How to communicate a strong brand narrative to investors

Written By

Phoebe Kranefuss

Graphic illustration of piece of paper with pen writing on it and various arrows on an abstract purple background | How to communicate a strong brand narrative to investors | Mercury
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A strong brand narrative is like the inside cover of a good book: in just a few sentences or short paragraphs, the writing conveys depth, complexity, and suspense; it teases a story, shakes hands with the target audience, and convinces them to dedicate some number of hours to digging in further. In both cases, attention spans are short and competition is fierce. There are plenty of good books on the shelf, just like there are plenty of promising companies looking for funding, and it can be hard to stand out. Crafting a narrative that stands out and communicates a compelling message can make all the difference —  and expert Packy McCormick has some suggestions on how to get there.

Packy McCormick could probably make a lot of money shilling a one-size-fits-all outline for the best pitch deck of all time. He’s seen (and created) countless pitch decks from both sides of the table: he’s invested in over twenty companies himself, and he’s also a founder, tech leader, and writer of the free Substack newsletter Not Boring, which goes in-depth on the startup and investor landscapes. But his philosophy isn’t so packageable: he recommends breaking away from the tried and true pitch deck format, leaning into your own excitement, and considering individual investor’s pitfalls — in other words, putting a human spin on the business of pitching.

Here, we share some of Packy’s tips, tricks, and suggestions for founders.

Communicate the “why now” element

One of the first questions investors will ask is why has no one done this before, and why you’re doing it now. There are plenty of right answers, but all of them include narrowing in on the history of the problem you’re solving, the context around past attempts at solving it, and any technological advances that have changed the way founders have approached this problem over time. Is there a recent discovery or technological advancement that makes solving a certain problem feasible in a way that hasn’t been true historically? Is there a cultural shift that inspired your solution? “If the answer is yes,” Packy counsels, “then I’m willing to understand a bunch of detail to get to an understanding of why this thing that many people have tried and failed to do before is actually possible.” Whatever your reason, find that one complex piece of information that no one else has noticed yet, and be willing to go as deep into history, context, and trajectory of that information as you can. “If it’s really simple, amazing. If it requires a little more walk-through, keep the content short and link to papers.”

Give complexity, but make it simple

Once they’re interested, investors are typically willing to dig into as much complexity as they need in order to understand why a new approach might work, especially when a solution is highly technical or when nothing has worked in the past. “People can appreciate and wrestle with complexity in order to understand the stakes,” Packy says. “Give as much complexity as you need [in order] to get people to understand what you’re doing — [but do it] in as simple a way as possible.” Initially, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting in the door if you lead with pithy, short, and memorable takeaways — but you should also be prepared with long-form technical documentation. Consider writing a whitepaper for your product, even if that’s not typical for your industry, or a manifesto that explores your brand ethos, founder personality, and the backstory (whether personal or technical) for what you’re working on and why.

There’s no single good format

Don’t be afraid to go beyond the typical format to catch founders’ attention. Most founders defer to formats that are tried and true (think: decks, probably created along the lines of whatever format is currently circulating via the hottest founder-subscribed Substack). While it’s certainly true that there are existing rules of thumb when it comes to the format of your pitch, it’s also true that following a set of boilerplate best practices means that investors’ inboxes are probably already inundated with iterations of exactly that format — and your deck might fade into a sea of replicas. “There is something to be said for visual and audio mediums to be able to get [your point] across,” Packy says. “If video is your medium, do an email with a video in it.” You have to ask yourself: “What’s the best way to express what your company is doing? And that will be very different from one company to another.” Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel just for the sake of proving you’re unique, but do consider if your pitch, brand ethos, and founder personality are best represented by a unique format that other people are already using. Look to video journalist and “optimistic tech explainer” Cleo Abram, startup storyteller Jason Carman, founder Maggie Zheng, and others for examples of effective short-form videos. Packy doesn’t recommend creating a highly-produced, film-quality pitch — but he does recommend considering how busy investors are, and that even the most promising venture in the world might be overlooked if it’s delivered in a format that’s become overused or tired.

Focus on what gets you excited

A smart product, a killer team, impeccably written whitepapers, and rock-solid knowledge of the history and context relevant to your product are all critical — but so is that je ne sais quoi factor that gets an investor excited. And typically, the thing that will get investors excited is probably whatever it is about your work that gets you the most excited. As you think about turning years of research and progress into an elevator pitch, make sure that “the thing that got you excited about [building your company] in the first place” is there, says Packy. “That’s the single thing that should survive.” Is it a personal story, like it was for Sara Mauskopf, who founded the childcare marketplace Winnie out of her own frustration as a working mother who couldn’t find quality childcare? Or maybe it’s a timing thing — a technological advancement that’s making something feasible that wasn’t feasible before, as was the case for AstroForge, an asteroid mining company working to extract valuable minerals in space thanks to an all-time low cost of access to space. Palpable excitement is contagious, and investors want to feel your enthusiasm.

Consider your investors’ scope of knowledge

Remember that not every investor will understand your field or product as intimately as you do. As a first-time founder, it can be easy to assume investors have seen or experienced the problem you’re solving. But investors’ backgrounds, skills, and expertise are limited; a solution to what may have been a huge problem for you in your role or life might not be recognized by every investor as critical. Perhaps you’ve created a product that unifies product teams around the needs of customers. For someone without a product background — like most investors — this solution might not seem critical. While data that explains cost savings and productivity increases is certainly important, you should also consider how to paint a more concrete portrait of the pain point amongst your target user. Can you find recognizable product leaders who’ve seen and supported the product to share details with your target investors, and explain to those investors what they might have missed, and why? “The more you can get a consumer of a product to explain why it matters, the better,” Packy says.

Written by

Phoebe Kranefuss is a writer, designer, and marketer. She's managed influencer campaigns for fintechs, designed logos for nonprofits, and ghost-written tweets for famous teenagers. She currently writes, consults, and teaches out of Madison, Wisconsin.

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