June 24, 2019 • Michelle Moriarity Witt
Some business stories are etched in our memories, such as the origin of Trader Joe’s South Seas theme, or even Colonel Sanders’ repeated failures before launching KFC. They may not pack an immediate political punch, but make no mistake—corporate narratives shape our world, how we think about brands and how we interact with them.
Corporations should devote serious thought to the narrative they tell. People are watching and listening, and they’ll remember how you treated your employees, customers and peers. They’ll remember how you weathered turbulent times. Your narrative, whether it’s what you put out there yourself or what others are saying about you, has lasting power.
Here’s a look at some notable ways in which corporate narratives can effectively shape reputation, character and overall success. These tips and tales of “what not to do” offer some important clues as to how you can more effectively deal with major challenges and steer the company toward long-term success through storytelling.
Your founding story might be so good that it gets retold often, by different people and to a wide variety of audiences. Before you know it, you’re playing a telephone game of epic proportions, and a great story has turned into a warped myth.
It’s happened numerous times in real life. Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak has admitted that some aspects of his founding story strayed from fact. And the 2010 movie The Social Network perpetuated the fiction that the idea for Facebook was born when Mark Zuckerberg’s college girlfriend dumped him.
Company lore has its place. The kinds of stories told around the water cooler help bring people together and offer lessons that carry over into their day-to-day performance. But make sure the story remains true and authentic.
Sometimes, an insistent belief in a product or service overrides good sense in how to effectively grow and scale the business. This happens, in part, because what a company assumed to be true about the product or customer narrative ends up to be false. EuroDisney’s theme park in Paris was modeled after the Disney theme parks in the United States and had a bumpy launch that stuck in people’s minds for years to come. Retail giant Kmart failed to thrive in a market dominated by Walmart and Target because it didn’t differentiate itself from its competitors.
When building or evolving your brand story, take a closer look at external factors, including customer profiles and market indicators, and how they ultimately contribute to your identity. The narrative that emerges may just hold the key to your success.
It may be tempting to rely on “the golden days” to substantiate and amplify business success. Don’t give in to the temptation. Today, no company would use the halcyon days of the dot-com boom as evidence that their e-commerce venture was destined for greatness. It’s because we know better. In his book The Halo Effect, business scholar Phil Rosenzweig shares story after story of once-successful businesses that embroidered intricate fairy tales about their own accomplishments, only to have sometimes-fatal flaws exposed and exploited when times got tough. The lesson? No one will buy a story in which no one struggled and everyone lived happily ever after.
Failure is not the end of the story. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning. Richard Branson and Bill Gates, both successful on a very large scale, have had spectacular and well-documented failures. The fact that these ventures were so public hasn’t detracted from their originators’ success. We’ve discussed at length how conflict is a necessary ingredient of any good story. Real-life examples augment this point by showing us that many business stories don’t have a final page or declarative ending. Even VW, which had a dramatic fall from grace when it admitted to manipulating emissions tests in 2015, is still in business—its story isn’t over. Companies are constantly moving, changing, adapting and evolving, and their stories should be equally dynamic.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is the pet aphorism of companies that place great value on their culture. It’s the kind of thinking that has led to unconventional recruiting practices at companies such as Zappos and new-age perks such as unlimited time off and ping pong tables in the breakroom. These and other culture initiatives sound great, but over-reliance on culture as a driving force in a company’s narrative sometimes leads to neglect of other, equally important business considerations. Case studies have found Lehman Brothers’ emphasis on risk-taking and profits over customer service in its last few decades contributed to its demise. In the case of Uber, a distinctive but flawed company culture was reflected in a series of PR crises and poor business decisions, and the ride-sharing service’s reputation took a serious hit.
Treat others as you would want to be treated. If you live it, it will be an organic part of your culture and narrative, not the only part of it.
Are you ready to take control of your company’s narrative? If so, let’s talk.