Are Narratives Working for Your Company?

user Doug Randall

Recently, I met with a CEO who asked me what I thought of his company’s narrative. When I asked which narrative he meant, he gave me that deer-in-the-headlights look. He didn’t realize that every organization has many different types of narratives driving their success or failure.

When most executives refer to their company’s narrative, they are talking about the well-rehearsed story that their marketing, PR, and communications teams tell every day. And that is definitely a narrative, but it’s just one type. They are surprised to discover that really, there are multiple types of narratives within their organizations that are working simultaneously, either for or against them.

Types of Narratives

To better understand the full range of narratives impacting a business, it’s helpful to break them down into different categories. In an article on purpose-driven strategies, Andrew Blum suggested four narratives, including: macro, strategic, cultural, and personal leadership. I would take it a step further and add a contextual narrative.

Within each type, there are often multiple stories operating, so if you want to make the different narratives work for, and not against you, the first step is to understand each type and the relevant narratives that are operating within it. Only then can you create a strategy for amplifying positive narratives and countering or changing negative ones.

The Macro Narrative

Sometimes called a corporate narrative, a macro narrative is your “why.” It is the reason you are in business, and it is the official story you tell. This is the narrative owned by the CEO but often shared by corporate communications or marketing. It motivates customers to buy and partners to collaborate. It is the narrative you control most, because you define it, communicate it, and constantly reinforce it.

Getting the macro narrative right requires purpose, discipline, thoughtfulness, and creativity…and sharing this narrative requires you to tell a story that is compelling, resonant, consistent and furthers your company’s interests. But most importantly, you need to keep demonstrating that the narrative is true – not only with words but also with actions. We all experience companies with strong macro narratives like Apple’s, who offers “the power of innovation.” A good macro narrative is timeless. When most people think of narratives in business, this is what they are referring to. Nevertheless, most companies have plenty of work to do in order to get this narrative to perform well. That’s often because, they’re not paying attention to the other types of narratives.

The Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative explains the past, present and future in a way that resonates with all of an organization’s stakeholders – and makes clear the company’s contribution to all three. A strategic narrative makes sense of the organization’s role in the world and is often the heart and soul of the company. It is grounded in the macro narrative, which provides a strong sense of purpose and clear values, but it goes one step further. A company’s strategic narrative takes the more global macro lens and ties it directly to its’ competitive strengths and weaknesses; it offers a compelling long-term vision, which in turn, drives the roadmap. In short, a strategic narrative explains what the organization aspires to be, and how it is going to get there.

The Contextual Narrative

Contextual narratives are the stories your constituents tell about you. They represent the deeply entrenched, and sometimes limiting, beliefs that customers, suppliers, and partners hold and that influence their behavior. You don’t get to define these, yet they are arguably the most critical driver in determining whether customers buy your macro narrative. Contextual narratives tend to live below the surface – that is, they are usually not explicitly stated, which makes them hard to identify, track, or measure. But they are powerful. For example, the narrative about the health risks of sugar work against Coca-Cola’s corporate narrative which calls for indulgence and joy. Contextual narratives about fairness, equality, and inclusion have trumped macro narratives at Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Uber – and ultimately led to customer boycotts at all three companies. And, we have also seen how narratives about racial injustice created loyalty (or disloyalty) to Nike as a result of the Colin Kaepernick endorsement.

Contextual narratives are best understood through traditional market research, social listening, and narrative analytics focused not on a company’s messaging, but on an analysis of the target audience. Rather than A/B testing messages, find unprompted audience beliefs so you can understand what their core stories and limiting beliefs are.

The Cultural Narrative

A cultural narrative connects a company’s organizational values to the execution of the strategy – in essence, it defines “who” a company wants to be in the world. I work with a company whose cultural narrative could be summed up as “run fast, run hard, and we will win.” The leadership team is detail-oriented, results-driven, and crushing the competition. Talk to them about anything outside their current execution plan, and they are visibly shaken. Their orientation is toward operations, and that is what they reinforce. Now juxtapose that with a cultural narrative like, “building communities builds markets.” A cultural narrative provides context to the macro narrative, so the organization’s mission is more than just a tag line to the people who deliver it.

The Personal Leadership Narrative

Personal leadership narratives represent the core beliefs that that the key leaders responsible for a company hold about themselves, the business, and how they operate. They connect their personal beliefs to the broader corporate strategy and are either enablers or limiters to growth and achieving goals. Personal leadership narratives live in the hearts and minds of your people and are difficult to uncover because they are rooted in individual psychology. These narratives are the least often discussed, and incidentally one of the most powerful sources of leverage in business. Their power comes from an ability to frame the actions and behaviors of the people driving your success. You will have as many personal leadership narratives as you have leaders, so those narratives can co-exist, even if they conflict. And, like all narratives, they can be explicit or (more often) implicit.

That CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article who asked me about his narrative, expected a conversation about the company’s marketing campaign, which was top of mind for him. They are currently investing millions of dollars in telling their story to customers and Wall Street. And, they have a lot of questions about whether they are telling the story right, engaging the best influencers, and using the correct channels. But, after discussing the different categories of narratives, he realized he needed to think more broadly.

Could he tell a story that connects his business to something larger? Could he explain how the first $100 million in revenue was just a start, and show how the next $250 million will come faster and more easily? Could the story’s protagonist be society rather than just the investors? Could the story be uplifting yet realistic?

Getting Narratives to Work

All of these narratives – regardless of who controls them – work together to drive a business forward…or not. To get them to work for you, consider these three concepts:

  • Awareness — For each narrative category, you need to assess what the full range of stories, or limiting beliefs, are, how strongly they are held, and how they impact your business goals. Treat the narratives not as stories that need to be verified as true or false, but as analytic units that should be measured and managed.
  • Alignment — Once you have awareness of all of the narratives in their corresponding categories, you can align them. Your macro narrative should be inspiring, timeless, and supported by the strategic narrative. Because you control these two, you have a lot of choice in how they are expressed. These narratives need to reflect and reinforce the dominant positive cultural and personal leadership narratives, as well as your stakeholder’s implicit contextual narratives, which represent the stories the marketplace holds about your organization. When all of these narrative types are aligned, your communications will be authentic, resonant, and therefore move your business goals forward.
  • Action — The best way to get a narrative to stick is by modeling it. The famous Chinese proverb gets it right, “Talk doesn’t cook rice.” Once you establish your narratives, find as many ways as you can to reinforce them and prove to the world that they are true. Patagonia’s strategic narrative is rooted in delivering high quality products, supporting environmental advocacy, and not causing harm. And they live the narrative not only through their communications, but by supporting over 1,000 grass roots environmental organizations, awarding over $90 million to those causes, rejecting mass consumerism (for example, by standing against Black Friday), and supporting fair trade and transparent supply chains.

In today’s “instant access to information” environment, your stakeholders are bombarded with stories that shape their behavior. Some of these are communicated directly by your organization – others are not in your immediate control. By understanding the full range of narratives in each of these categories, you can develop a comprehensive narrative strategy to get this incredibly powerful force to work for you. Even narratives that seem out of your control can be influenced with greater understanding, alignment, and action.

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