Finding the Raw Ingredients for Your Corporate Story

In our last post Which Archetype is the Lead Character in Your Corporate Story we outlined what constituted the ingredients of your Corporate Archetype. Today we look at how we can find these raw ingredients to build your Corporate Identity Story. Disruption occurs when we know our story and channel all activity to support the amplification of this story. The story that is closely tied into a company’s corporate identity is the core story. The identity process provides a wonderful opportunity for analyzing your organizational culture and clarifying its vision, values, and core archetype. Doing so makes the unconscious conscious in a way that helps make you make better staffing decisions, orient new employees more effectively, and retain talent. Your analysis can help different units within the organization to talk the same language with one another and increase the chances that the information customers get informally from employees is congruent with your intended corporate identity. Whilst there are instruments to help you on your Identity journey (which we discuss later on), you can also garner invaluable inputs by walking around, listening, watching and asking some questions.

In fact the barometer for the CUB Regular Guy / Girl Identity was the attendance at the in-house bar on a Friday night. When the culture was thriving, friends were invited and the space was wall-to-wall excitement. The elements of the identity (e.g. belonging, networking, connection, ‘fits in’) were for all to see. When the engagement took a nosedive, the bar was a virtual ghost town.

Finding raw ingredients for your Corporate Story takes two personas. Whilst not all of us can carry off the stare of Horatio Caine from CSI Miami we can all adopt some of his investigatory skills. You should aim to combine the approach of a detective who is trying to solve a specific case (problem identification, information hunt, leads, convincing the jury) with the tenacity of a journalist who needs to find a story everyday of the week. At a minimum, begin by collecting examples of organization’s sacred stories and notice what archetypal plot they represent. Then ask yourself (amongst many) the following questions:

  • What is the name of your company and what does it mean?
  • How can you factually describe the company’s historical development?
  • Which have been your company’s significant events, failures as well as successes?
  • What anecdotes about important people and events are still being told within company walls?
  • Where do employees feel that the company makes a difference?
  • How do your employees dress & interact?
  • What do people value the most about the organization?
  • What function does the organization play in your life?
  • How do your customers view the organization?
  • What external data could shine a light (trends, opinion leaders, partners, competitors, key decision makers)?

Understanding the archetypal dimension of an organization culture gives you greater power to recognize the invisible forces at work within it. As a company aligns its identity with the truth about its real cultural values, it is easier for it to be, and to be perceived as the ‘real deal’. Doing so provides a winning identity powerful enough to withstand any disaster – as Johnson & Johnson did with the Tylenol crisis. Most importantly, the exercise of identity development allows a company to know itself and its loyalties at a new level decoding its core values, archetype and story.

All companies have authentic, raw material for telling their own stories: genuine, real-life episodes that can be used in the continuous communication of their brand. This post shows you where you can find them, and how you can use them as a concrete communication tool. Once your company’s core story has been identified and developed, you have created a strategic storytelling platform for your brand; a compass for all internal and external communication. Every time the company initiates a new communication initiative you need to ask: does this story come together as a chapter in our core story? The better the company is at ensuring even the smallest story supports the core story, the stronger and more consistent your brand will be.

In short, the core story must be transformed into a collection of concrete stories, which are relevant for your employees, customers and your surroundings. These concrete stories translate the core story into a language that makes it accessible and relevant to your company’s stakeholders in a variety of contexts.

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. Just think of all the small anecdotes you could find in your daily working life, regardless of whether the sign on the door reads “Google” or “Truels’ Kitchen”. It is all a question of knowing where to look, and knowing what your starting point is. You need to be clear about what these stories need to say before you start looking. At the same time, you need to be aware of the fact that storytelling is a dynamic and continuous process. First the stories have to be identified and collected. Then they must be sorted and processed.

If you are starting (or helping to start) a new enterprise, look inward and clarify your values. There are many companies that I work with who start their storytelling journey by rewarding the ‘story of the month’ that are aligned to the corporate values. Notice the structure of your dreams, and decide how you want the plot to develop. Monitor your dreams by writing them down. Overall, pay attention to what archetype answers the real yearning of your soul – one that could do the same for your customers.

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. So if you are part of a long standing culture that has become stale you can look for the raw ingredients in the following areas:

StoryLab: Finding the Raw Ingredients for Your Core Story

Insert Laboratory Model

Armed with the four basic elements of storytelling, it is time to start experimenting with the core story of your company – the strategic communication platform for your company’s brand. It must express your company’s distinctive archetype. Why are you here? What are you fighting for? What would the world be like without you? In short, it is about finding out your company’s reason for being.

In this weeks blog we will explore the following steps:

a) The Obituary Test

b) Screening of Basic Data

c) Distilling the Basic Data

In next weeks blog we will deep dive into:

d) Formulating the Core Story

e) The Acid Test

1.The Obituary Test

Would your company be missed?

It may sound morbid, but the Obituary Test is crucial in identifying and formulating the company’s reason for being. This is precisely what the core story must express if it is to concisely communicate the company brand.

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of being dumped by a lover. A classic case of not realizing what you have got till it’s gone. All too often, it is only when we have lost what we have really cared about, that we realize what it was that made it so special. The Obituary Test is centered on this argument, focusing the company to take a long, hard look in the mirror and honestly consider what, if anything, would be missed should the company die.

