The Heart and Science of a Strategic Company Narrative
The most successful companies all share one thing in common: a narrative mindset. They don’t think about their narrative merely as a function of marketing. They think of it as the heartbeat of their company culture and business strategy.
Ben Horowitz says it well: “Companies that don’t have a clearly articulated story don’t have a clear and well thought-out strategy. The company story is the company strategy.”
Building a great company narrative is part heart and part science, but striking the right balance is tricky. In the nearly 100 messaging sessions and workshops I’ve been involved in, I’ve seen many product and engineering-led companies make the mistake of over-indexing on the science while overlooking the heart. I’ve seen sales and marketing-focused companies get wrapped up in the heart without the science to back it up.
With the right harmony between heart and science, a corporate narrative will motivate people to work for your company, shout about your product and invest in your business. Getting it right involves taking a close look at five essential elements all strong narratives share. I call them the five Ps.
Many companies make the mistake of having their narratives lead with the solution and benefits without establishing why their product really matters in the first place. A clear articulation of the main customer pain your product solves will create more empathy with your users and set the true north for your narrative. Your problem statement should be contextual to the macro issues and structural shifts in the world keeping your main stakeholders up at night. It should also convey what will happen if your desired audience fails to conquer the problem.
Slack’s narrative combines both heart and science in its problem statement. It centers around the very simple, yet emotionally and economically significant problem of getting buried in email that prevents us from doing real work. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to work from home, they adapted their narrative around the new problem of maintaining employee engagement and productivity in this environment.
The promise visualizes what your customers will feel and experience from your product. In other words, how will their lives change when you help them solve the problem? What value will they and their companies realize if you deliver on the promise? While this promise involves a lot of heart, it must also be very tangible, believable and measurable.
For example, ThoughtSpot promises to make business analytics as easy as your favorite app so anyone can find insights hidden in their company data in seconds without IT or expert support.
Many companies make the mistake of having their narratives lead with the solution and benefits without establishing why their product really matters in the first place
#3. Product Magic
Product magic is the novel way a product solves the problem, often creating an aha moment for users. This is less about product features and more about how your breakthrough capability principally enables your product to deliver on its promise. I see a lot of companies lean too heavily on the science side here, with the result being overly complex messaging or a reliance on jargon.
For example, Fast enables one-click ecommerce purchases on any browser, platform or device. The way it describes its promise is simple, precise and effective.
Good narratives always back up their commitments with believable data points — this is where science is perhaps most important. It’s the quality of the narrative proof points, not the quantity of them that matters most. Startups often zoom in on a single data point to validate their promise, whereas more mature companies often use market data to defend their leadership position.
For example, Salesforce is the world’s #1 CRM with more than 150,000 customers. Meanwhile, Salesforce-backed Qualified.com is a conversational marketing platform that delivers customers a 6X increase in their sales pipeline. Sometimes all you need is a single compelling data point.
While strong messaging should start with a distilled, crisp written version of the narrative, that’s only the beginning.
The real heartbeat of a narrative connects people with a company’s central characters, their core beliefs, values and backstory. This includes details on the protagonists such as your founders, key employees, customers and partners, as well as antagonistic characters and market forces that work against your promise such as competitors and legacy mindsets. Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots” are a good source to help you frame an authentic narrative arc.
One plot line I’ve seen many strong narratives master is The Quest. For example, Ginkgo Bioworks centers its narrative around a quest to replace technology with biology to create a more sustainable manufacturing supply chain. It designs custom microbes to develop new organisms and push the boundaries of science. Overcoming the Monster is another popular plotline among technology companies. For Snowflake, the monster they’re helping organizations overcome is the overwhelming amount of digital data they now need to access, organize and understand every day.
A corporate narrative should be pervasive and go well beyond PR and marketing functions. It must be viewed as something that’s core to the culture and woven into the fabric of the organization.
Once you’ve harnessed these five Ps, you can begin to activate your narrative. Let’s be clear: the work is not over just because the ink has dried on your corporate narrative. While strong messaging should start with a distilled, crisp written version of the narrative, that’s only the beginning.
A corporate narrative should be pervasive and go well beyond PR and marketing functions. It must be viewed as something that’s core to the culture and woven into the fabric of the organization. The narrative must be embedded in products and services, easily gleaned from the website and social channels, pulled through all sales and marketing collateral, and conveyed through earned media and thought leadership content. In short, it’s omnipresent. This can only happen when the CEO is chiefly involved in the narrative development process from early on and sees it through each activation.
This may sound like a lot of work, but the gains are crucial. Humans are natural storytellers. This unique quality has allowed our species to build communities, harness vast social networks and unite under shared goals. The smartest companies know that motivating teams and creating an emotional connection with customers starts with telling a good story.