Everybody is familiar with the biblical story of David & Goliath and we have all been raised with the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm (header photo) and Hans Christian Andersen. What is it that makes narratives like Snow White and The Little Mermaid so strong and well remembered? And what can companies learn from this? How can they build a compelling corporate story that stands out and is appealing – just like a good fairy tale?
Of course, Disney did the trick for a lot of well-known fairy tales by visualizing them, but there is more than visuals that help people remember a story. A good narrative at least contains the following elements:
Setting – scene where the story takes place
Character – description of the protagonist of the story
Theme – description of what the story is about
Plot – series of events that tell the story
Conflict – struggle of the protagonist with itself or other forces
Climax – part where the conflict builds up to its peak
Resolution – end of the story when the conflict is being resolved
They’ve lost the plot
When you look at the average corporate story, a number of these elements are often missing. When telling their story, most companies jump from a short introduction of setting, character and theme to presenting the(ir) resolution. What fans, followers, partners, prospects, journalists and industry influencers really want is a plot. They want to know the path the company has travelled, what challenges were faced and how they have been overcome.
Based on the market position they claim, the development stage they are in or the audience they want to reach, companies can choose from a number of plots to tell their story. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Journalist and author Christopher Booker distinguishes seven plots that not only screenplay writers and novelists can work with, but that can also help companies to tell their story:
1. Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force, which threatens the protagonist and/or the protagonist’s homeland.
2. Rags to Riches
The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person.
3. The Quest
The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way.
4. Voyage and Return
The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience.
The protagonist follows a path of misinterpretations and humour before reaching its final destination.
The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending.
The protagonist is a villain or otherwise unlikable character who redeems him/herself over the course of the story.
As you will probably see, not all plots can easily be linked to a corporate story. However, a number of them definitely are valuable and are actually already used by big brands.
A very obvious plot is Overcoming the Monster. Translated to corporate storytelling this is all about small companies (start-ups) taking it up against the industry leaders. But also about the runner up challenging the industries number one.
A quite aggressive example of this is Samsung challenging Apple, with Android devices versus Apple’s iPhone and iPad running on iOS. Samsung’s ‘Quest’ to defeat Apple was started by Google, positioning Android as the open, technically advanced and ‘masculine’ platform. The alternative was Apple’s sleek looking devices with a minimalist design running an operating system with a closed app ecosystem. Samsung continues the journey into ‘the dark woods’ facing ‘the monster’ by looking for Apple’s weak points and using these to raise its own brand perception.
A remarkable example of this is Samsung’s recent Wall Huggers campaign to promote the Galaxy S5 by bashing the battery life of the iPhone.
Of course it is arguable if attacking the competition instead of relying on your own strength is the best way to go. In this case, Samsung and Android at least found out what their biggest competitor is ‘unable or unwilling to do’, they got the attention they were looking for and everybody is familiar with the on-going development of this specific ‘overcoming the monster’ fairy tale.
A plot that often leads to a more friendly strategy and corporate story is Rags to Riches. A common example of this particular plot is giving the company a face by showcasing the journey the company’s CEO went through: where does he or she come from, what are his or her strengths and what challenges did he or she have to overcome to get this far personally and with the company.
Famous examples of companies using this plot to tell their corporate story and help creating a positive brand awareness are multinationals like Amazon with Jeff Bezos, Google with Larry Page and earlier Apple with Steve Jobs. What’s interesting is that these CEOs not only show their successes but are also willing to talk about the challenges they had to overcome. By showing vulnerability, it is easier for people to identify with the main character of the corporate story. It is of course quite easy to use this strategy when you are the face of a billion dollar company, but also for smaller businesses using this plot can definitely help in giving the company a recognizable face.
The last plot that I would like to address is that of Rebirth. Although often seen as turning from ‘bad into good’ in fairy tales, companies often use this plot to tell about the shift being made in product offering or business model. Developments like mobility and cloud computing have had a tremendous impact on the offering and business model of IT companies. Besides gaining additional market share with new solutions and services, companies like salesforce.com, Microsoft and Adobe are using this development to create a more positive brand profile. They use their PR and marketing vehicles to tell the world about their journey towards becoming a whole new company, including obstacles, challenges and doubts.
Most important thing to remember from this is that you always need to have a plot when you tell your corporate story.
Show the complete process you went through as a company to overcome challenges and to become the company you are right now. Show your vulnerabilities. Then you have a story. Then stakeholders will start remembering you.
And you will live happily ever after…