Great businesses need a bold story

We could learn a thing or two from the Americans about the power of a good corporate narrative, says PR boss Giles Fraser.

by Giles Fraser
Last Updated: 24 Oct 2018

In the HBO comedy show Silicon Valley there is a running gag that all tech start-up founders end their presentations by saying their product will make the world a better place. It’s a joke that probably resonates even better outside Silicon Valley than in it.

As a communications agency with a strong tech sector focus, we work closely with many high-growth US businesses. Some are publicly-quoted, some about to IPO and others VC or PE-backed. A strong inspiring corporate narrative that encompasses the company’s broader contribution to the world beyond their end-customer’s need is a common factor amongst virtually all of them. Most are very confident in their assertions about how they are contributing, and will contribute further, to society.

The corporate narrative is a concept that has grown in prominence over the past ten years. Typically, it is a set of uplifting words that describes the company’s reason for existence as well as its culture, vision and strategy. The narrative is about the why the company exists, what it contributes to society, as well as the what it does and the how it does it. A compelling narrative inspires employees to join and stay, encourages customers to choose that brand’s product or service over others, and persuades opinion-formers and influencers to advocate for them willingly.

The key elements of a corporate narrative are no different from a compelling book and, in the same way, it needs to appeal to our emotions as well as our reason. The narrative describes the on-going ‘quest’ towards achieving the company’s vision. There’s a hero (‘the company’),someone in jeopardy (‘the customer’) and a baddie (‘the market that currently ill-serves the customer’). Every time the company makes an announcement or issues a story it should support the development of that narrative and represent a step towards the end-goal, it’s the ‘red thread’ that runs through all marketing and communications.

It’s my opinion that many European companies could learn from their US counterparts and be much bolder in their narratives. This is not to say that they should over-claim their capabilities because they will get found out. In the UK we lead the world in our ability to detect b***s**t. Take the current furore about the evils of Big Tech for example.

But, all that notwithstanding, it is well worth business leaders checking whether the way they describe their businesses does justice to the potential and ambitions of both their business and employees. Is the vision lost in a sea of jargon? Is it too much about state of play today and not enough about the journey ahead tomorrow? Is there an excess of information about the way the company is organised and not enough about the vision for a better customer experience that unites all the business units? Does it excite his or her family and friends when they explain it at the dinner table?

If the narrative is bold, meaningful and is well-communicated internally it will build pride and inspire employees to communicate more about the company to the people they know. It may prompt some of them to push themselves harder and innovate more. Articulating a higher purpose enables the business to explore opportunities to make a positive impact on society. Of course, there needs to be evidence to support this. If it doesn’t already maybe a consumer brand can give away surplus product to the disadvantaged or a business brand can give its services free to certain charities?

Depending on its market focus, the narrative may intrigue consumers to try its product for the first time: think about the first time you took an Innocent Smoothie off the supermarket shelf and why. Or it might encourage business customers to put it on the tender list – think about how Amazon Web Services is cleaning up in the cloud services space pushing a better, cheaper and greener message. In a world where companies are increasingly being called to account for their failings it is common sense to showcase their achievements as well and, within reason, promote their ambitions where those achievements are yet to be realised.

The brilliant thing about a great corporate narrative as corporate tool is that it doesn’t need to be expensive. It just needs to be inspiring, credible, sustainable and differentiating. The right brains around a table can create one in a matter of days (but do build in time for testing). Moreover, with the advent of social media, it is relatively cost-effective to create engaging content that can be shared by the business’ staff and eco-system to bring the narrative to life.

As the UK enters one of the most potentially unstable years in its history a little more boldness could make all the difference as businesses seek to prosper internationally in a changing political and economic landscape.

Giles Fraser is co-founder of Brands2Life.

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