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Are Narratives Working For or Against You?

Updated: Dec 18, 2018


The other day I was meeting with a CEO who asked me what I thought of his company’s narrative. When I asked which narrative, he shot back that deer-in-the-headlights look.


Did you know that every organization has four 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 their brand, marketing, PR, and communications teams tell every day. That’s just one type of narrative. They are surprised to discover that really, there are four different types of narratives working simultaneously, either for or against them.

The Many Narratives at Uber

Let’s take Uber as an example. There is Uber’s Corporate Narrative, the story about innovation, disruptive technology, a new way of living and working for drivers, and remarkable convenience for customers. There are a number of different Contextual Narratives for investors about growth, wealth creation, competition, and an impending IPO. Then, there are Employee Narratives about arrogance, sexism, entitlement, and toxicity. And, of course, there’s the apologetic “doing the right thing,” Strategic Narrative espoused by Dara Khosrowsha, Uber’s CEO that replaced the brash founder Travis Kalinick to clean up his mess, which included some pretty bad narratives.


Which narratives are true? Which narratives matter? Which can make or break the company? In short, all four types of narratives matter. Some are told by Uber’s marketers. Others exist only in the heads of customers, regulators, or employees. But all of them impact the company’s success or failure –license to operate, customer retention, and employee satisfaction. Don’t make the mistake of focusing only on the narratives you control.


Four Types of Narratives

To better understand the full range of narratives impacting a business, it’s helpful to break them down into four categories: Corporate, Contextual, Employee, and Strategic Narratives. Within each narrative category there are often multiple narratives operating. When it comes to making narratives work for you, the first step is to understand each category of narrative 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.


Let’s explore the four types of narratives.


Four Types of Narratives


1) The Corporate Narrative

The Corporate Narrative is the official story you tell. This is the narrative owned 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 a Corporate Narrative right requires discipline, thoughtfulness, and creativity – all the stuff we know from basic brand management. You need to tell a story that is compelling, resonant, consistent and furthers your company’s interests. And, you need to keep demonstrating that the narrative is true – not only with words but also with actions. We all experience companies with strong Corporate Narratives like Apple, Warby Parker, and McKinsey. 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 remaining three types of narratives.


2) The Contextual Narrative

Contextual Narratives are the stories your constituents tell. They represent the deeply entrenched 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 corporate 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 Corporate Narratives at Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Uber – and ultimately led to customer boycotts at all three companies. And, we recently saw how narratives about racial injustice created loyalty (or disloyalty) to Nike as a result of the Colin Kaepernick endorsement.


These 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 are.


3) The Employee Narrative Employee Narratives represent the core beliefs that that the key leaders responsible for a company hold about themselves, the business, and how they operate. They are either enablers or limiters to growth and achieving goals -- and live in the hearts and minds of your people. Employee Narratives are difficult to uncover because they are rooted in individual psychology. Employee 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.


I work with a company whose Employee Narrative could be summed up as “run fast, run hard, and we will win.” They 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. Juxtapose that with Employee Narratives like, “building communities builds markets,” or the ever-present, never stated, “profits over people.” Multiple Employee Narratives can co-exist, even if they conflict. And, like all narratives, they can be explicit or more often, implicit.


4) The Strategic Narrative

A Strategic Narrative tells a compelling story to all of an organization’s stakeholders. It explains the past, present and future – and makes clear the company’s contribution to all three. It is grounded in a strong sense of purpose, clear values, and a compelling long-term vision. The Strategic Narrative makes sense of the organization’s role in the world and is much larger than just a commercial story. Unlike all of the other narratives, the Strategic Narrative is the domain of the CEO. It is the heart and soul of the company. The Strategic Narrative explains the why, of an organization -- and a good one is timeless.


That CEO 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 accurate channels. But, after discussing the different categories of narratives, his focus moved to the Strategic Narrative.


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 four types of narratives – the ones controlled by the CEO and marketing departments and the ones seemingly out of the company’s control – work together to drive a business forward or not. To get them to work for you, consider these three concepts:


1) Awareness — For each category of narrative, you need to assess what the full range of stories 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.

2) Alignment — Once you have awareness of all of the narratives in their corresponding categories, you can align them. Your Strategic Narrative should be inspiring, timeless, and supported by the Corporate 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 Employee Narratives and your stakeholder’s implicit Contextual Narratives which represent the stories the marketplace has about your organization. When all four narratives types are aligned, your communications will be authentic, resonant, and therefore move your business goals forward.

3) 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 – to prove to the world that they are true. You can do that through a powerful Strategic Narrative, but also by living that narrative. Patagonia’s Strategic Narrative is rooted in high quality products, 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 (by standing against Black Friday), and supporting fair trade and transparent supply chains.

In today’s media and 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 the four 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.


Let’s talk about narratives at your organization.