Dave Goetz, Founder & President of CZ Strategy

Several years ago, I volunteered to coach my third-grade son’s park district basketball team. I had no business coaching basketball, given my ignorance of the sport and slight paunch.

Sure enough, we lost the first two games. And not by small margins. I overheard one parent say, “This is going to be a lost season for my son.”

Out of my league, I asked my wife’s uncle for a little advice. He was 90 at the time. He had played professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers (he actually traveled with Jackie Robinson on the team bus in the spring of 1946). More importantly, he had been a college basketball coach; his 1956 team won the NCAA Division II championship.

“How old are the kids?” he asked.


“Kids at that age can’t pass the ball,” Uncle Lee said. “You lose the game to turnovers. I recommend you limit your passing. Just get the ball down the floor and shoot it.”

At the next practice, I implemented a one-pass strategy.

“Guys, I never want to see more than one pass on offense. Ever. I don’t care if you are 30 feet from the basketball. Shoot the ball. If we lose, we’re going to lose by missing shots.”

The tactic worked. Third-grade boys, of course, preferred shooting over passing. And we never lost another game.

Uncle Lee’s advice began with the most basic question about the mindset of my target audience, the 9-year-old: “How old are the kids?”

Understanding the customer is the foundation of building your brand as a start-up. Here are three basic questions to help you create a compelling storyline for your customers:

1). Who is the hero of our brand?

Several years ago, a book on branding (Building a StoryBrand: Clarify your message so customers will listen by Donald Miller) made the important point that every brand is a story. The story is what your customers tell themselves – and tell others – about their experience with your product or service.

None of what Miller discussed in his book is revolutionary, but he gave leaders a hook to help understand their ideal customer. There is so much confusion about what a brand is. The concept of “brand as story” puts a laser focus on the ideal customer.

Your brand is not your value propositions. Your value propositions are all about you. Here’s an example of a value proposition: “ABC Company is the leading provider of ____________ in the _________industry. We are the most reliable, more knowledgeable service for healthcare providers.” That’s all well and good, but your customer doesn’t care about you. Your customer cares about herself or himself.

Additionally, your brand is not your expensive logo or your website design. Nor is it your beautiful marketing team with their mock turtlenecks, designer jeans, and Versace sunglasses.

Your brand is a story. And every story has a hero.

So, who is the hero in your brand story? Surprisingly, the hero of your brand is not you, the start-up that is looking to grow.  Your customer is the hero, the swashbuckler, the dragon slayer. She is the hero on the quest for the Holy Grail. Your role is different (see below).

Just to be clear: You are not the hero of your brand. Your prospect is. Your customer is.

This reframes the concept of brand in a dramatic way.

2). What is our hero’s great challenge or obstacle?

If your brand is better understood as story, and you are not the hero, then what does the hero (ergo, your ideal customer) really need from you? What is your role? If you’re not the hero who saves your customer with your science or technology, then how do you conceive of your brand?

Every story has a conflict, an obstacle, a challenge. And every hero is on a quest that is filled with obstacles. You can only understand your role in the journey of your hero as it relates to your customer’s big challenges?

What is the real obstacle that your customer needs help with?

Years ago, we assisted a SaaS (software as a service) startup rework its brand strategy. The company’s first attempt was a tangled mess of propositional statements about their technology, which (at the time) was innovative. The first 18 months, the company struggled to land new customers. Their primary marketing tactic was a sales team dialing for dollars.

In our research of the start-up’s ideal customer, we discovered that the doctors (optometrists) saw technology as a barrier to their main job (and calling) – patient care. The hero was the doctor, and the real obstacle was the existing, server-based technology that made caring for patients only more tedious. The promise of the new technology freed the doctor from maintaining a server in the backroom with third-party IT vendors.

We eventually repositioned the cloud-based software as a means to free up the doctors (the hero) to focus on their patients. The battle cry (or storyline) of the brand becomes “freedom to focus.”

The hero of the brand of the tech firm was not the tech firm; it was the customer, who aspired to fulfill his or her call to serve patients.

3). So, how does our product/service enable our ideal customers to make progress on their quest?

It’s important to dig a bit deeper when evaluating how your product or service serves your customer. A lot of today’s product messaging can be boiled down to “saving money” or “making money” for the customer.

That’s too pedestrian, however. Too simplistic. What your customer (hero) is up to is much nobler, more aspirational, more missional. What is the great cause of your customer?

In the example above, the cloud-based technology certainly didn’t make optometry practice owners more money. And it really didn’t save them money. The monthly reoccurring fee overtime was arguably more expensive than buying hardware for a physical location and hiring a small IT vendor to maintain it.

What the SaaS product did, however, was free the practice doctors to simplify their operations. Why was that important to the doctors? Because the docs went into optometry to improve the lives of patients. Not to worry about the server going down in the middle of a workday.

Your tech, science, or service enables the hero to succeed. And to accomplish their great mission. That is the job to be done of your brand. Are you the steel in your heroine’s sword? Are you the tech that enables her to improve the lives of her patients?

Audit Your Brand Story

If your marketing is thin, and your sales team struggling, take a look at your website, the primary digital platform where your brand story is told. Your website isn’t your brand, but your site should tell the story of your brand in a compelling way. Most importantly, the language and imagery should help the customer envision himself or herself as heroic. Three basic questions to begin the audit:

  • Who is your brand hero, and what promise are you making to your ideal customers?
  • Is your web site a tossed salad of so-called value propositions instead of a brand story?
  • Is the imagery a menagerie of stock images of healthcare workers in masks and blue-or-green scrubs squinting into microscopes from the 1980s?

Your messaging and imagery should tell your brand story in the emotion and language of your hero, your ideal customer.

Dave Goetz is founder and president of CZ Strategy, a strategic marketing consultancy. He is an avid fly fisher and author of three books including “Native Tongue: How to Translate Your Message into the Language of Prospects” and “The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short, catch more fish.”