Developing Your Corporate Identity Story

In our last post Finding the Raw Ingredients for Your Corporate Story we outlined how to find the raw ingredients within your Organization. Today we look at how Organizations can utilize these ingredients to develop your Corporate Story. Disruption occurs when we know our story and channel all activity to support the amplification of this story. We are surrounded by stories everyday. From the breakfast table with our kids, to lunch with colleagues, from anecdotes in the boardroom, to coffee with friends. So it should be easy to spot a good story when we hear one. But it is this same instinctive understanding of storytelling that causes confusion when we speak of storytelling in a corporate sense. What constitutes a story in the first place? And what is it that makes a story good?

If we were constructing a Hollywood blockbuster, we would have to include in our Corporate Story the following:

a) Message

Storytelling as a branding tool is not about telling stories just for the sake of it. Rather, for most companies storytelling is about using stories to communicate messages that reflect positively on the company brand. But first you must develop a clearly defined message. Without it, there is no reason to tell stories, at least not with a strategic purpose.

The central message is encapsulated in the purpose of the Corporate Story and works as a central theme throughout.

  • Johnny Walkers message is centered on ‘inspiring personal progress’.
  • Rolex is ‘showing you that you have made it’.
  • Adidas is about igniting the notion that ‘impossible is nothing’
  • MasterCard is to ‘be a tool to a richer life, not just a richer lifestyle’

To carve out a powerful message one must delve into raw ingredients – discussed in last weeks post xxx (attributes, benefits, purpose etc.) and weave them throughout the characters and plot of the story.

b) Conflict

Conflict is the driving force of a good story. No conflict, no story. But why is this the case? The answer lies in human nature. As humans, we instinctively look for harmony and balance in our lives. So, as soon as harmony is disrupted we do whatever we can to restore it. When faced with a problem – a conflict – we instinctively seek to find a solution. Conflict forces us to act. As storytellers we get our message across through conflict and its resolution.

c) Characters

We have seen how conflict marks the turning point in the story, but in order for this conflict to play out, you need a cast of interacting and compelling characters. A tool worth considering is our archetype tool that we explored in previous posts (especially if you are seeking a core character).

A Hollywood blockbuster is built on a fixed structure where each character has a specific role to play in the story and each person supplements each other and forces an active part of the story.

d) The Plot

Once your message, conflict and cast of characters are all in place, it is time to think about how your story should progress. Generally speaking a traditional story can be segmented into three main parts: beginning, middle and end. First, the scene is set. Next the progression of change creates conflict and sets the parameters for the rest of the story. The conflict escalates but it is finally resolved, marking the end of the story. This basic flow characterizes even the simplest of anecdotes. In a more comprehensive story, we need a call to adventure (beginning), a contrast frame (problem / solution) – middle and we close by making an invitation

However 99% of Corporate Storytelling is not Hollywood. It is day-to-day telling of ‘things that happen around here’. It could be the amplification of values. It could be the retelling of a milestone or success. Or failure. Often we do not have to delve into the depths of message, conflict and plot. We can leave that to Tarantino etal. What we need to be passionate about is the essentials of business storytelling. There is really no reason to invent stories to communicate your company’s message if you already have all the stories about your company you need. These genuine stories add credibility to your message, and often they are far stronger than fictitious stories. Everyday stories spread through your organization like a living organism, providing you with the raw material necessary for good storytelling.

Within the company itself, you will find an abundance of stories from the simple day-to-day running of the business. It can be difficult to spot these stories because you live them on a daily basis without being aware of their existence. But these little anecdotes, seemingly insignificant at first sight, may very well be the stories that most effectively show why your company is special.

Shaun Callahan and his wonderful team at Anecdote (how apt) outline how one can spot a story.

In addition to the above, Shaun’s blog How to Spot an Oral Story outlines the five elements of a Core Story:

  1. Often starts with a time, or place marker, sometimes a character
  • In 1969 our company started with a bang….
  • Larry exuded our company value of bravery…
  • It was a steamy night in Singapore….
  1. A series of connected events
  • It all started quite innocently, and then this happened, which then led to a rollercoaster of emotions and because of that…
  1. People doing things and talking
  • Mary confidently engaged the crowd and without warning whispered, “who is with me”…
  1. And something unexpected happens
  • This does not have to rate high on the ‘conflict barometer’ but needs to be something that the audience did not see coming
  1. It has a business point
  • Larry’ brave act is exactly what is required if our business is to catapult to the next level…

StoryLab: Developing Your Corporate Identity Story

In last weeks’ blog Finding the Raw Ingredients for Your Corporate Story, we explored steps:

a) The Obituary Test

b) Screening of Basic Data

c) Distilling the Basic Data

In this weeks blog we are going to deep dive into:

d) Formulating the Core Story

e) The Acid Test

Formulating the Core Story

What does your company fight for? What is its’ Holy Grail? If your company does not stand for something more profound than making money, then it probably does not make a memorable difference to employees or customers either. The dynamics of a strong corporate story exist precisely because the company is constantly battling to overcome challenges and adversaries in order to achieve it’s cause. A ‘cause’ does not necessarily mean that the company has to pursue an ideological quest, but it does mean that your company needs to make a difference in the business it operates. You need to think about what added value, experiences and dreams your customers buy into as well as the actual product or service your company offers. Basically, what kind of story does your customer take part in?

