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What is Your Brand's Thru-line

A thru-line is a theme or idea that runs from the beginning to the end of a story. For us story nerds, it’s the story arc/spine that hooks us in in act one, builds our suspense in act two, and payoffs the result in act three.

Jarie Bolander
Jarie Bolander

The last question of the marketing six core questions is how to get your story straight by pulling together the thru-line for your brand. What’s a thru-line?

A thru-line is a theme or idea that runs from the beginning to the end of a story. For us story nerds, it’s the story arc/spine that hooks us in in act one, builds our suspense in act two, and payoffs the result in act three. It’s the same thing we’re going to create for your brand. In other words, this is the macro view of your brand’s story and what we’ll use to craft “creative” that takes our prospects on a journey to customers and then to advocates.

Start with the End in Mind

For Sutro, we had a strong vision of what we wanted people to feel after they used the product. This is based on the challenges with keeping your pool water safe.

The ultimate goal was for our customers to rave about how much a Smart Monitor made taking care of their water so much easier. This raving is what we wanted to ripple through the entire Smart Water Ecosystem.

On top of that, we wanted that “pride in a perfect pool” idea to be the thru-line of our story. That’s the reason the whole Love Your Pool (or Spa) Again concept came about. In hindsight, what we should have said was “Take Pride in Your Pool (or Spa) Again” since it’s this pride of perfect water that fills our customer’s needs.

Perform a Thought Experiment

Albert Einstein performed thought experiments to figure out his theory of relativity because there was no way to perform actual experiments. While writing a story is not as hard as quantum physics, the idea of a thought experiment makes a lot of sense. For our macro view of our brand’s story, the thought experiments we want to run will give us the basis for which to run real experiments. Let us explain.

Setting up an experiment requires that you postulate a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a question that you want to test. Put another way, you have an idea as to what result the experiment will produce and you want to ensure that you can prove that result.

The result we want from a successful Story Funnel is that we create advocates that will rave about our brand. We want this result because it’s the ultimate marketing advantage -- engaged raving fans that tell everyone they know about our brand. That is our end game, our story thru-line, and the hypothesis that we want to “prove.” So how do we do that?

A Simple Question to Ask

What we want in an advocate is for them to think to themselves “my people need this.” In order to get them to think that, we need to ask ourselves a simple question -- how can we deliver a Factor of 10 (10x) what our customers expect? This simple question should get you in the mindset to super-serve your customer so that they (and you) get the ending payoff everyone wants.

That simple question will form the basis for the thought experiment that we’ll build our macro story structure from beginning hook to middle build to ending payoff.

Another End in Mind

Another way to think about the end game for the Story Funnel is that you want your prospects (and customers) to look up to your advocates. Ideally, they will want to aspire to be “just like Mike” as the old saying goes.

This important connection should drive the paying off advocates part of the funnel. These advocates to look up to will be the ones that you’ll want to foster with special care and attention. As we mentioned before, this is the ultimate goal for the Story Funnel -- to build advocates that sell your product for you.

Still another way to think about this is centered around the buying process. This is what Ravi calls North and South of Buy.

North of Buy

We like to think of the hook stage as North of Buy because the mindset of a prospect will be much different than that of a customer and an advocate. It’s also good to think in these terms because it frames the emotionally charged content that has to happen in order for prospects to both “tell me more” and buy your offering.

South of Buy

South of Buy is all the interactions that happen once your prospect hits buy and becomes a customer. The journey from here on is all about building customers into advocates as they move through the Story Funnel. Thinking of it this way can free you from the constraints of the noisy North of Buy/Hooking stage so that you can really focus on the user experience. The first and most important part of that is how to get customers on-boarded as fast as possible.

Steps to Build Your Brand’s Thru-line

We refer to the combination of the Hook/Build/Payoff as your Brand Thru-line (BT). The reason to think of it this way is that we want to keep our story straight throughout the entire journey but also change it slightly for the stage of the funnel someone is in. In order to do that, you need to write a couple of sentences answering the questions below and then put them together:

Step 1: What Emotions will Hook in Prospects?

The Hook part of the funnel is all about Pathos or emotions. Figure out the emotions you want a prospect to feel and write those emotions down. These emotions should be aligned with your core values. The goal of the hook is to prompt your prospects to say “tell me more” until they are ready to buy.

The exit from the Hook stage happens when a prospect buys your offering.

Step 2: What are the Logical Steps to Buy and Use the Offering?

When a prospect buys your offering, you want them to use it as soon as practical. The steps to use your offering must be clear and concise. It should follow a logical flow that makes your new customer think “that was easy.”

Pay particular attention to the conventions and requirements for your offering since your new customers will expect them to be laid out in your hook and done in your build stage.

