The idea of corporate stories as strategic assets is a hot topic, as I covered in my interview in these pages with “The Father of Modern Branding,” David Aaker. Stories, however, are “simply” expressions of something deeper. Narrative – often conflated with the term story – is the structure upon which stories (and much more) are built, according to narrative psychologist Kristian Aloma, CEO of narrative design firm Threadline.
I sat down with Aloma recently to discuss the relationship of an organization’s narrative to its culture, customers, employees and the stories that serve them all. Four key thoughts emerged of special import to CEOs.
One: You won’t understand your customers until you grasp how they understand themselves. Corporate offerings often spring from a company’s external observations of what the marketplace needs, wants or could be induced to use. Narrative psychologists like Aloma look instead to leverage the internal understanding that customers have of themselves.
As he puts it, “Narrative psychology is the field that looks at the way people use stories, narratives, to understand who they are, to understand the world, to define their identity.” In short, corporations and their brands must grasp the story people are telling inside their own heads if they want to have a role in it.
Aloma offered an example from the automotive world. “If you ask car shoppers about the car they choose they’re going to tell you about its Blue Book value, the great safety rating and all of those rational things. But then when you really get into the story behind their decision-making, you find something very different – maybe they’re dealing with the tension of being a new parent who is, say, coming from an exciting two-seater or a convertible and struggling to step away from that into the minivan world.
What they end up saying to themselves is, ‘That car is going to tell a story about me that is not who I think I am. I’m the guy with the BMW or the Lexus. This car is the suburban dad hauling kids to soccer – and that’s not me!’ As a result, you’ve got brands that were traditionally seen as sports cars now offering SUVs and crossovers. Suddenly, that customer’s narrative gets resolved. His tension of wanting to have a little bit of both gets resolved by the brands that’ve bothered to think about his narrative psychology.”
Two: Narrative makes sense of data.
There is perhaps no greater point of corner office pride, proof (or self-protection) these days than to be able to claim that a decision, or a whole organization, is “data-driven.” The only catch is that simply having tons of data doesn’t mean you have an ounce of understanding – and human understanding is what narrative structure provides.
Viewing your data through the narrative psychologist’s empathetic lens keeps you focused on the customer (not your company) as the hero of their own journey. It helps you connect the functional, factual dots of data to the emotional and directional context of a customer’s life — and thereby find the most meaningful intersections between what you offer and the story your customer is actually living out. As Aloma says, “Narrative’s purpose is to make sense of data. If you’re in the C-Suite, keep pushing on the data, but don’t forget to keep bringing those narratives, those stories, to help make sense of it all. Otherwise, all that data will essentially fall by the wayside for your organization.”
Three: Narrative structure shapes your corporate culture
One of the greatest misunderstandings about narrative and story is that they apply only to marketing. “People have gotten excited about stories thinking, ‘Hey, we can create a campaign that goes viral, which makes people laugh or cry, and that’s wonderful – but more brands are starting to see it also as an opportunity to connect to their core purpose as an organization, and connect that purpose to their audiences internally and externally.”
Four: The CEOs own narrative can empower the corporate story
Understanding, leveraging and serving the narrative structures of your customers and employees – how they envision and guide their own journeys – is crucial. But what about your personal narrative as a CEO? According to Aloma, defining, aligning and sharing your own narrative, within that of the organization, is imperative. “If you want to build an authentic culture, you’ve got to have that narrative be authentic all the way through. It can’t start with a CEO who doesn’t really believe in the idea, but is trying to tell everyone else, ‘This is the narrative. Do this.’ No one will believe it – there’s no evidence.”
What’s your story? Your organization’s? Your customers’? How do you get them to profitably intersect? And most importantly, what are the real motivational structures, narrative structures, that shape them all? If you’ve no clear answers, perhaps it’s time for a visit to your own narrative psychologist.