Coca-Cola is a company that nearly faced a real life Obituary Test. This occurred when it decided to change its original formula. Looking back on this incident, one cant help wondering what on earth Coca-Cola was thinking about. To put it simply, they made the mistake of focusing only on the physical feature of the product – the taste – while completely ignoring the emotional attachment forged between the brand and the people. They had forgotten the fact that Coca-Cola had been an integral part of American life for more than a century. Coke was much more than a cola flavoured drink, it was an American institution. An Innocent Archetype icon.

It took the loss of the beverage people had grown up with and fallen in love over, to remind them how much it meant to them. Gaye Mullins, front man of the activist group Old Cola Drinkers of America said simply; “They can’t do it. It’s un-American. We’ve fought wars to have choice and freedom. I couldn’t have been more upset if they’d burnt the flag in my front yard”. Donald Keough (President) admitted: “The passion for original Coca-Cola – and that is the word for it, passion – was something that caught us by surprise. It is a wonderful American mystery, a lovely American enigma, and you cannot measure it anymore than you can measure love, pride, or patriotism”.

There are not many brands that would be missed the way people missed the original Coke. But think about it. Would anyone even bother if your company or your product were gone tomorrow? Or would your customers just move next door to your competitor without giving it a second thought? If not an outrage, how would people react if your company were gone? What would they miss? This question is key in getting to the core of what your company is all about. Coke learned the hard way. And that is exactly why the Obituary Test is a vital kick-off for developing the core story of your company.

2. Screening the Basic Data

In the process, you will most likely have to face some hard truths, and revise entrenched beliefs as to how the company culture works. But in order to find your core story, your company must gain a solid understanding, warts and all, of its situation and how it is perceived, both internally and externally.

a) Internal Basic Data

In order to define your company culture – basically, your archetypal identity within your business – you need to find out what makes it tick internally, which in turn, provides the foundation for your company’s core story. The following areas are fundamental to this process:

i) Company vision, mission and values

What is your company mission and what is the vision behind it? What values does your company consider to be the most important and why? How do those values manifest themselves in actual company activities? And how are they communicated internally and externally?

ii) Company milestones

How can you factually describe the company’s historical development? Why was the company founded and what were the circumstances? Which have been your company’s significant events, failures as well as successes? What anecdotes about important people and events are still being told within company walls?

iii) Employees’ stories

What do employees say about the company? Which stories do they tell about the work place? Which stories do they share in their coffee breaks? Which events and experiences do employees use to describe the company? What is it that makes the company a special place to work? Where do employees feel that the company makes a difference?

b) External Basic Data

The purpose for screening your external basic data is to map the company’s position in the market and to identify your strategic opportunities and challenges. However, its primary purpose is to find out what kind of image your company has in the hearts and minds of your customers, and the environment at large. Here are the following areas are relevant:

i) Market Trends

How do current market trends manifest themselves? What do they mean in terms of where your company is positioned now? What does the market of the future look like?

ii) Customers and key decision makers

What stories are your most and least loyal customers telling about your company? What do your competitor’s customers say about your company? How is your company positioned compared to other suppliers on the market? Who are the actual decision makers in the market – and which factors are decisive parameters for their actions?

iii) Partners

What are your key partners saying about your company? What projects have been solved together with those partners? What do these projects say about your company’s values?

iv) Opinion Leaders

Which persons or institutions are opinion leaders in your company’s field of business? What do relevant trade and news media say about the company? Do opinion leaders from other fields of business derive any meaning or inspiration from your business practices? What do they say about the company?

3. Distilling the Basic Data

Once the basic data of the company has been screened, we are left with a mass of material that has to be processed. At this point you need to cut to the quick and hone in on the true essence of what makes your company special. The goal of the core story is to establish a consistent image of your company brand both internally and externally. In other words, you streamline the company’s identity with the external perception of the company. This is the essence of a strong brand. But before you can start developing your core story you need to know the nature of a possible gap between the company’s identity and its public image.

Here, it is important to identify the differences and similarities between internal and external data. Does your company’s self-perception differ from public perception? Are there similarities between the way you like to be seen and the way your surroundings perceive you? If so, what are they and why is this the case?

There may be several reasons for a gap between the identity and image of the company. Often, it is simply a communication problem boiling down to the fact that the company has failed to show how it makes a difference, or, adequately explain what value it holds. In cases such as these, by distilling your basic data, you can identify areas that should be emphasized in future communication in order to pull your identity and image together.

But the explanation for this gap may run far deeper, relating to substance or content e.g. when the company fails to deliver relevant or quality products or services to the consumer. In this case communications or storytelling can do little to help. This is a fundamental problem, demanding radical changes to the company’s overall business plan.

However, once you know what the differences between identity and image are, you can start working on bringing the two areas together. The question of relevance for the company’s stakeholders is a vital reference point when distilling internal and external basic data. Are there common denominators in what employees, customers, partners and opinion-leaders consider to be relevant in relation to the company? If you can identify and list three criteria of relevance, which transcend the various groups, then you are well on your way to narrowing your focus and building a strong foundation for your core story that unites your company’s identity and public image in one, holistic brand.

At last, the process of formulating and telling your core story can begin. This will be the subject of the next week’s blog.

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