Narrative, when done well, is the tail that can actually wag the dog. But let's be clear here and now, post rationalized narratives stink.
Great Brands Have Narratives
A narrative that explains their aspiration, their approach, and how they go in the world. Sugru is a kind of silicone putty/adhesive. It comes in colors. It's the kind of thing you might find as one of a thousand products on a shelf at Home Depot. But instead, Sugru has a narrative that makes this putty important. It makes you proud to be an owner of putty. IBM’s “Smarter Planet” narrative makes boring, complex technology important (If it were even better it would make it both important and clear).
Content marketing isn’t about content, it’s about being deeply valuable and meaningful. It is about standing for something that people care about. In fact, narrative is not a marketing tool. It's a business foundation. Marketing often leads the articulation of narrative, but it's essential for the entire team -- especially R&D and other people that determine what you sell and how you develop it and sell it.
In Zappos' case its narrative (Happiness) is essential for its core competency -- customer service. In addition to making you meaningful and important to your market, narrative is a framework for thinking about the problem -- whatever problem that might be. The team is now thinking about how to make it ever more true.
There is extensive work out there on storytelling and narrative. A few years ago, Simon Sinek nailed the importance, if not the method of it with “Start With Why”. Simon was talking about the fact that people do not care what you do, but rather why you do it. If you’re the last person on the internet not to have seen Simon's TED talk, do yourself an 18 minute favor. Narrative serves to engage your audience, ignite the imaginations of your staff, and act as a gut check on decision making.
So -- a story is great if you have one (n.b. -- yes, there’s a difference between story and narrative, but that’s the advanced class). But what to do if you don’t? You can build one. It is very hard and takes certain skills and acts of faith and business that are not everyday stuff. But, narrative, when done well, is the tale that can actually wag the dog.
You know your narrative is working when it is easily adopted by your organization. When it is so good its obvious. When anyone can understand it to the point that it feels perfectly natural to tell it in their own words. Your narrative is doing its job when it becomes a core part of the conversation at work -- when it becomes an identity. It infuses and defines your culture. It is helping to build the substance of your business. It is organic and viral. If this isn't happening then you aren't done yet. If this isn't happening inside your company, it's not going to happen outside with your customers. Great marketing is a side effect of great narrative. Don’t excuse yourself by saying that this is only for consumer goods, twenty-somethings or Apple. Get to work.
Building Your Narrative
If you’re building a narrative, you will be in one of these situations:
1. New, Brand New
If you are starting up, then you are already in the deep soul-searching process of “why”. Some startups have this fully formed because it was the discovery of their narrative that built the team and drives the founder. Many have it, but it's still vague. The challenge here is to find a mooring.
Like Hemmingway, you need to search for the most true thing you can say about your organization, your work or yourselves and find a way to express that to the world. This type of deep truth is almost universally recognizable in the way great art is. Even the unsophisticated know it when they see it.
2. Established, but Unarticulated
You are doing business. You are growing. Perhaps you are doing something brilliant, but it's really, really hard to explain. You have only 2 or 3 executives who can make the sale, because no one else can tell the story. And it takes them a face to face with every decision-maker. It's nearly impossible to show that you are different from your competition, even though the difference is vast. You are unarticulated. Your exercise is much like number 1, but you have a mooring -- your work and your success. Ask your customers to help you. They probably can’t articulate it either, but they know.