Amber Williams has tales to tell — and sell.
She’s the founder of Punkyflair, a Washington, D.C., branding consultancy that’s taking a new, narrative approach to marketing. “I’m a firm believer that people don’t buy products,” she says. “They buy stories.”
Since launching Punkyflair in February 2015, Williams has brought that philosophy to numerous startups and early-stage ventures — most of them run by women and people of color, though she works with all kinds of people. Her clients have won valuable wholesale contracts with large retailers, press coverage and more thanks to her approach, she says.
At her company, Williams says she helps firms tell their brand stories in a way that “will withstand the test of time.” She is especially driven to work with black female-run startups, because of the specific challenges and barriers black women face in launching and scaling up businesses. And her goal is “to support longevity for their brand,” in whatever industry they’re taking on.
Though a black woman entrepreneur herself, she says she empathizes with all of the business owners she works with and relates to their struggles. “Most times, when I work with my clients, I see myself. The only difference is that they sell products and I sell words.”
Helping Women Craft Stories
Visibility, respect and access to startup resources are hurdles for many business owners, but are especially large problems for black female entrepreneurs, Williams says. Indeed, though they are the fastest-growing demographic of business owners, black women’s ventures tend to remain small, and funding for both starting and growing is tougher to secure.
But she doesn’t just want to help fellow black women overcome the odds. “I also relate to the dreams and goals that they have to be great,” she says. To help clients achieve their ambitions, she guides them through “storycraft,” a multi-step process Williams developed that pieces together a relatable, thorough narrative for their brand that’s designed to resonate with customers.
Williams begins by helping companies understand exactly who their customers are — not just in terms of demographics, but personally as well. Using surveys, “we dig in really deep,” asking customers about everything from their favorite TV shows to their long-term goals. This, she says, helps entrepreneurs understand the “perspective, preference and personality” of their customers. From there, she also looks at the pain points customers have expressed and scopes out a client’s competition. All of this provides inspiration for the theme, tone and narrative of a brand story.
The budding businesses that have gone through this process with Punkyflair have seen tangible results, Williams says. For example, client beauty businesses like Shea Radiance and Camille Rose have gotten their products on shelves in super stores like Target, Walmart and Whole Foods. Her clients have also used their stories to land spots on ABC pitch competition “Shark Tank” and in publications like Forbes, Essence, Elle and Black Enterprise.
[Related: Read our profile on Shea Radiance, A Female Entrepreneur Rises from Defeat.]
Telling Stories That Connect
“I am a natural observer,” Williams says, who is “very much intrigued with why people do things.” That fascination drove her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 2008. She followed that up with a master’s degree in marketing from Northwestern University in 2010.
In between degrees, she interned at Armani Exchange in New York City — which was where she found herself during the 2008 election. It was a pivotal time for her. President Barack Obama, “in all of his attempts to vie for Americans’ votes, he did something other candidates were not doing a lot of: He was telling a story,” she says. And “he was not the star” of those stories, she noticed. “Most people put themselves in the center of very self-serving stories, especially politicians.”
As Williams built a career at marketing giants like Merkle and FCB Global, she sought to use the kind of storytelling Obama employed to help clients like car maker Volkswagen and pharmacy chain CVS connect with customers.
Indeed, she got a personal window into the opportunity for a brand like Volkswagen to resonate with customers when market research landed her on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. After her 15-minute adventure, she “understood more about branding and marketing than any class could have ever taught me.” Harley’s selling point was the feeling of freedom that its customers live for, and its branding and communications made its riders — not its machines — the heroes.
Williams used that experience to create what she calls a “customer journey map” for Volkswagen that detailed when and how customers first came to the brand, when their so-called “honeymoon” phase with the car maker typically ended, and when it might risk losing long-time buyers. That outline “became the goldmine of the brand’s future digital strategy,” she says, and “laid the foundation for a revamped website … with messaging that evoked the same emotion” Williams felt during her motorcycle ride.
As Williams’ career progressed, she continued to gain “the confidence I needed to realize this was [an idea] that could stand on its own.” But then, while expecting her first child in 2014, she began to think hard about work and family. She started looking for parent-friendly companies, but couldn’t shake the idea that “I didn’t want to go back to anybody’s office while I dropped my son off at daycare.”
So 3 months after giving birth to her son Carter, Williams launched Punkyflair. She gave her business “baby” a name that reflected her boisterous personality, bootstrapped her launch and strategized growth with her husband, all while nursing her newborn. A solopreneur, she has now worked with 25 companies. Revenue — which she would only say is in the six-figure range — comes from client fees and public-speaking engagements.
Williams has also been sharing her own story, appearing as a podcast guest and landing features in publications like the Washington Post. She also has written a marketing column for Blavity, a media company for black millennials.
More Tales for More Brands
In a bid to reach more business owners, she is working on a series of group coaching programs for 2019 that would bring together five to seven entrepreneur clients to go through the “storycraft” process together. And she recently launched a paid online course called Customer Kamikaze, which “offers insight into my ‘storycraft’ method for entrepreneurs who are interested in identifying and communicating with their true customer.”
Her methods are informed by experience, but this expansion is driven primarily by her love of the game. “I do this because I’m passionate about it, and it just so happens to be something that turned out to be profitable.”
[Related: More on women business owners of color from The Story Exchange.]