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Flow Nonfiction: Tell Your Story! Or Others Will Do It For You in Austin, Texas | David Rice

Brand Marketing: Tell Your Story! Or Others Will Do It For You

Brand marketing and storytelling are essential components to creating a great company brand that will grab people’s attention.

With the growth and adoption of technology, we have more potential mediums than ever to reach people with our brands.

However, the downside is there’s a ton of competition and we really only have about 10 seconds to grab someone’s attention.

Our stories need to be concise. Effective storytelling is about staying out the way, being authentic, being patient and keeping it simple.

Today, on Small Business War Stories, we talked with David Rice from Flow Nonfiction about how he helps big brands tell stories of their philanthropic work in a way that does not feel contrived.

Check it out:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with David Rice from Flow Nonfiction is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Tell me a little bit more about Flow. What do you guys do and how did the business start?

David Rice: We started as a response to a need that we saw in the market for brands to be able to tell stories of the philanthropic work they were doing or the social good they were doing in a way that wasn’t too contrived or self-congratulatory. We had done some work with the Clinton Global Initiative through a great organization here in Austin called Students of the World. Matt Naylor was editing these short films and I was asked to do the music for them. We were both donating our time and essentially found ourselves making about 20 little shorts that described what Procter and Gamble was doing for African communities, for example.

We found that there was some missing link here because all of these were being done by another nonprofit itself, the Students of the World group and being shot by students. It felt like, to me, that really companies like that should be paying for this, for these things, and not asking everyone to just volunteer their time.

Right about that time, I had just moved to Austin a few years prior to that and had become friends with a woman named Lisa Pearson, who is a fabulous, fabulous woman who comes from the PR background. I told her about this little, I don’t know, germ of an idea. She said, “Oh, wow. There’s a name for this actually, David. It’s called cause marketing.” I was like, “Oh. Cause marketing. Never heard of that.” She’s like, “Yeah. That’s actually a real thing. It’s in this really emergent field. I would really like to introduce you to some of my colleagues in New York that represent Procter and Gamble brands that are always looking for innovating ideas in how to tell stories.

How would you describe cause marketing?

David Rice: Cause marketing is essentially a brand, a company, that has developed a cause internal to their own company or is supportive of a cause outside of their company. For example, our first job ever, our first big job, was for Downy, the fabric softener. Procter and Gamble. They had discovered an organization called Quilts for Kids, which is a volunteer network of quilters all over the country that get together and they actually knit. They have these days where they knit these beautiful quilts and then deliver them to hospitals for kids that are there for these extended stays that got long-term care going on. Just something fun and unique and they try to customize them and stuff.

They financially support Quilts for Kids. In the case of our partnership with the organization and with Devries PR, we built a campaign around telling that story. What does it look like to make these quilts? Who are they for? Taking people through the whole experience of it. Telling a story. Essentially for that piece we found two kids at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and got their backstories and then followed the birth of these quilts, talked to the quilters, talked to the organization that came up with that whole program. It was a touching piece. It was a huge success for the brand. They got everything they wanted to get from it. At the time, I was so new to marketing, and I really still am, that I didn’t even really understand what they were talking about, these metrics and things.

Let’s talk a little bit about storytelling. Storytelling’s a little bit of a lost art. I feel like you have a lot of people in the Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat generation who tell these micro stories where you have these snippets. But storytelling as a more medium-to long-form art is not as prominent as it used to be. How do you think about that in the context of doing this marketing?

David Rice: We’ve thought about it a lot. When we first started out, Facebook was brand new. Brands were using it, but didn’t really know how. It was kind of the Wild West in that respect for social media pre-Twitter, much pre-Instagram, all these things. We had an intuition early on that, “Man, we just made an 11-minute piece. No way anyone’s going to spend 11 minutes watching something.” We used to joke about, one of these days, is this going to be a gif and we’re going to change our name to Gif Docs and it’s going to be a two-frame little animated thing and we’re going to have to figure out how to tell a story within those two frames.

In some ways, I think a lot of storytelling has gone in that direction. It’s this, let’s figure out the most concise way to get someone’s attention. If we can hold them for 10 seconds, we’ve won. I think there’s truth to that. I think that you need to be able to put forth some … I hate the word “content,” but I never know a good synonym for it. Put forward some work that grabs someone’s attention. I think what we’ve discovered is that because we’ve been really lucky and had some brands trust not only us but themselves and their own stories enough to say, “Okay. Actually, you know what? I think people will stick with this for 14, 15 minutes if we make it as good as a TV show, if we give it the resources to really make it something that someone wants to watch.

