As an organization, one of the most powerful narratives at your disposal in crafting a brand identity is your origin story. 

“Batman Begins,” “Casino Royale,” “The Godfather Part II.” These were all popular films, because people love watching how extraordinary characters got to where they are, after starting as regular people. 

At the center of every business is a person or people, and there is a story to be told. A compelling brand story gives your employees and customers insight into how your company came to be and what truly matters to you as a team, what motivates you.

Take the tale of Spanx founder Sarah Blakely, for example. Sarah was an aspiring attorney who failed the LSATs twice and ended up inventing Spanx after she cut the feet out of a pair of pantyhose. At the time, she was making a living selling fax machines door-to-door. People love hearing the story of an entrepreneur who started out at the bottom and built a world-famous brand. The message is that anything is possible if you work hard and persevere through challenges. 

Another example of a business with a strong, fleshed-out founder’s tale is Nike. Founder Bill Bowerman was a track coach who was so convinced that better equipment would make for better performance on the track that he experimented with his wife’s waffle iron in the garage and created the first Nike waffle sole in the 1970s. The sole has short, multi-sided polygon shaped studs that provide gripping and better traction. 

Bowerman’s ingenuity in creating better equipment to improve performance has become lore. This creation myth telegraphs the heart and soul of the Nike brand, a promise that has been conveyed and capitalized on for decades.

Nike’s entire brand promise is that of equipping and empowering performance, whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior. 

When Nike tells Bill’s story in this video, he’s a larger-than-life character known for his innovation, scrappiness and courage. In the retelling of experiences and run-ins with Bill, Nike creates interest and a human connection, and it also drives home core values of the company and traits it would like its employees to exhibit, including inventiveness and risk-taking.  

Business leaders are often sitting on great stories, because they don’t see them as great stories. They haven’t stopped to reflect and share the experiences they had in building the business. Maybe they’re too close to the situation to see the potential for a compelling narrative that can be used as a tool to engage. 

However, it’s beneficial for every brand to take the time to find and craft its creation myth. The key is to find the story. Your organization’s creation myth doesn’t necessarily have to start at the very beginning. 

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is often described as “the man behind Starbucks,” but he was not the original founder. He is, however, credited as the person who made the brand what it is, a household name. Starbucks shares Schultz’s story, which started with an inspirational trip to Italy in 1983, in order to illuminate the company’s overall approach to coffee and its transformational effect on coffee culture. 

Schultz tells the story of visiting Italy for the first time while he was the marketing director of Starbucks. At the time, it was a small outfit, selling high-quality arabica coffee beans to a few stores in the Seattle area.  

He was struck by the Italian espresso bar traditions in Milan and Verona and returned from his trip with a vision for the company’s future. 

“The Italians had created the theater, romance, art and magic of experiencing espresso,” Schultz recalled. “I was overwhelmed with a gut instinct that this is what we should be doing.” 

“Everything we’ve done to date sits on the foundation of wonderful experiences that many of us have had in Italy,” he said.

His first takeaway? It’s not just about the coffee. It’s the experience and atmosphere. Italian espresso bars provided a full-sensory effect right when you walk through the front door ― from the aromas, to the visuals of baristas who moved with grace, and the sound of opera music. He also noted that the employees seemed to know the names and drink orders of the customers, creating a sense of community.  

His second takeaway? It is about coffee. Quality product, prepared by baristas who take pride in their presentation. Every detail was treated with reverence.

When Schultz brought the idea of bringing Italian espresso bars to America to Starbucks leadership, he was met with resistance. While they ultimately tested Schultz’s idea to open an espresso bar, and the store had high sales, the company considered it a distraction from the core of Starbucks’ business of wholesale coffee beans. 

Schultz left Starbucks to start his own business Il Giornale in 1986 but kept the professional relationship alive, using Starbucks beans in his coffee house. He purchased Starbucks in 1987 and merged the two companies. 

The Starbucks origin story illustrates the brand values of quality, and building community that the company strives to achieve in its stores. Its mission: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

Its values: 

  1. Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
  2. Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
  3. Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
  4. Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

Starbucks’ astronomical rise in the 1990s and early 2000s shows how those values resonate with consumers.

Origin stories are not cookie-cutter, and that’s what makes them powerful. The origin story, or “creation myth” as we like to call it, can and should convey the essence of your brand promise, your uniqueness. It’s one reason our branding agency always works to include the brand creation story in our clients’ Brand Leadership Frames, the system of tools and narratives that create an executable, actionable Live Your Brand strategy for your company. 

Story is the most compelling, memorable and repeatable of brand frameworks.

Your brand story is a story only you can tell, and Thoma Thoma specializes in telling brand stories.

If you’d like to hear more, contact Principal Melissa Thoma at melissat@thomathoma.com

Author Jennifer Joyner

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