Article originally published on HBR.org on May 25, 2021, and written by John Hagel III.
Companies are missing a big opportunity – to craft an inspiring corporate narrative.
How do I define narrative? It’s not a story. Stories are generally self-contained in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. I see narratives, in contrast, as open-ended. There’s some kind of threat or opportunity looming in the future, and it’s not at all clear how things are going to work out. The resolution of the narrative hinges on the choices and actions of those involved, which makes it a potentially powerful call to action.
In the corporate context, a narrative should be about the customer, not the corporation. Building a successful narrative requires a deep understanding of your customers: How are their needs evolving? What are the big opportunities that would excite and inspire them? What are the challenges or obstacles they would confront in seeking to address those opportunities? What actions will they need to take in order to overcome those obstacles and achieve the opportunity? Are those actions something that the company could help them to pursue?
Unfortunately, very few companies are good at crafting an inspiring, customer-focused narrative. One of the best examples comes from Apple. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs articulated a narrative that was condensed by his marketers into the slogan “Think different.”
To understand the impact of this slogan and its supporting narrative, we need to go back to the early days of digital technology. Many people felt it took away our personas and made us data points. It put us in cubicles and made us cogs in a machine. The Apple narrative suggested that a new generation of digital technology would enable us to express our unique potential and personality. To harness the real potential of this new generation of technology, we needed to think different. Would we do that?
To make this narrative more credible, Apple told stories about famous people like Einstein, Picasso, Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali who did “think different” and what they were able to accomplish. When sharing this narrative in the marketplace, Apple made very little reference to itself. It was all about the customers and the opportunity available to customers, if they would take action. It’s one of the reasons that Apple in the early days became the equivalent of a religion – it spoke to something that was a deeply felt need among people at that time.
That’s just one example. There are a few others including “Just Do It” by Nike and “Belong Anywhere” by Airbnb – slogans that embody inspiring narratives. So why are they do hard to do?
We live in a world where customers are becoming more powerful and demanding. They have the ability to access more options, gain more information about those options, and switch from one vendor to another easily if their needs are not being met. More broadly, trust is eroding in our institutions. People are increasingly tuned in to how companies and others are pursuing their own interests, often at the expense of the needs and interests of their customers.
In part, this is the result of intensifying global competition. As companies experience mounting performance pressure, their time horizons shrink, and they become obsessed with internal efficiency.
In that kind of world, there’s an opportunity for powerful differentiation. Customers will be drawn to a compelling corporate narrative with a long-term view that demonstrates a deep understanding of their needs and aspirations and, importantly, that helps them to see what actions they need to take to address those needs and aspirations. Creating such an authentic connection with your customers is also an opportunity to rebuild some trust.
These narratives can also inspire and motivate a growing number of third parties who seek to help customers achieve more meaningful impact. In the Apple example, its corporate narrative was a key element in spawning a large ecosystem of companies seeking to develop new applications and digital tools that could help customers to “think different.”
But there’s an even more compelling reason to embrace corporate narratives at this point. As I discuss in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, fear has become a dominant emotion around the world. In a business context, there are many forces drawing out this fear. Competition is intensifying on a global scale, workers increasingly feel they are at risk of losing their jobs to robots, the pace of change is accelerating, and extreme events come in out of nowhere to disrupt our best-laid plans.
While there are reasons for fear, fear is also very limiting. We are all seeking ways to move beyond fear to cultivate emotions like hope and excitement that will help us to achieve more impact that is meaningful to us. I believe corporate narratives can play a powerful role in helping us to move beyond fear — if we can do them correctly.
First, resist the temptation to hand this off to your PR team. Corporate narratives will only have impact if they are deeply authentic. Recall the example of Apple. A key reason for the success of that narrative was the fact that both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak thought different every day of their lives — it wasn’t just a marketing slogan. Sure, the marketing team can play a role in taking the message out to the market, but the key is to get the C-suite actively engaged in crafting the narrative and developing a deep understanding of the untapped opportunities available to their customers. In the end, you want all your employees to embrace the narrative and understand the implications it has for the work they do in terms of where and how they can help customers to address the opportunity ahead.
Second, expand your horizons beyond the product or service you offer. Explore the broader context of your customers and what their bigger unmet needs and aspirations are. Tie those back to your own personal needs and aspirations – the most powerful opportunities are the ones that excite and inspire you as well.
Third, be clear about the actions that your customers can take. Make sure they aren’t too overwhelming but also not so easy that they can be done without much effort.
Finally, find some stories of people who have already addressed the opportunity you’ve identified. Then put it all together into a simple and compelling narrative that can speak to your customers and, if possible, condense it into a slogan to get their attention and motivate them to want to learn more.
To create more value in a world of mounting performance pressure, we need to expand our horizons. Developing a deeper understanding of the unmet needs and aspirations of your customers is part of that expansion. Then you can look ahead to frame an opportunity that will be truly inspiring to them. And you can look within to find ways you can be more helpful to your customers in addressing that opportunity. If done right, your customers and your company will move past the fear-driven instinct to shrink your horizons, and focus on the longer-term opportunities ahead.
John Hagel III recently retired from Deloitte, where he founded and led the Center for the Edge, a research center based in Silicon Valley. A long-time resident of Silicon Valley, he is also a compulsive writer, having published eight books, including his most recent one, The Journey Beyond Fear. He will be establishing a new Center to offer programs based on the book.