I’ve been a writer and a nerd for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I won a class-wide poetry contest and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in one sitting. I wrote a mystery novella for my family at age nine and I knew the backstory to every Mortal Kombat character. But it never occurred to me to marry those two identities—writer and nerd.
Cut to a week or so ago when I agreed to start a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a few friends. If you don’t know what D&D is, it’s a role-playing game where players choose a character from a wide array of races, classes and characteristics and then improvise a story together with the help of a “dungeon master,” a person who determines the success or failure of characters’ desired actions using dice. Yes, it’s every bit as complicated as it sounds, but it’s a blast.
Step one is creating a character. As someone who didn’t know what “initiative” or “saving throws” or “cantrips” were, I started with what I knew: writing a narrative.
First, I did some research on classes and races and decided I was Tiefling (or a part-human-part-demon race) and a monk (an ascetic perfectionist with magic energy). Rather than moving on to my alignment, allies, ideals, etc., I used the basics of race and class to start crafting a compelling backstory.
What does this have to do with branding and business? A lot.
D&D and Your Business
Once I “learned” my own backstory, everything else became extremely clear. I wrote about the circumstances of my birth, how I was abandoned, how I came to be a monk at the monastery, why I left, where I was going and why. When it came time to decide on my name? Easy: it’s Abaddon. (My mother and father saw me—a cursed child with bat-wing-shaped birthmarks on my back—as a sign of the apocalypse, so I was named for the Biblical “Angel of Death” who commanded an army of locusts.) What’s my weapon? A quarterstaff, a weapon fitting of a monk. What’s one of my flaws? I can’t connect with people easily due to my lifelong isolation. Even as someone who’s chronically indecisive, I found each subsequent decision easier than the last.
And when I went to work the next day, it hit me. Creating a D&D character is about branding.
As a business, when you know your brand through and through, making marketing and operations decisions is so much easier. In my experience, the most compelling people are the ones who have an unwavering sense of self. I believe businesses are the same. The most compelling businesses and sales pitches are the ones with a strong sense of branding, the ones that know their own brand so well that they know how to cope with situations yet unseen.
Building ‘Character’ as a Company
Ideally, your company should develop its full brand identity before it even steps on the scene. However, it’s never too late to realize or recognize who and what you are. And (surprise!) you can even use elements of the D&D character worksheet to help you make those decisions. Specifically, let’s look at these five: Backstory, Ideals, Appearance, Flaws, and Allies & Organizations.
Our past experiences inform our current and future decisions. In the same way Abaddon, with his long history of doubt and isolation, would never trust a stranger in a tavern, a company that began in a college town may want to attract young innovators well beyond its start-up years. People tend to appreciate people and companies that stay true to their roots. It’s all about storytelling.
IN SHORT: People connect to stories, so be sure your company can tell its story.
According to the D&D handbook, ideals are concepts that you believe in most, “the fundamental moral and ethical principles that compel you to act as you do.” Companies most likely recognize this as a mission or vision statement. Your ideals are your core competencies or values. Your backstory says where you’ve been; your ideals say where you want to go and why. In D&D, you can choose one ideal, but in real life, your business can exist at the intersection of several: integrity, accountability, diversity, etc.
IN SHORT: Make it clear what your company stands for, what drives it to success.
Abaddon has a light purple complexion with dark blackbbuck horns, dark fingernails and deep golden eyes. He stands at 5’9” and weighs 170 pounds. Why is it important to be so specific? Well, if your group encounters a narrow cave, can you fit? If you step onto a tottery bridge, can it sustain your weight? If you need to hide in a crowd, can you blend in? These are situations your dungeon master (DM) may make you encounter.
In D&D, you worry about your character’s appearance. In business, you worry about your “visual identity.” Do you have an established logo and style guide? Potential leads, prospects and loyal customers alike need to recognize your brand, so you need to know when and how to appropriately use your logo, for example. Your visual identity is a symbol that reinforces and reminds people of your backstory and your ideals. Misuse of your visual identity may make others misunderstand or distrust your brand.
IN SHORT: Know what your company looks like—and what it doesn’t.
No one is perfect—neither person nor company. In D&D, you must determine your character’s foremost flaw: a fear, a vice, a compulsion. For Abaddon, it’s an unwillingness to trust or cooperate with others. As a business, of course, you don’t get to choose your flaws. If you did, you’d choose to flawless. But what you can do is aim for self-awareness and never-ending process improvement. In my opinion, knowing your flaws doesn’t make you weaker; in fact, it allows you to be stronger.
The unattainable triangle, what some would call the golden rule in business, suggests that every good business is flawed. At the points of the triangle are Quality, Service and Cost. A company can excel in one—perhaps even two—but not all three. If your company produces high-quality products at a fast speed, your product will be expensive. Your price point is your “flaw.” But as long as you excel at what you say you will and stay true to yourself, your customers will remain loyal.
IN SHORT: Be true to your strengths, but never stop improving.
Allies & Organizations
Your business does not exist inside a bubble. It relies on B2B and/or B2C relationships. In D&D, your character can create alliances with non-playable characters (NPC), or fictional characters the DM introduces to the story. Your character can also become a member of a faction, such as The Order of the Gauntlet, a group of clerics and paladins who are united against evil. These allies and organizations give you a greater sense of purpose and belonging or can come to your aid.
In D&D, players must be strategic about their allies, and in the real world, businesses should be, too. If your core competency is punctuality, a partner that regularly misses its deadlines can reflect poorly on you. If your story is largely about your grassroots beginnings, it may not be smart to align with an out-of-touch corporation your customers may perceive as greedy. As much as possible, choose allies that support your mission.
IN SHORT: Align your business with others that advance your vision and strengthen your brand.
EVG as Your Dungeon Master
Although there are plenty of similarities between the two tasks, it’s easier to create a character in D&D than it is to build a brand. In D&D, there’s always a DM to guide you through the process of making and maintaining your character. And in marketing, EVG can act as your dungeon master.
Our international team of experts is adept at helping businesses establish their brand identity and create brand-driven solutions to real-world challenges. If you would like our assistance in telling your backstory, expressing your ideals, sharpening your appearance, identifying your flaws or connecting to the right allies, contact us today!
Cody Owens – Account Manager & Lead Designer