Telling Stories with W. L. Lyons Brown III

In the early days of Jack Daniels, the company did something revolutionary: it told the truth.  Rather than playing in an abstract space, their ads stuck solely to depicting the 5 Ps of Jack – product, process, people, place, and past – through images of Jack Daniels workers doing nothing more and nothing less than the true, sometimes-mundane actions of their job, the very actions that allowed them to ultimately deliver high-quality whiskey to the brand’s notoriously loyal customers.  At first glance, it might have seemed that this move would rid the revered brand of some of its hard-won mystique.  But, in actuality, it proved successful, cultivating more loyalty than ever.  For W.L. Lyons Brown III, a descendant of the family who bought the iconic brand and built the Brown-Forman wine and spirits empire, this is an irreplaceable lesson in storytelling, a skill which he believes should form the core of every entrepreneur’s tool kit.  “Telling the truth is much easier than anything else,” and people recognize and connect with authenticity, no matter its form.

While he worked with the family business for many years, this Double Hoo (a graduate of both the University of Virginia and the Darden Graduate School of Business) eventually struck out on his own, building Altamar Brands, his current spirits company, from the ground up.  So, during a workshop with the i.Lab last week, he had no trouble identifying with the cohort’s 22 ventures and the eager entrepreneurs who lead them – he’s been in their seats before (quite literally, actually, considering the group gathered in a classroom at Darden, Brown’s old stomping grounds).

But while the successful entrepreneur and funder/namesake behind the i.Lab undoubtedly has endless pearls of wisdom to share with the group, he visited last week to talk specifically about branding.  A self-described storyteller, he can’t help but weave a powerful image at every turn.  For instance, to fully depict his preference for an ambiguous startup culture over a rigid corporate environment, he doesn’t simply say it in such plain terms; he instead launches into a vivid metaphor:  “I love the slime, a salamander climbing out of the green bog and walking on two legs – that’s me at the beginning of the process [of creating a business or brand].”  But evocative phrases aside, “branding your product, your company and yourselves is serious business,” and Brown imparted some similarly serious words of advice.

Brown believes that a practical application of entrepreneurship principles is just as important as the academic analysis of them, and he delivered on that belief – taking the cohort through a power-packed session of truthful, insightful life lessons, business wins and missteps, and gripping anecdotes ripped straight from his own experiences.  So, true to form, here are the top five big bullet-point takeaways he conveyed to the grateful cohort during his workshop last week:

  1. A brand is a lot like you – a lot of its qualities (character, personality, values, etc) flow from the soul
  2. “Trade dress” is key – when you see that blue Tiffany box, you automatically know a lot about that gift. “She doesn’t even know what’s in it, but she’s gonna smile.”
  3. People have become sophisticated, literate, and cynical. The antidote to that cynicism is to become “benevolent viruses” – infect connectors with your story and create viral buzz
  4. A beautiful story consistently communicated delivers emotional attachment, and emotional attachment leads to brand loyalty
  5. Be careful of getting in your own way

As an entrepreneur himself, he couldn’t leave without addressing the challenging, exciting, and largely unknown future that lies ahead for these ventures.  As he spoke passionately about the opportunities – from law advice to mentorship to enlightening programming – at the fingertips of these fortunate i.Lab entrepreneurs, Brown delivered a parting piece of advice with his signature straightforward style – “don’t blow it.”