Strategic narrative: what it is and how it can help your company find meaning

A Tesla Model X electric vehicle is shown in this picture illustration taken in Moscow, Russia July 23, 2020. Picture taken July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina - RC2D6I9SFJ76

Tesla's auto-making is secondary to its meaning-making. The company's core narrative is about accelerating the world's transition to sustainable energy. Image: REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Andrew Chakhoyan
Senior Manager Public Affairs, Strategic Engagement, Booking.com
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  • By articulating its strategic narrative, a company can find meaning beyond shareholder value creation.
  • Actions speak louder than words and are central to the authenticity of your message.
  • In times of crisis, a company will face pressure to revise its missions; but the narrative should anchor the firm.

'Strategic narrative' is a new buzzword that has taken the business vocabulary by storm, thanks to Jeff Bezos who turned it into a competitive advantage with the Amazon empire. The search for a narrative is often led by corporate communication teams or external PR advisors. And therein lies the problem: a strategic narrative is not what you say, it’s what you do.

In a seminal piece for the Harvard Business Review, Mark Bonchek calls it a story that “defines the company’s vision, communicates the strategy, and embodies the culture.” For me, to develop a strategic narrative is to humanise and expound the mission statement.

It is a way for a business executive to explain why their company exists, what it stands for, and why anyone should care. This is how you get beyond the corporate speak and the language of dollars and cents, and into the vernacular of authenticity and human emotions.

Meaning making

Businesses used to compete on quality and price. Success inevitably came to those who could achieve efficiency at scale. For years, the customer preferences were shifting from a better or cheaper thing towards a unique and personalised experience.

In a world in which infinite choices are available within a few clicks, meaning making is a new competitive frontier. It is no longer about what companies do, nor even how they do it. The questions companies must answer instead is “why they do what they do” and “how is that meaningful?”

In a world where infinite choices are available within a few clicks, meaning-making is a new competitive frontier.

Andrew Chakhoyan

A North Star that guides in times of flux

The contemporary business leader is under pressure from every possible direction. To do the right thing – an objective that by definition stretches beyond quarterly targets – s/he needs something to hold on to: an anchor, a North Star.

The raison d'être of your business is precisely that. It answers the questions of “where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going” as Mark Bonchek, CEO of Shift Thinking, succinctly puts it. A strategic narrative is not a rationalisation of existing commitments; it’s a guiding light for difficult decisions you have yet to make.

A contemporary executive understands that no war-chest of cash and no out-of-the-box idea will make a difference in the long run if the company is not able to attract and retain top talent.

Just ask the CEO of Salesforce, who makes sure that his company is listed among the best places to work year after year. An unwavering focus on sustainability, leadership on social issues, and strong engagement with the local community are threads of the same narrative: Salesforce is where ambitious, driven and conscientious professionals will feel at home.

When COVID-19 hit, Marc Benioff urged his peers – CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – to take a “no-layoff” pledge, leading by example. It was a courageous move to offer guarantees to employees in times of such great uncertainty. But was there actually any other way he could have acted without compromising the narrative?

There is a circular flow to how the corporate story is constructed and reinforced. Buttressing the narrative, especially when it’s hard, helps assure long-term resilience.

Who is your audience?

Townhalls with employees, boardroom presentations, and quarterly earnings calls with investors and market analysts are familiar formats for a senior executive. But one can’t afford to ignore another key constituent. If you are now contemplating stakeholder categories that I have omitted, don’t bother. The audience I’m talking about is you.

The messenger is the message, but what about the reverse? Internalising the message changes the messenger. Understanding why a given company exists requires serious self-examination. It is absolutely not a box-ticking exercise.

Just like writing is a process of figuring out what one really thinks, articulating your strategic narrative is a way to find meaning beyond the “shareholder value creation.”

Take Paul Polman, who used to “run an empire of soap and mayonnaise.” He truly understood the power of narrative. As CEO of Unilever, Polman’s storytelling has transformed the company into a champion of sustainability: a mission-driven business. It also changed the protagonist: Paul Polman has now come to represent and personify that narrative.

Strategic Narrative is a virtuous cycle
Strategic Narrative is a virtuous cycle

Actions speak louder than words

Tesla is a company grounded in its mission. The act of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy has little to do with auto making and a lot to do with meaning making.

Tesla's founder and CEO, Elon Musk, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to his Twitter account. But when it comes to actions, everything that Tesla does is fully congruent with its narrative. The release of Tesla Semi, the Model 3 launch, the unveiling of a ventilator prototype to help fight the coronavirus... these actions drive the narrative, not the tweets. That’s why the community of Tesla-owners is unlike any other. They identify with a story bigger than their car, bigger than themselves.

Coherence comes from within. If you have pondered the narrative pillars of your business, you must have asked yourself: how compelling are they, how relatable, how vivid? Those questions are spot on. But your corporate story lives or dies based on one criterion only: how coherent is it?

Nothing will ruin trust faster than unkept promises or empty declarations layered on top of half-hearted commitments. As the World Economic Forum’s founder, Professor Klaus Schwab, observed, the Great Reset is upon us. Now, as ever, it behooves one not just to speak but to act with responsibility.

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