Corporate narrative: brand storytelling with substance
by Shachar Meron 04.29.21
Message maps are all well and good, but sometimes you need to tell your brand story in a linear way. That’s when the corporate narrative comes in: part brand messaging, part creative copywriting, shared in a way you can dial in by audience and media.
How do we define the corporate narrative? Here’s my favorite from HBR: “It says who you are as a company. Where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. How you believe value is created and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique.”
There are many examples of good and bad corporate narratives, from innovative consumer brands to bold B2Bs to nonprofits. They tell stories at different altitudes—some about the organization and its place in the marketplace or society, others focused on a specific initiative or individual.
Customers care because they want to know who they’re doing business with, especially in B2B (less transactional, more relationship-driven). Employees care, especially when the economy is good and they have their choice of where to work. Investors and other stakeholders care, they want to know your goals, strategy and trajectory.
So how do you write a corporate narrative that works for you? Here are four tips:
1. A good corporate narrative starts with a shared purpose and clear theme.
HBR says the “The cornerstone of a strategic narrative is a shared purpose.” Your corporate narrative should be true to you: start with your mission and values, company history and personal experiences. It’s most powerful coming from an authentic place.
To bring together the right elements, look to your brand messaging. You want to find the intersection of your main internal message (purpose/values) and external message (promise/value prop). Ideally these naturally weave together, though it’s not always that simple, especially if your messaging needs work.
For your corporate narrative to resonate, focus on a central theme that’s simple and easy to understand. Best are high-level emotional concepts (e.g. trust, empowerment, joy) or focused issues of critical importance to the company (e.g. customer experience, sustainability, equity).
Note: this is not the place to make things up. A fabricated narrative is bad strategy, borderline unethical (or worse), and always comes back to bite brands.
2. Make it interesting. Please.
How do you craft a story that people care about?
It starts with a compelling hook that’s authentic to you and relevant to your audience. But then what? Is there an aspect to your company that’s particularly memorable or unique? A pressing problem you’re solving or wrong you’re righting? An unexpected quirk of your people or culture? Some apt metaphor or colorful expression to package it all up?
That’s when copywriting kicks in.
Now, strategy and copywriting is a love/hate relationship: a push-and-pull between communicating a message and telling a story people want to hear. (For 20 years I’ve seen this struggle happen between companies, colleagues, and even within myself; Strategist Shachar and Copywriter Shachar don't always get along.)
Strategists best serve the narrative by organizing messages in a clear hierarchy (not always easy for more complex brand messaging), and then giving writers the room they need to express the story in a compelling narrative. This takes shape in iterations and takes unexpected turns, often involving other creative types like designers and producers, and sometimes uncovers gaps strategy itself.
(Disclaimer: I hate the phrase “corporate narrative.” Sounds manufactured and boring, but it’s a clear identifier accepted in the industry so we’re sticking with it. Thank you, SEO.)
3. Bonus points if it's adaptable and scalable.
A corporate narrative may come to life in myriad ways: a 30-second intro from a sales associate or five-minute video featuring company leadership. An infographic in your annual report or speech at your annual meeting. A manifesto etched on your lobby wall or marketing campaign delivered globally.
For most corporate narratives I’ve work on, writing the story was the easy part. The challenge was knowing where and when it can flex: parts you can reorder for a particular audience or skip when you don’t have time, messages that do and don’t need to phrased just so, extras to add in when the situation calls for it.
Consistency matters, but you need flexibility or nobody will use it right (or at all). Be honest about where you’ve got wiggle room: is this the word we have to use, or just the concept we have to convey? Does this have to be communicated in words, or are there visuals that can do some of the heavy lifting?
Work out the rules, then communicate them in clear brand guidelines so everyone knows the requirements from the suggestions.
4. Empower people to tell your story like it's their own.
A story is only as good as its storyteller. For a company, that often means employees in sales, marketing, communications, customer service, talent acquisition and HR; C-suite executives and other public-facing figures; and external partners like advertising agencies and PR. You want everyone on the same page, so they can do their jobs effectively and consistently.
Finally, know that customers and clients have their own version of your brand story. Learn it. Embrace it. Weave the best ones into your corporate narrative over time. Address the worst ones honestly to keep getting better, or risk losing control of your own story.
Is your corporate narrative telling the story you want?
TL;DR Every organization has a story about themselves, and smart companies know how to communicate it. There are ways you can shape your corporate narrative to make it stronger: more authentic, focused, interesting, adaptable, well-told. Part brand messaging, part creative copywriting, all valuable.
We’ve helped a huge variety of companies shape their corporate narratives. What they have in common: purpose-driven people, diverse audiences, complex products or markets, and the need to say a lot in a limited time. If you need help or want to know more, drop us a line.