That’s not just about a big budget or the best cameras or all that stuff, which are part of it. But it’s also about the brand manager or the client having the courage and the balls to get out of the way of the story and let their brand be a little character in it and a voice, but to not make it about the brand. Otherwise it instantly feels like an ad and it’s gone. That’s a long-game play.

How can a small business take those lessons and apply them to their own marketing? Maybe a small business that somebody who’s listening to this program doesn’t have a lot of those most-expensive cameras or the biggest resources. How can these lessons that you’ve learned about storytelling be applied to small businesses telling their story effectively?

David Rice: That’s a great question, because with us it’s a case of the cobbler’s kids have no shoes, because we’ve got these fairly dormant social sites ourselves, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and all this. I would, just as a disclaimer, anyone who is looking at any of those thinking, “I’m not taking advice from that guy. He hasn’t put anything on Facebook for six weeks.” That may be true. But our business is essentially in working with other brands and corporations to be mindful of their storytelling. Anyhow.

You mentioned the expensive cameras and all this. That’s a real perk if you’re trying to do a certain kind of thing. But I think a great Instagram channel that is populated by beautiful pictures or almost beautiful pictures or pictures with a filter that looks cool. Whatever. Whatever tools you have. If you are just aware of these principles of, first of all, staying out of the way.

What are the basic principles that people need to think about?

David Rice: Stay out of the way. That’s a simple way to put it. Which is not to say that you don’t get to get any glory. Some people are afraid, “Oh man. I’m putting all this time and I’m not even talking about myself. People aren’t even going to know it’s me.” I think it’s far more valuable for your brand, I’ll just keep using that word, to be perceived as someone who celebrates others and roots for people that are in their field to succeed. Not so much competitors, although you certainly could be nice to your competitors.

What is the Small Business Revolution? What did you guys do?

David Rice: Small Business Revolution is the collaboration of Flow with a woman named Amanda Brinkman, who is the head of marketing at a 102-year-old now company based out of Minneapolis called Deluxe. Deluxe for years was known as the people that print the checks. You go to the bank, you open a new account, they send you off with a toaster and a box full of checks printed by Deluxe.

They’ve built a wonderful business over the years. Fortunately had the foresight 20, 30 years ago to start seeing that the writing was on the wall for such a narrow market and started to develop a lot of products for small businesses. Web hosting and email marketing and things like this. But we’re still struggling on how to get this name that was always associated with this legacy product to be associated with something forward.

Amanda had the, I think, courage and vision to set out the first year and say, and it’s very similar to what you’re doing right now, which is “Hey. We’re going to find 100 small businesses across the country. The new Deluxe is a champion of small business. Let’s go get to know some of them.

That sounds a lot like the Soul of America Tour…

David Rice: Yeah. They’re not Deluxe clients. They’re not required to be a client. It’s not about that. It’s like, “Okay. We’re going to prove it. We really care.” We spent the year finding, sourcing, vetting, and then ultimately telling the stories of 100 different businesses across the country, which is a mammoth task.

At first she was like, “So let’s make 100 videos.” We’re like, “Wow. Okay. First of all, I don’t know if you got the budget to understand what that would cost. But also, we’re a small business ourselves. We’d have to start forming some fat, and it’s going to lose its vision, and all this.” Ultimately what we landed on was really cool. It was 12 short films that Matt Naylor directed. The other 88 were photo essays. We hired some great photographers to go around. They’d go into the ballet studio in Kansas, or the barber shop in Chicago, or whatever it is, and just get to know them and take these beautiful photos and write up their interview and we’d put copy and all this.

We used all those assets to build an Instagram following and a Facebook following. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but I know that it was wildly successful. So much that, for the second year, they wanted to keep going. In fact, they wanted to do something even bigger. That’s when we teamed up with Robert Herjavec, who is a star on Shark Tank, and basically re-imagined the whole series as more of a reality show. The basic premise is, find a small town in America who, for whatever reason, as the big boxes have moved in or industry’s moved out, their Main Street has shriveled up a little bit, and find a town that really has a drive and a commitment to growing the soul of their community back. We did that. We sent out a request for nominations and ultimately Wabash, Indiana, won the contest.

