Building a Cathedral: Patreon and The Art of Brand Storytelling

Patreon is changing the way creators connect with their audience — and it's all about framing. Here's how Patreon's copy hooks both fans and artists on the crowdfunding platform.

Learn how brand storytelling can drive your business.
Humans are storytelling machines. So are great brands.

In 1666, a huge fire destroyed St. Paul’s cathedral in London (and half the city with it). Prominent architect Sir Christopher Wren took on the challenge of leading the rebuild. The story goes that one morning, as he visited the job site, he walked among the workers, asking them all the same question: “What are you doing?”

The first said, “I’m cutting this stone.” The second said, “I’m earning three shillings and six pence a day.” And the last one said, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren to build this great cathedral.”

Three ways of looking at the same job. The first, pure function. The second, pure transaction. Only the third worker was able to zoom out and see the bigger picture—one of pure meaning.

We all want to be part of that larger, more meaningful picture. Sometimes we need help seeing it. But once we do, we’re inspired to participate, to tell our friends, and become a believer. That’s what brand storytelling is all about. 

And it’s what has made crowdfunding platform Patreon an industry-shaking beacon for creative professionals. Founded in 2013 by YouTube musician Jack Conte, Patreon gives fans (“patrons”) an easy way to support artists for their work. In late 2020, the company raised $90 million in new funding and now has a valuation of $1.2 billion.

First, help your audience see the bigger picture. 

One of the most powerful differentiators Patreon brings to the market place is the story it tells about crowdfunding itself. It’s not just about “raising money” for your next project. Every crowdfunding platform can do that. Rooted in Patreon’s brand name (a spin-off of the word “patron”) is the clue that sets their framing apart. Just take a look at the home page home page:

“Change the way art is valued.”

On the one hand, this message speaks directly to one of the myths that creative struggle to understand and reconcile—the notion of the starving artist. Patreon’s message attacks this construct, illustrating how modern tools and attitudes make it possible for creators to connect with enthusiastic supporters to generate reliable income for their artistic output. 

It’s a welcome change of pace for any aspiring creative. Although many artists do tend to romanticize this ideal, at the end of the day, most creatively-inclined folks would love to earn more money from their chosen craft. And Patreon speaks to that desire brilliantly. Just look at this copy, taken from a video on the brand’s website: 

“If it weren’t for patrons, we wouldn’t have Romeo & Juliet, the Mona Lisa, Mozart, Shakespeare, or Da Vinci. Aristocrats paid them to create to enjoy their works—and so they could brag to their friends about how cool they are for supporting creators.”

What aspiring creative would not want to be associated with these historic names? With sound logic and a pinch of humor, Patreon reaches back into history to affirm its audience, give them a new story to tell themselves—and inspire them to act. 

In all of marketing, the brand is the guide and the customer is the hero. Your company is Yoda, your customer is Luke. In this case, Patreon is the Yoda guiding our hero Luke—the artist, the creator—to become that better version of himself. In other words, to build the cathedral. Patreon is giving its audience a new way to view itself—and a tool for activating that belief.

Then, teach them to build it for themselves.  

Your product is a tool. But a hammer does not a carpenter make. You have to educate and empower your audience—helping them understand exactly how to use what you’re offering, and to get the results they seek.

This is not a new idea. Ever seen a recipe on the back of a cereal box?  

Only now, with the explosion of internet communication channels, there are endless opportunities and vehicles for getting your teachings out there. 

Patreon exploits them gleefully, sharing tutorials on everything from creating an annual plan, to increasing productivity, to using data to reach your goals. And they go from the highly niche (A 50-page guide on how to start a fiction podcast) to the broad (A workshop on how to build a resilient creative business).

This content helps address the hurdles common to its audience, from how to ask fans for money to the emotional support they need to actually go for it. Website text reads: 

“We know it can be super tough to ask your fans for money. We really do. We also know you’re worth every penny. So get clear on your business model and how you’d like your fans to empower your creative career. Then, don’t ask them to do it, tell them how to do it.”

In short, Patreon is truly acting as the guide. The product itself becomes practically incidental. 

Finally, nurture the community that results. 

There are currently 200,000+ creators on Patreon generating support from 6+ million patrons—so something is working. Importantly, Patreon recognizes that this community isn’t about Patreon—it’s about a group of people who share like-minded interests, struggles, and aspirations. In modern marketing parlance, a tribe. 

As Seth Godin writes on his blog, “The tribe of people who follow a politician are rarely aligned with her, personally. Instead, they’re aligned with each other, with the way it feels to be part of this movement. Over time, the tribe and the leader inevitably drift apart.

So Patreon supports this group—whether through tactical support (FAQ pages, video tutorials, etc) or via inspiration creator stories or live talks with  celebrity speakers like Patton Oswalt or Issa Rae.

It all adds up to a cohesive message that says: We understand you because we are you—and we’re here to help you build something amazing with your creativity. Maybe even a cathedral. 

Helping brands identify these core messages and then creating compelling content to bring them to life is what we do at MarketSmiths. Get in touch with us today to see how we can do the same for you. 


Paul Rosevear

Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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