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Company narrative: get your story straight

Your company narrative is the most fundamental building block when creating effective internal communications and a positive workplace culture. Here’s why.

There’s no denying that terms such as ‘storytelling’ and ‘narrative’ are industry buzzwords at the moment, and they are often misappropriated to label existing (and usually dull) communications in the hope of making them feel fresh and relevant.

But if you can get through the noise, the company narrative can be a game changer for your communications approach.

When developing your communications strategy, it is critical that the narrative is developed at the same time, because – if it is done properly – the narrative becomes the bedrock from which all other comms and key messages are developed.

What is a company narrative?

At it’s simplest – a two to three page document that covers aspects of your company’s history, values, ambitions and hopes for the future.

Mark Bonchek is founder and Chief Epiphany Officer of Shift Thinking. He helps organisations achieve growth and change by adopting new thinking to engage customers and empower employees.

Mark Bonchek
Mark Bonchek

He states that a narrative: “says who you are as a company; where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going; how you believe value is created and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique.”

The key aspect to make clear in the narrative is what Mark calls the ‘shared purpose’ – the outcome that the organisation and the customer are working towards together. It is the foundation of the relationship that the company has with its customers and its employees.

Mark adds that: “Most people think of purpose as what your employees do FOR your customer.  But in a social age, the real power is creating a shared purpose WITH your customer.”

This shared purpose creates the opportunity for a different kind of relationship with the customer.  One that is more collaborative and reciprocal than the typical “producer/consumer” relationship to which we are accustomed.

Mark took us through some examples of companies with powerful narratives built around a shared purpose, an authentic Brand DNA, and a relationship beyond the transaction:

Nike

“With a shared purpose to ‘inspire the athlete in all of us,’ Nike’s relationship with its customers is not just a producer/consumer relationship, it’s more like coach/athlete, and it comes from the fact that Nike was co-founded by a coach, Bill Bowerman” says Mark.

Virgin America

Rather than the ‘airline-passenger’ model, Virgin America’s narrative (and therefore marketing and advertising) is, Mark argues: “more like they are the host of the party and we are the party guests.” It also connects back to the Brand DNA established by Richard Branson, known for throwing a great party.

 Airbnb

“Typically, the relationship in the hospitality industry has been one of lodger/guest, based on the a transaction.  What Airbnb has done is shift that relationship to neighbour/neighbour, based on a shared purpose of ‘Belong Anywhere.’” says Mark.

Shared purpose for employees

What is interesting about the Airbnb example is that the shared purpose of belonging and the neighbour/neighbour relationship is reflected in how the company engages with its own employees. Meeting rooms are inspired by active Airbnb listings, free lunches are themed around the 191 countries where it hosts, and there is a $2,000 (£1,360) annual travel budget given to each employee to use outside of work; all geared towards immersing their employees in the brand and making them effective ambassadors.

Airbnb is just one example of how a strong narrative can help to take employees on the journey with you, and this is particularly important when dealing with subjects that – at least on the surface – are not what employees will take a huge interest in.

Using narrative for specific campaigns

Kate Shaw, Internal Communications Manager at Nationwide, recently won a raft of awards for her work on a campaign to get colleagues more interested in, and signing up to, additional contributions to their pensions.

Not the most engaging subject, you might argue, but one that nonetheless is very important to Nationwide’s colleagues, as Kate explains: “The organisation was very keen to engage people on the importance of pensions. There were important changes happening so if we had communicated these in the wrong way, all they would have heard was ‘you’re taking more of my salary every month, and I don’t get why’. So getting our narrative right up front was really important”.

The resulting campaign, one of the highlights of which is a witty and accessible pensions video, has seen the number of employees signed up to make additional contributions rise from 10 per cent to 83 per cent.

A huge achievement, and one that Kate puts down to planning, and having their narrative established from the beginning.

She said: “We had a story written down about how we wanted employees to feel and what we wanted that end experience to be. We wanted to articulate from the employee point of view how it feels to work for Nationwide, how the organisation cares and looks after them, and then go into the pension details.

“The narrative itself is the most unglamorous document! But that’s on purpose so stakeholders don’t get distracted from the story. Having it signed off along with the strategy then meant sign off on subsequent materials was dramatically easier because you have agreed the narrative content upfront, everything you write reflects that original document.”

And Kate is clear that the narrative must come early in the comms planning process, saying: “Before we even went near the video or any of the methods for delivering the campaign, we sat with Ian Baines, Head of Pensions, and went through with him what we were trying to achieve from a business perspective, and how we could achieve this through narrative and storytelling. We had to understand where we were going first and agree that with Ian, so we made sure we could deliver what the business wanted.”

Humans + stories = communication

Kate’s success proves that knowing where you want to get to and having your narrative straight from the beginning gives you a huge advantage in creating a successful communications campaign.  Whether you are writing a narrative for your whole business or a specific time-fixed campaign, the benefits cannot be underestimated.

A good story is the most powerful way to communicate an idea, a concept or important information. So it makes absolute sense that, when planning our communications, the narrative or story elements are not an afterthought or something bolted on to make our messages easier to digest, but instead at the very heart of everything we do.

Narrative versus story

It is important to make the distinction between narrative and story because they are not the same thing, especially in the context of a company narrative.

Story is a structured narrative; it has a beginning, middle and an end (although not necessarily in that order) and, most importantly, has some sort of conclusion. Story is something that we witness or experience, but we do not play a part in.

Narrative, on the other hand, is open. More like an unfinished story that doesn’t need to have a distinct beginning or end. The narrative creates a story world in which we can get involved, a place for us to create our own stories.

A good parallel is the difference between movies and a video game like Minecraft. In a movie, we witness the linear progression of the story, hopefully enjoy it, and then the plot is all wrapped up at the end. In Minecraft, all of the elements of a story are there — the world, characters, the stakes — but it is left to the player to then take part, to build, to make the world their own, to create their own stories. And, crucially, the world of Minecraft never really ends either.

In the context of IC, the company narrative should usually contain at least the beginning of the story – the history of the company, their values, what they are trying to achieve (shared purpose) and then leave it open so that employees can play their own part in the success of the business and create their own stories within the world that the narrative has created.