What's Your Story?

Understanding your store's identity—and making sure your customers do, too—is the key to unlocking your business potential.
by : 

Jacki Smith

September 1, 2011
What's Your Story?

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” —Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In a small business, everything is a priority. Tracking your expenses, choosing your products, crafting your marketing program, hiring staff, connecting with the community. Oh, and don’t forget actually spending time with your customers and increasing your average sale. With all that on your plate, how in the world are you supposed to define your store’s identity and build your brand?

Just like having a business plan before you start a business, establishing an identity for your store and promoting it as a brand will make all those other tasks easier. It’s a critical guidance system helping you make decisions about everything from the products on your shelves to the events you sponsor to the colors you paint your walls. Everything you do in your store and out in the community adds to the perception of your business in the minds of customers. It’s called a “brand” because it quickly reminds the public of who you are and how they should view your store.

Examples of branding are everywhere. What do you picture when you think of Coca-Cola or Disney? Barnes & Noble or Ben & Jerry’s? A brand is created through both intentional and incidental actions, and entire industries are devoted to helping businesses find the right answer to the question “Who are you?” Chances are, you’re not in a position to have a PR company craft your brand. If you are like 90% of all independent businesses, you are doing it all yourself with a little help from your cousin’s neighbor who is really good with Photoshop.

This article is designed as a workshop to help you define your store’s identity, to create and actualize your brand so you don’t disappear down the proverbial rabbit hole of mixed messages, indecision, and confusion that plague many start-ups and small businesses. Follow the steps below to help you understand where you currently stand and where you want to go.

Knowing who you are—and who you’re not

Many stores start as one thing and become another over time—with no central vision, they’re subject to the whims of market changes, mood shifts, or a great sales pitch for a best-selling line of “new.” This leads to mistakes, some of them quite costly. Before the next tie-dye purchase or impulsive advertising decision, ask yourself and your staff the following questions:

  • What type of store do you have today? In 10 words or less, how would you categorize your business?
  • What is the dollar amount of your average sale? Do you know? Does your staff know? How does that define your business and purchasing?
  • What type of products do you carry? Are they unique, inexpensive, value-added? Do you go for price or quality? Do your customers value what you carry?
  • Who are your customers? Are they affluent baby-boomers or college kids? Are they coming to you for community or for your next sale?
  • What is the theme of your store? Does it even have one or is your store too eclectic to define? What story do you tell with the colors of the walls, décor, displays?
  • What is the vision of your store? Does your staff know what your original vision was? Has it changed?
  • Do you follow your mission statement? Do you have one? If so, do your employees know it?

All these things together create the identity of your store. This identity steers your purchasing, décor, marketing, and even your hiring practices. Answer the questions for yourself, then ask your staff. If the answers are wildly different from each other, you are in an identity crisis. If the answers are close, then you are on track for capitalizing on the brand you already have established.

When you have a vision of being an artist’s collective with a body-mind-spirit theme, but you keep buying mass-produced items from China, you are setting the wrong course. If you want to be a respectable healing center with a gift shop but you keep hiring high school kids who are loud and whiny, you are off-track and inconsistent.

What’s wrong with that? Besides creating confusion and incoherence, you may lose customers. Clients who want a soothing, stress-free environment aren’t typically the same crowd that frequents a cutting-edge, high-energy, indie shop with trendy décor. Customers who understand what you’re offering, and can count on your store to provide what they need, will come back again and again.

Finding your way and staying on course

Whatever your initial reasons for starting your store—money, community, spiritual calling, or it just seemed like a good idea—you have to take control of the vision for it today or risk losing focus and, consequently, wandering off track. Your vision is what energizes you to show up every day and keep going through the lean months.

The next group of questions is more personal and introspective and may require you to challenge your own beliefs to see whether they are viable as a business practice. By examining what motivates you, what you value, and what gets you excited about owning a store, you’ll discover more about the DNA of your business than you thought possible.