The exit from the Build stage is a bit tricky since advocacy might be different for each brand. In general, you’ll want potential advocates to be engaged with your brand and telling their friends and family about it without promoting. It’s also important that some time passes using the product. How much time depends a lot on the offering.

Step 3: What Would an Advocate Look and Act Like?

During the Payoff part of the funnel, we want to craft a vision of what someone that’s a fan of the offering looks like. This stage is all about building the credibility of customers, your brand, and other advocates.

We want both prospects and customers to aspire to be like the advocate. That means that the vision of how wonderful your life can be using the offering must be shown. Of course, this new reality must be both realistic and attainable through the use of the offering.

Since the goal of the payoff stage is to payoff advocates, there is no next stage or positive exit. There is a negative exit (e.g. an advocate stops advocating). Ideally, your advocates will be the group of folks that buy your new products, tell you about issues, and lead the way for more advocates to get involved.

Step 4: Does Each Part Above Adhere to the Core Value & Big Idea?

After you have answered the last three questions, take a look at what you wrote and see if it has your core values and the big idea stated within. It’s important that each section has a callback to your brand’s core values and the big idea. This is how we keep our story straight throughout the process.

Correct any section before moving on.

Step 5: Write a Paragraph Each for the Hook/Build/Payoff.

Once you are happy with your answers above, it’s time to write a paragraph for each part of the funnel. These paragraphs should encapsulate what you want all the communications at that stage to convey. Each section should start off as:

When Prospects first see our brand, we want them to feel ….
When Customers buy our offering, we want them to do ….
When Advocates talk about our brand, we want them to say ….

Step 6: Put it Together. How does it Read?

Once you and your team have written the Hook/Build/Payoff sections, read them aloud in order. How does it sound? Does it make sense? The tone and tenor of your Brand Thru-line should represent how you want folks to feel, do, and think about your brand as they interact with it.

A trap to avoid is to use generic words or phrases. Words and phrases like we’re great or we want them to feel happy. Everyone wants that. The goal is to have them feel, do, or say something specific to your brand’s core values and big idea. The more specific the better.

Sutro Brand Thru-line Example

Below is the thru-line for Sutro. Notice that the Core Values and the Big Idea are baked in along with some specific details of the experience that we want customers to have.

When Prospects first see Sutro, we want them to feel that they can obtain perfect pool water that will give them a sense of pride. We want them to admire the design of the product and feel that we have their back if anything goes wrong.

When Customers buy a Sutro Smart Monitor, we want them to open the box and admire the beautiful design, download the app, and place it in their pool all within 30 minutes. We want them to get alerts and encouragement that they are doing all the steps correctly.

When Advocates talk about Sutro, we want them to say that it is so easy to use and helps them save time and money when taking care of their pool. We want them to rave about our customer service and that our data is the most accurate on the market.

Should You Have Multiple Brand Thru-lines?

This comes up a lot when a brand has more than one customer, say a patent and a doctor. While it’s tempting to create two separate thru-lines to address both types of “customers”, it should be avoided. Why is that?

Your eventual end customer or the user of your offering is the one to focus on. Any sort of distribution or “middle-person” that might help the customer use your product is not the focus of your brand thru-line. You want prospects, customers, and advocates that will be the ultimate end user of your offering. The other stakeholders around them will be pulled along by happy and successful end customers/advocates.

Now this does not mean that you don’t provide materials to those other stakeholders. They must also know the benefits of your offering to those that they are helping and what they get out of it but no direct efforts should be made to convince them. Convincing should be done by the advocates.

In the example of patients and doctors, it will be tempting to create parallel branding for both patients and doctors. It will be a waste of time and money to create branding for the doctors since they are not the ones that directly benefit. Sure they will get more business and make more money but that will happen automatically with happy end customers and advocates. Still not convinced?

Ask Your Doctor About [Insert Drug Here]

Drug companies run countless ads to get patients to “Ask Your Doctor About …” Sure they may have programs for doctors to get paid for prescribing but the core value and message is directly targeted to the end customer and the doctors get pulled along.

Again, this does not mean you don’t show and tell a doctor what they get out of it but ultimately, your brand needs to train the doctor (or other stakeholder) what their patent/end customer solves by using your offering.

The Last of the 6 Core Questions

The thru-line is the last of the 6 core questions that make up the Brand Story Guide. Next, we’ll go over how to create the last part of the Story Funnel (Payoff) and then talk about how to pull together both the Brand Story Guide and the Story Funnel.

Are you ready to create advocates that help you sell your offerings?

Paying Off AdvocatesAdvocatesBrand Story Guide

Jarie Bolander

Jarie is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature with over 25 years of startup experience. He has also written 6 books about business and entrepreneurship.