Food Company Storytelling 101: Keep It Real

A suspicious company story can leave a bad taste in people's mouths.

The Mast Brothers in 2011 at their chocolate factory in Brooklyn
Mast Brothers at their chocolate factory. Susie Wyshak

Never has it been so easy for a company to promote and position itself through stories on the Internet, in social media, on video and of course in graphic pictures. 

Never has it been so easy for that same media to destroy customer trust with a brand, along with hashtags that only flame a firestorm of bad mouthing.

The Assumption of Real, Good Food Is That the Stories and People Behind the Food Are Real

The year 2015 was almost over when a food blogger in Dallas wrote not 1 but 4 blog posts systematically deconstructing the story and history of Mast Brothers Chocolate.

Only a few months earlier, a story about Hampton Creek came out, based on comments by former employees, that questioned the highly admired company in many ways related to trust and transparency.

Simple Rules For Company Storytelling

Rule 1. Tell the truth (and act truthfully)

Any Mad Men fan knows that marketing companies love to weave an authentic story about brands. Even if that story is a little more, or a lot more, homespun than the reality of manufacturing or the people behind the brand.

There is nothing wrong with re-styling yourself to fit the image of your trade. Lumberjacks are known for wearing plaid. These days, bartenders, bakers and coffee roasters wear handmade aprons. There's a high likelihood they have tattoos too.

But late 2015 may be remembered in the world of bean-to-bar chocolate makers as the time when the industry got to shout "I knew it!"

Author and chocolate judge Clay Gordon, who runs a community of chocolate professionals, shared his take on the Mast Brothers "chocolate scandal." I think the biggest trap the Mast Brothers, their investors, and PR advisors fell into was believing that the narrative they created could stand up to close scrutiny. In this day and age of Google and the Wayback Machine at archive.org, it's just too easy to get caught out in a complicated fiction. 

Saying things like "I affirm that we make the best ... " and "we are dangerous" and "we never paid experts" only paints a target on your back. Someone is eventually going to be motivated to expose the discrepancies in the stories and call you out publicly."

Rule 2. Be Awesome (Your Food Will Be the Story)

When you make something people crave, that people will buy direct from you and ask retailers to carry, your product sells itself.

 

You won't need to craft a charming story of being an artisan food crafters, competing against claims by big food companies that they are "artisan." Instead, people will buy your foods because they are amazing and / or because they love your brand and packaging.

A perfect example of being the best is Chile Crunch, the brainchild of Susie Hotel, who started making her spicy crunchy condiment out of the La Cocina incubator kitchen. Fans of this condiment, which literally took off like wildfire, don't care where she gets her garlic and pepper. How she makes it isn't part of her story either. We just want that crunchy goodness as much as possible.

Rule 3. Weigh the Risk of Spinning a Story for PR Purposes

Culinary consultant Laiko Bahrs helps chefs and food brands pitch their stories to the media. She takes on weaving a story that's not quite true: "Stories of origin are so easy to re-write for public relations purposes. When you're a tech company it doesn't matter as much as when you're a small artisan food company."

In other words, how can someone trust your food if they can't trust what you say about your company?

Try Avoiding These 5 Words When Telling Your Company Story

Authentic - Unless you're saying something is the real deal, as in authentic Levi jeans or authentic black truffles, this is one over-used word.

Handmade - The word handmade is so general, sometimes it's hard to know exactly what it means. "Hand-kneaded, " tells a visual story and also, to serious bread lovers.

We know that handmade tortillas mean they will be thicker and kind of misshapen, and infinitely more delicious than tortillas stamped out by machine.

How long will you be making your foil-wrapped, molded chocolates by hand versus eventually using a chocolate co-packer who might find a more efficient way to make it? Is it worth talking about "handmade?"

Small batch - What is a small batch? When does a batch become big?

You might make your caramel over a home stove to start with. When the president falls in love with your candy, and you start to make it in bigger batches, is it still small batch? And who really cares?

Instead describe how you make each batch upon a word or talk about your amazing ingredients, or how you cook it up fresh daily.

As I wrote about in Good Food, Great Business, those are the value propositions that shoppers care about.

Artisan - "Artisanal methods,another master craftsman,old another an," says a lot. Artisanal means your foods may differ from one batch to the next and that you cobble your products together much old another master craftsman(or woman). 

In a major mis-use of the word artisan, big brands began referring to unusual / chef-inspired flavors using better-than-usual ingredients as "artisan." Those aspects of a food have nothing to do with how a food is made, which is where artisanship comes into play. 

Crafted - Even more than the word "artisan" being used incorrectly, the word "crafted" has come to mean "made." Like the word artisanal being more meaningful than "artisan," the word "craft" as a noun makes more sense. For example: He practices his cider-making craft in the same shed where his grandfather brewed moonshine. (Notice how brewed is so much more descriptive and visual than the word crafted?)

Bonus word not to use: Disruptive. That word, along with the others, can lead you down that path to creating a story designed more for investors than for customers and the press. And that approach can be more disruptive than productive. 

Keep it real! Ultimately your investors will win too.

Need help telling your company story? That's what I do.