  • What are your personal ideals? What gets you up in the morning? Are you a healer, a teacher, a creator? Do you believe love makes the world go around or do you say, “Show me the money”? This is not a simple answer, and it will change with your experiences. Just base your response on where you are today.
  • What are your business ideals? Do you subscribe to the “off with their heads” philosophy, or are you more of an open-book kind of boss? From micromanaging to abdication, how do you want your store to run?
  • Do your personal and business ideals conflict? Opposing ideals are more common than you think, and conflict does not mean one set needs to change. Just be aware of the differences and compartmentalize your life a bit.
  • How can those ideals work to your financial benefit? If your ideal is that people should pay what they can for your services, you may not be able to make rent every month. You may need to think creatively to make your ideals profitable, or you may need to temper your vision with a bit of pragmatism.
  • What personal strengths do you bring to your business? When you know your strengths first, it is easier to compensate for your weaknesses. Value what you bring to your business, capitalize on it, and hire someone to do the things you don’t do well.
  • What is the message you would like to express to the world? All your ideals and strengths influence what you communicate. Let it come from your heart and your head. If you are shy, it’s OK to be gentle. If you are filled with passion, let that be your message.
  • What makes you and your store different? This is what you are proud of in your business—it comes from your passion, your strengths, and your ideals. You could have the same old products, but your difference can make them seem entirely new.
  • Who do you want to sell to and at what price point? Do you want to be a bookstore? Do you want to stock every crystal ever mined? The prices of your products will determine your average sale and draw different kinds of customers. Bargain-basement to one-of-a-kind, the spectrum is yours to choose from.
  • Who are your competitors? Where else does your customer spend their expendable cash? If your customers are local, your competition may be the new yoga center or gift shop down the street. If you are a regional or national business (such as an online store), think about how your customers found you and how they find the next place where they will spend money.
  • What are your assets as a business? Be specific. If you can’t find any benefits to your business, how do you expect your customer to do so? Are you in a great location, have space for classes, have free parking, serve refreshments, have the most knowledgeable staff around?

Putting it all together

Your answers to the questions in this article will help you craft your vision and mission statements, which will further brand your store by directing your product purchases and marketing efforts. You also will use them to create your tag lines and your elevator pitches.

Vision Statement: Three sentences at most. Keep it simple—state who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Mission Statement: Three paragraphs at most. Here, you expand upon your vision and state how you will accomplish it.

Tag Line: This is not always necessary for branding, but it is fun, and you can rotate it in your ads, website, and other public communications. Your tag line will continue to define you as a business and keep you in your customers’ minds when they need what you sell.

Elevator Pitch: The “elevator pitch” is designed to provide a snapshot of your business in 30 seconds or less—basically, the amount of time you might have on an elevator ride with someone you don’t know. The pitch tells your business story—who you are and why someone would choose your store. You are already using an elevator pitch every time you run into an old friend who asks what you are up to. If it rattles off your tongue just right, you can turn them into a future customer.

Both the tag line and elevator pitch will evolve as you say them over and over again, so don’t try to perfect it today; just take a moment and write your ideas down.

Discovering the right key for the right door

Now you’re ready to apply what you’ve discovered about yourself and your store to unlock its potential. From your defined vision, you can craft the look and feel of your store and refine your logo. You can choose with intent the items you want to stock and sell in your store. When a customer walks into a well-thought-out store, they are more likely to buy; it makes sense in their mind and can ease the stress of their day. A store with no identity or too many identities will stop someone from spending money. No one likes to spend money when they are confused.

From your mission statement, you know how you will service your customers. You know what type of employees you want and what business opportunities to take advantage of. Your mission statement will help guide all those last-minute, difficult decisions you face on a regular basis.

From your tag line and elevator pitch, you can craft your marketing program to attract customers who will buy what you sell. Your advertising and branding efforts will be coordinated and effective. You will be able to see what generates a positive response in your customers, which will help you economize your advertising dollars.

You are now giving yourself a platform from which to launch your brand. Instead of reinventing the wheel with every ad, flyer, and event, you can stay within your brand and make it really powerful. This even helps you decide where you want to advertise and what events you want to sponsor, because you’ll know what fits best with your identity and brand.

In the end, after you have established your business identity, branding is simply how you communicate that identity to the world. Keep your message consistent and recognizable at a glance. Your business cards, bags, signs, flyers, ads, and even the look of your store should be coordinated. Everything about your store should tell the same story, the one you want to tell. And if it does, then your business is much more likely to stand the test of time.

Jacki Smith is the founder and enchantress of Coventry Creations (www.coventrycreations.com). In business for almost 20 years, Smith continually studies the retail market, remaining dedicated to helping her customers succeed.