SXSW: Forget Stories. Your Brand Needs a Narrative.

By Sarah Skerik, Vice President-Social Media, PR Newswire

Image via Business Innovation Factory.

Image via Business Innovation Factory.

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 Monday, 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.

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.


Author 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

Editor’s Note: 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