When you and your organization create a narrative — intentionally or otherwise — that narrative shapes the choices you make. If you make things, those choices are reflected in your products. If you do things, those choices are reflected in your actions. They are a filter through which you see, and consequently behave, in the world.
In the process and flow of building narratives and then asking people to adopt them, we share messages, build products, websites, policies and take actions. These add up to the experience a customer (or constituent) has with your brand. Narrative is experience.
Your narratives are how you interpret the meaning of things. The world (employees, constituents, investors, customers, partners) will see that and respond.
This is Not Marketing Fluff: Narratives Build Nations Too
A couple of years ago, I met Farahnaz Ispahani. At the time, she was working on her book on the disappearance of minorities from Pakistan.
When I asked what she thought the root cause of problem was, she cited the Pakistani constitution and its unintended consequences. She contrasted it with the Indian constitution, authored at around the same time, but with a very different sense of purpose.
So I looked it up. These two documents are indeed starkly different.
Here is an excerpt from the preamble to Pakistan’s Constitution:
Wherein the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed;
Wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah ….
Wherein adequate provision shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities and backward and depressed classes …
Ispahani highlighted the fact that while the Pakistani constitution explicitly protects the rights of minorities, it also explicitly declares them as minorities secondary to the country’s mission. The purpose of the state is to be Islamic. The full narrative shows that while they intend it to be a fair and welcoming state, it is first and foremost an Islamic state. Minorities, she said, getting the hint, and often the shaft, have gradually disappeared.
India, by contrast, has a wildly diverse population. Its constitution is explicit in its commitment to that diversity. Here’s a piece of the preamble to its constitution:
WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all ...
Truth and Consequences
One could construe the Indian constitution as aspirational, and the Pakistani as defensive. Very good reasons existed for both of those positions when the documents were written. Of course more is at play here than these two documents. The region's long and complex history predates these constitutions by centuries.
However, one can’t ignore how well their populations reflect the priorities of the documents, at least in hindsight. It would be interesting to resurrect the framers of these documents and hear their thoughts about the vision they set down and the reality that’s emerged.
Interpreting Events - Together
Brand narratives influence how a company, and its audience, interpret events. What we as marketers want is to align our audience with our world view through our narrative. We want them to think it is natural to think the way we do.
This is not a universal point of view. This is (at least part of) the distinction between how Volkswagen handled its emissions scandal, and how Chipotle responded to its e. coli problems.
A neighbor’s son, starting a burrito rolling summer job there this week, watched four hours of videos on the e. coli issue. Every person at the company is aware of, and responsible for, the problem.
Volkswagen, by contrast, blamed a small band of engineers, and previously spent lots of time denying the significance of the problem.
Different Brands, different narratives
Lets talk about some other brands and their narratives, large and small.
Tesla is everybody’s darling now. Tesla, interestingly enough, is not a car company. At least not in its own mind. It is a “technology and design company with a focus on energy innovation” company. Because it sees itself this way, the Powerwall battery makes so much sense.
It may also be why Apple, having lost its charismatic leader — who was chief narrative officer of its brand — is acting differently these days. Its narrative is shifting and not yet re-solidified.
Here’s the counter example. Last year, while attending an event at the Kennedy Center, I noted in the program that the season was underwritten by Altria. No one in my box, aside from me, the branding geek, knew who Altria was or what they did. When asked how they would feel if The Phillip Morris company were underwriting the Kennedy Center, the general answer was ... differently.
This is a form of brand and narrative whitewashing. Altria, née Phillip Morris, has a new mission of “Developing products that might be less harmful” is … well … better than developing products known to kill people.
How Does Narrative Create Experience?
1. The products you build
Levis is an over 175-year-old brand. It’s narrative is California, America, rugged authenticity and originality. It claims to be “Made of progress.” All of those things come into play when it launched its water conserving jeans.
2. The people you hire
Quick — you’re job hunting. Where do you want to go? Tesla or Buick? Yahoo or Google? Apple or HP? Costco or Target? Zappos or Walmart?
Narrative is a powerful and self-fulfilling candidate filter right there. A strong company narrative attracts people to it. A poor narrative may mean that you’re not getting the top picks applying for your jobs. Even so, almost every brand has it’s share of A-players. Sadly, even A-players are frequently helpless in a directionless organization.
3. The service you offer
How do you see your customers? Your narrative and values should address that. Are they accounts from which money shall be extracted? Is every interaction an opportunity to upsell? Or, like Navy Federal Credit Union, do you feel they are members, whose service makes it a privilege for you to serve them? As a customer, I can attest that you will not get better service or convenience anywhere.
4. The language you use
How do you talk about your company? How do you think about your value? How do you explain it to others? How do they then talk about it with each other?
Patagonia sells luxurious, indestructible clothing that practically screams adventure and environmentalism. Its content is some of the best out there. It sets the terms and the vocabulary for adventure-wear for itself and its audience.
Adobe also sets the terms. Adobe is a company that is many things now, but first and foremost, its business is empowering creatives. So when it talks about a new product, it talks about the designer’s elements first.
This surprised me when I consulted there in 2005. It didn’t talk about how the product fit together as a whole, but how each small, intimate designer experience would feel. It was such a strange (and brilliant) way of doing product development. (Which is not to say it didn’t have some pretty shocking blind spots as well.)
It was — and remains — dead right in this regard. Notably also in Silicon Valley, the average tenure of Adobe employees at the time was over 10 years. This was extremely long in those days, where average tenure at most tech firms was more along the lines of 1.5-2 years. It lead to a strangely out of touch, but yet deeply, deeply expert crew. It was fascinating.
Screenshot from "About Adobe"
Own Your Narrative
If you do not invest in examining and organizing your core narrative, then you are leaving things to chance.
You may have a narrative that evolves organically. It may be wonderful and consequential. Something that is meaningful to it’s audience. Like Twitter. Or you may end up faceless and meaningless. You may leave both audience and employees with a vague distaste for your brand — or much worse. You don’t want to be the Enron of any industry.
Go: Invent and Evolve
If you’re taking on the task of narrative building, you are taking on some big questions. What does your organization, your business, your nation mean, now and in some inconceivably distant future? Your narrative has a major influence on that outcome.
If you don’t know yours, if your entire organization doesn’t know yours, then you have lost your best leverage over your customer’s experience and your business’s future.
Steve Jobs said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. The same is true of your brand narrative. Yes, it will and must evolve over time. Think of your narrative like a constitution. And your leadership and other stakeholders as the judges that interpret it and apply it to current circumstances. And amend it if necessary.
But build it and own it with pride in your distant future.
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