How does your company make a difference?

It can be difficult to give a short, simple answer. But it has to be simple. Supposing you are the person who knows your company best, if you cannot give a simple answer, then how can anyone else? Your first challenge is to sum up your company’s core story in one sentence. Let us start the process by going through the five elements of storytelling one by one

1. Time Marker

This is the easy one…

2.Your Message

Your message should not be confused with a pay-off or a slogan. A pay-off is a short, catchy expression that encompasses the message typically used in company advertising. For example “Just Do It” is Nike’s pay-off; however their message is that every game is about winning, and if you want it bad enough, with effort and determination, you can be a winner too.

But what Nike is fighting for, is to help us believe in ourselves. If we believe in ourselves, throw caution into the wind and just go for it, then we can all be winners. Nike is fighting against compromise and the seeds of defeat that lie in our lack of confidence and our tendency to settle for second best. The embodiment of the Hero Archetype. Likewise, when Anita Roddick founded the Body Shop way back in 1976, she created a hard-hitting message to go with it. The company, and by association both employees and customers, stood for something important. Besides fighting for a number of political and charitable causes, The Body Shop took a stand against animal testing, a taboo that had plagued the cosmetics industry for years. Traits of a Caregiver.

To stay in storytelling jargon, you could say that the message in the company core story is the moral of the story. Basically, it is the company’s sense of what is right or wrong. For Volvo the most important thing is not to get there fast, but to get there safely. Volvo buyers first and foremost buy into a story about safety. It is the same story that Volvo employees stand by when they strive to develop stronger, safer cars that can handle even the toughest crash test. The same is true for Alfa Romeo; through their message is one of driving pleasure. A passion that is much about enjoying the journey as it is about getting there. In the Alfa Romeo universe, driving is one of life’s great leisure pursuits, and it doesn’t hurt to look the part while you are doing it. The la dolce vita essence of a Lover.

Your message needs to mirror either your cause, or the experience you are trying to sell. Of course, it is difficult to boil your message down to its very essence. One way to get started is to widen the question by asking yourself, what your core story is actually about. Here are some examples of other companies’ core stories that may serve as inspiration:

  • Harley Davidson is about freedom
  • Apple is about creative diversity
  • Virgin is about following your dream, and challenging convention
  • LEGO is about stimulating children’s learning through creative play
  • Volvo is about safety designed with families in mind

3.Your Conflict

Once you’ve decided on a possible transcending message for your company core story, the next step is to assess the level of conflict within that message. How big a difference does your cause actually make, and what are you fighting against? Remember, it is conflict that creates the dynamics of a good story. Keep in mind that the sharper your definition of the conflict, the more dynamic your story will become. And that conflict is the barrier that needs to be overcome in order to achieve your goal. Through this conflict, your company can make its stand while expressing its core values at the same time. Effectively, it is a question of building contrasts and opposites just like the battle between good and evil, sweet and sour, or fun versus boring. In the case of business, a conflict is not necessarily a negative, rather than the catalyst for creating a distinct brand. Often it is easier to explain what you do not represent, rather than trying to explain what you do.

Take another look at the Conflict Barometer and try to place your company core story on the axis. This gives a decisive visual indication of your conflict’s strength.

Dreams also make a good driver in a core story. It may be far fetched to claim that Harley Davidson is fighting for a cause, but there can be little doubt that the renowned American motorcycle manufacturers is selling a dream. Harley Davidson’s concept of freedom is contrasted by the norms that society places on us, and the obligations that follow.

Either way, the song remains the same. You must be passionate about making a difference. You have to have the courage to step on some toes along the way. The old saying still holds true trying to please everybody makes nobody really happy. And if you do try to make everybody happy, your message is likely to become so weak, it becomes irrelevant. You need to make a choice, even though you may lose a few customers along the way. By contrast, with a strong core story firmly in place, you are likely to gain a far more loyal customer base than ever before.

4.Your Characters

Having addressed the issues of message and conflict, it is time to look at the next step of the laboratory process casting your story.


Each individual role must be clear and concise as possible in order to achieve a dynamic and captivating story

Once your characters are established, the task falls to making each character as well defined as possible. Just like the hero in a fairytale, your company also has a set of skills and passion driving it towards its goal. In order to make the role of the hero more pronounced, it could be useful to look for some well-known images to describe your hero’s personality.

A tool worth considering is our archetype tool that we explored in previous posts

By using these archetypes as a point of reference, your company has an alternative tool for describing its values. The archetype literally adds flesh and bones to the company’s role in the story universe. At the same time, it also sheds light on the conflict and the passion that drives the company forward.

5.Your Plot

With your message, conflict and case of characters in place, it is time to put the final element, the plot, in place. Because a company’s core story is a strategic platform for communication, it must be presented in a way that can be translated to actual stories in many different contexts. Whilst I would never advocate the use of delivering your Corporate Storytelling through the structure of a Fairytale, I do think it is a good internal exercise to try and tell the core story as one, simply to see if it works in accordance with the principles of storytelling. By telling your core story in this way, your company is placed in a sequence of events that can be easily understood.

If your company decides to communicate a core story that looks just like the one being told by your competitors, it should only be on the basis that you have a better and more credible way of communicating that particular story. A core story should leave room for interpretation when it is translated into actual stories and campaigns.

The telling of the story will be the subject of next week’s blog.

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