Basically we spent the summer there. We chose six businesses on Main Street and really got to know their needs and their market and their shortsightedness is what they thought their market was. The Deluxe team did all kinds of things. New websites, new logos, different, I don’t know, strategies for social media and all these things. Then they also bought things that were needed. Whether it was a new ovens or storefronts or doors. All kinds of things that were really just infrastructure. Also made a beautiful park and signage in the Main Street and really just overhauled it. We shot the whole thing.

The show is called Small Business Revolution Main Street. It’s on Hulu. It is the most watched reality show on Hulu.

Again, this is not something that goes through a network. This is all paid for by a for-profit brand. What is so great about it and how really illustrates that principle of staying out of the way is that Amanda is in the show. She’s basically the costar with Robert. She’s the voice of the company. But we grow to trust her and the other characters that are from Deluxe that are in the show as they appear because we get to see their humanity. We realize that we see them actually helping people and it just avoids this feeling of overt commercialism. I think that the show has the wonderful folks in Wabash that people fell in love with. It’s really made an impact. In fact, we’re going back in a couple of weeks to do a where-are-they-now episode. 

But the results for the company have been extraordinary. The return on the investment has been way more than I think they even expected. Of course we’re thrilled about that, because everybody wins and we get to make another show.

So we can distill our list of storytelling principles to 1) Stay out of the way and 2) be authentic…

David Rice: Thank you. Pretty much. That comes really naturally for some people. Some people just live their lives that way. I would say to anyone listening that’s maybe afraid like, “Oh, but my boss is going to say, ‘Well, where’s the return? Where’s the product? You should stay on that frame six seconds longer,’” or whatever. I know it’s tough to find the courage to challenge those sorts of old ways of thinking. But that’s what they are. They’re old ways of thinking. I think that anyone who feels like, “All this new way of marketing doesn’t make any money for anyone. Where’s the product?” I get that.

So we can add 3) Be patient, and 4) Keep it simple.

David Rice: Yeah, and keep it simple. Make sure that whatever story you’re telling, it’s gotta relate to what you do as a company. That’s another big one. Yes, you want to stay out of the way, but it’s not ingenuous to let it be known that, yes, you are a human being with this company and that you provide services. There’s a transparency that’s acceptable. It makes sense, for example, that Downy does quilts. We worked with Tide, the laundry detergent. They have Loads of Hope, where after a hurricane they bring the truck and they wash everyone’s clothes. You need to make sure that the story that you’re telling is relevant and germane to … Because the audience that you want to build is the audience that will ultimately buy your product, whatever you’re doing.


The Four Principles of Effective Storytelling

  • Stay out of the way
  • Be authentic
  • Be patient
  • Keep it simple

Can you think of examples where storytelling was done right, and maybe others where it backfired?

David Rice: An example of something that I saw recently that I thought was really beautifully done was this Yeti short film that was a profile on a sign maker, a neon sign maker here in Austin. I thought that was very well done. It seems to me like, and I don’t know, but it seems like they’re trying to maybe start building out a whole content world that’s really independent of the coolers. I’m not sure. But just a little plug for that. I thought that was great work.

There are some horror stories of just being insensitive. There’s a certain finesse required when you’re telling stories of ultimately tragedy and heartache. We went to Haiti, for example, after the earthquake there, whatever it was, seven or eight years ago. I think we did a really nice, honorable job of telling the story of how Tide invested money into the hospital to rebuild and make a laundry room because everyone was washing all the hospital sheets by hand up until that point. They did a lot of great things. When we were there, there were a couple people shouting about, “You profit. You’re profiting from our misfortunes.” That’s a little bit like, “Oh shit.” That doesn’t feel good at all. That’s one example, just to watch out.

There is nuance. What we’re doing now with Small Business Revolution isn’t so much a cause. That’s one thing I would say about our business in general is I think we’ve, whereas we still work with some nonprofits and whatnot, the cause marketing thing in that literal, “We’re the brand. We support this thing. Tell the story about how the people that we’re supporting benefited from the money that we gave, and at the end put a bottle of laundry detergent on the movie.” That model is a little bit in the past. Now we’re just, again, I think more about celebrate good. That’s one we’ve got on the website.

I think it sets a tone that, because all this is happening online. I think it sets a tone online that is inspiring and helps elevate the conversation out of the so-called the “fake news” or just the ugly stuff that’s around. When you’ve got something that connects at a soul, heart level, it works.

