What do they like about your services or product? How are they using your product in their daily lives? How do you, as a business, improve that person’s day to day life?

Lululemon does a great job of this. The company created a profile of two fictional audience members. They gave these audience members names and described their daily lives. For example, Ocean, one of their muses, is a 32-year-old professional single woman who makes $100,000 a year…she’s engaged, has her own condo, is traveling, fashionable, and has an hour and a half to work out a day. The company uses audience personas like these internally to contemplate company strategy, product development, and company communications.



You liken Formulaic thinking to cooking a recipe. The ingredients include such things as the brand’s values, product experience, promotional tactics, the business environment’s physical energy, among others. How can the internal stakeholders within a business diagnose whether it’s the pepper, salt, or heat of the oven that’s throwing their recipe for success off?

I don’t know if there’s a linear way of thinking that would give stakeholders the insight they need. The best way to approach this is to continuously test what’s working and what’s not. Test, then listen to your customers to hear their feedback.

If you look at Coca Cola’s marketing today, it’s no longer about smiles and soda. They’re talking about smaller portions, caloric intake… They’ve seen that more people are becoming health conscious and drinking bottled water so they message they’re trying to get across now is “Coke is still a great thing, but it’s best to enjoy in small quantities. Mix it up with bottled water. By the way, we offer that too.”

Keeping with this metaphor, companies need to continuously be tasting and adjusting. It depends on the company’s stage too. If the business is making sales and on fire, then maybe they don’t need to change the strategy but double down on what they’re already doing.



Say you were working with a Fortune 500 company that has siloed departments for marketing, product, and sales. You can give each department a 3” x 5” index card they can reference to check that their respective decisions deliver an excellent customer experience that’s consistent with their brand. What should be on their cards before the meeting ends?

I would start with product and write the word “different.”

What is a factual difference between your product and the next company over? You can’t just say that your product is better, you need to give consumers specifics. What would people talk about?

Sales shouldn’t feel as if you’re sneaking your way into someone’s wallet.



How can someone learn more about what you do at Findsome & Winmore?

If you’re interested in taking a look at our work and what we do, you can visit our website here. To learn more about my book, check out formulaicthebook.com 



Final Thoughts

Stories give us more than entertainment. They give us context.

Stories validate our beliefs. They challenge our preconceptions. They help us relate to one another in a way that goes beyond our differences.

Stories enhance our human experience and have the power to enhance your business’s consumer experience, too.

Knowing the story of a business and the mission that its people work to realize in the world helps customers see their own interests and values in your brand.

Want more insight to help you take a Formulaic approach to your marketing? Get the book here.




About the author

Emily Ceskavich is the Marketing Director for Gazellia, a full-service website and app development company operating out of Orlando, FL. Need a website or app done right the first time? Want to make your current website mobile-friendly? Let us know! It's time to grab your business by the horns. If you'd like to stay connected, Emily can be found on Twitter (@EmilyCeskavich) and LinkedIn,.

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