SXSW: Forget Stories. Your Brand Needs a Narrative.

If you’ve spent any time at all recently reading PR and marketing blogs, you know that storytelling is a top trend, and for good reason.  Building storytelling into the communications mix delivers the personable and engaging messaging that sticks with audiences and is effective fodder for social content consumption.

However, at SXSW yesterday, I learned where stories fall short in a brilliant presentation titled “Moving from Story to Narrative,” by John Hagel, author of “The Power of Pull” and co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge.

The problem with stories, Hagel argued, stems from the fact that they’re not participatory.   Stories are told to the reader, from the vantage point of the teller.  This leads to the next problem.  Stories eventually end, and the reader moves on to other things.  Now, savvy marketers reading this will say to themselves that those other things can be influenced by providing compelling calls to action, streams of related nurturing content or the ability to participate an adjacent community.   Without a doubt, this is all true, but even the best CTAs don’t work all of the time.

Enter the narrative.

Narratives differ from stories in two important ways, according to Hagel.  First, narratives don’t have an end.  They are open ended, and the resolution is yet to be determined.  Secondly, narratives invite participation.   The inherent message isn’t “Listen” — it’s “Join.”

“Narratives motivate actions,” Hagel noted in his presentation.  “In some cases, they motivate life and death choices.  Stories don’t do this.  Every powerful movement that has impacted our world has been shaped and energized by a potent narrative.”

The “Think Different” slogan from Apple beautifully encapsulated the company’s narrative: how technology and intuitive design can enable people to achieve  more. As Hagel said, Apple founders Jobs and Wozniak thought differently from day one.

  • Apple:  Their charge to “Think Different” isn’t about Apple.  It’s about us, and how we can use technology to achieve more.  Apple is the catalyst.
  • Christianity:  People are born in sin, but have the opportunity to be saved.  How things turn out isn’t known, but it will be determined by people’s choices and actions.
  • The American dream — Anyone from anywhere can achieve anything:  This opportunity expressed in this narrative has drawn people from all over the world to America for hundreds of years.

“In a business context, if you can harness the power of narrative, you can derive competitive advantage,” said Hagel.  Narratives work because they don’t simply motivate employees, they can galvanize a broad swath of people, and inspire them to action.

From campaign to context

I took pages and pages of notes during Hagel’s presentation, even winning kudos for speed and thoroughness from the reporter sitting next to me in the audience.  For the last 24 hours, I’ve been noodling on what he said, thinking about how a brand might start to embrace narratives.  As Hagel mentioned in his presentation, narratives take root organically, growing from the actions of people, and they evolve over time.  They aren’t the product of a brainstorm session, so this post won’t contain Tips for Making Narratives Work for Your Brand or anything like that.

However, there are strong parallels between Hagel’s description of the narrative, and the move we’re seeing in marketing away from episodic campaigns, and toward living brand streams.  The clear message is that today’s audiences crave context, and communicators can derive more power for their brands by providing that important framework.

I’m going to go away and think about the narratives emerging within my company, and my industry, certainly. However, I’m also going to be thinking long and hard about the connective tissue content generates, and how that can be used to create context around opportunities.  If a narrative emerges, great.  But in the meantime, there are important lessons for communicators about what makes people tick in John Hagel’s work.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the e-book “Unlocking Social Media for PR.”  Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik

Is your interest in honing your brand’s content strategy piqued by today’s post?  Join PR Newswire and special guests Brian Solis,  Jim Lin and Lou Hoffman for a live event  in San Francisco titled  Tipping the Engagement Scale in Your Favor: How to Employ Multimedia Content for Compelling Storytelling

Related reading:

Create narratives, not stories – Moxie Interactive

Moving from Story to Narrative – @ItsDane

12 responses to “SXSW: Forget Stories. Your Brand Needs a Narrative.

  1. Nicely written, Sarah. Thanks for such a thoughtful summary.

  2. This is terrific, Sarah, thank you. Your comment about the “connective tissue content generates, and how that can be used to create context around opportunities,” made me think you may be interested in my idea of narrative organizations: http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/the_benefits_of_building_a_narrative_organization/

    Again, thanks for this terrific summary.

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  4. Pingback: SXSW: Confusion between stories and narratives for biz | Transmedia Camp 101

  5. I feel that John Hagel define’s storytelling too narrow. A brand’s story does not end because in business we are taught that a company is a live entity, organic, growing and always moving. Should a brand’s story have an end, this implies that the company has closed down.

    In addition, John confuses opportunity with company philosophy. All brands have the opportunity to develop a fuller and complex personality with storytelling because storytelling is personal. A personal account to why a brand exists and where it is going.

  6. Excellent article and several good points. The main thing is what you wrote here:
    “The inherent message isn’t “Listen” — it’s “Join.” ” -> this is the underlying goal, is to get people on board with the brand/product/etc.

  7. Pingback: Stories vs. Narratives | Jana Jeffery – Digital & Social Marketing

  8. Cecilia – Thanks very much for your comments. At the end of the day, it may be a question about semantics. You are right, though, that a brand story can be thought of as open ended but it is ultimately about the company and the brand – if the story is not just about the company and its employees but about “us”, then it becomes more of a narrative, at least in the sense that I am meaning. The real power at the end of the day is to be able to elevate brand stories (even open-ended ones) into brand narratives that actively engage some audience outside the company in helping to determine how the story evolves – then it is personal not just for the company and the brand but for a much broader group that potentially can be mobilized into sustained effort to accomplish something greater than any one can individually.

  9. Pingback: Narrative As Platform for Brand | Rohn Jay Miller

  10. I tried to watch, but it was too painful to listen to the distorted, echo-y audio on this recording. I only made in a couple minutes into it before my ears were begging me for relief.

  11. Hagel and I have been corresponding about this, and my point to him is that storytelling is not an either/or proposition when it comes to the forms that stories take. It’s not about story vs. narrative, but , rather, about their relationship to one another. The proper concept of narrative, when it comes to marketing brands, is not that there’s “no end” as Hagel suggests. This is fundamentally incorrect. The proper context is that there are INFINITE POSSIBLE ENDS in a living stream of narrative. (And infinite beginnings and middles.) Markets need stories that end–in test drives, transactions, feedback. Business is outcome-driven, and outcomes demand stories with closure. The role of brand storytellers, as Hagel correctly points out, is to participate in the narrative streams, for the purpose of (this is me talking) generating positive outcomes. Here again, though, Hagel stumbles. The choice is not listening VS. participation. The choice is always to do both. And in fact listening must precede authentic participation, the same way you’d want to listen to a conversation at a cocktail party before adding your two cents. On the big picture, however, Hagel is absolutely on the money and merits huge cred for pointing it out: the old models for framing and valuing brand stories are no longer valid. This is because stories live differently in networks than they do in channels. At my company, we call this new model Quantum Storytelling. Here’s a post I wrote about it back when it was just beginning to take shape conceptually for us: http://www.gamechangers.com/?p=2510 Thanks for your post, Sarah. I’m glad Hagel’s talk is getting so much play. It’s an important discussion for marketers and brand storytellers of all stripes to be having.

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