Let’s talk a little bit about your music background. You have an amazing, amazing studio here that has every piece of awesome equipment that I would ever want to have for a recording studio. There’s a poster on the wall there with your name on it. You’re sitting there, looking like a … I don’t know. It’s almost like a David Bowie-esque vibe. Tell me more about that.

David Rice: I knew from the time I was four years old that I was going to be in music my whole life. There was never, never any question of that. The challenge was just trying to figure out, how is that going to work? I was in bands all through high school. Then I was a DJ in high school for the dances, and making money. I was doing stuff in my teens that my friends were like, “Dude. This guy’s always got a fat wallet because he’s doing these weird gigs,” because I was playing the organ at real estate auctions. Literally. I was 15. They’ve got all these foreclosed houses and these awful slides and this guy. It’s like a baseball game. Bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum. I would make $300 a pop on a Saturday. Then I’d take my friends to Iron Maiden or Rush or whatever.

All through my 20s I made records. I was a songwriter. I’m still a songwriter, although that’s evolved over the years more to music that supports the film work that we do here, our actual product. That’s still a big piece of it and why that studio really can exist. I think that it was that unique, me coming from that background and then Matt coming from being a huge fan of film, that made this interesting chemistry happen. We didn’t come from the same backgrounds. He’s much younger than I am. We’ve got different tastes in things, or whatever. But I think they converge in a way that really complements each other, and not just in a one-to-one way of, “Oh, well, the music I write works for the films.” Just a whole perspective. Because I think, I’ve just, maybe just because I’ve been around longer or something.

Storytelling and music are inextricably related. Even if it’s not just about the lyrics tell a story. Just actual music, the notes, the sounds convey a story. It’s a story maybe that you even need to find a, “The beginning is this and the middle is this and then he goes to the bank.” It doesn’t matter. It still expresses an emotion and a journey, I think.

As a small business operator, as somebody who also wears a hat of running this agency with your business partner, can you think of a time when things went wrong, and how did you deal with that?

David Rice: Yeah. We’ve had a couple of challenges along the way with partnerships. The original partner that we started the company with ultimately we felt like that we were going to have a leaner operation with just Matt and me. That was really, really hard. Terribly hard.

Because you get to know someone as a business partner and it’s hard to distinguish between business and friendship and all these things. There’s some really hard decisions that we had to make.

It was tough. I can’t say that I’m completely proud of my communication during that period or the way it all went down. But I think it’s been almost three years now, I think. It’s starting to heal. As a business, we took a bit of a hit, because there’s a lot of cost involved with that. It’s like a divorce, really. But fortunately we’ve just kept growing every year. We’ve never taken a loan out. We’ve never been in debt. We don’t have any investors. We’ve got a house full of 10 people working now as we speak.

Where do you see it going in the next five, 10 years? Where do you want Flow Nonfiction to go?

David Rice: We’re going to continue to work with some core clients, even if it’s just one, even if it’s just Deluxe and Small Business Revolution, as long as they’ll have us and as long as that’s getting views and results. But alongside of the commission work like that, we’ve got three different shows in development right now that are original content that we’re really excited about. One’s a music show. One’s a food show. One’s a veterans’ issues show with a fitness … a guy named “Big Sarge.” It’s a whole other story. It’s amazing. We are actively looking for avenues for those to get out. I think we’re going to try some non-traditional paths for that and draw on our experience with working with brands that fund these shows that we’ve made, to try to take it to some folks and say, “Hey, Golds Gym, we’ve got a fitness trainer with a hell of a story who’s already had mega views on Netflix on this series we did for Wounded Warrior Project. Maybe you want to think about paying for a show. Let’s put it on Hulu,” or whatever. The big difference is really that it’s ideas that we generate here and then search for partners, rather than vice versa.

Where can people find your business?

David Rice: You can go to www.FlowNonfiction.com. We’ve got all the social links there, and a lot of our work is there. People can also watch Small Business Revolution on Hulu.

Final Thoughts

Some of the best brand marketing is simply compelling storytelling. It’s not about being in people’s face about your company. Modern consumers are too smart for that.

David shared the story about the success of Small Business Revolution, now the most watched reality show on Hulu. The show tells interesting stories about small businesses and is paid for by a for-profit business, Deluxe. 

It’s been a huge success even though many of the businesses featured are not customers of Deluxe. The show is not forcing Deluxe on the viewers, yet it’s been a huge hit.

This is a great example of modern brand marketing. Become the thing that people are interested in and it will substantially improve your business, but it takes patience.

If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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