Author: Daniel Castro

Customer experience – why designing the employee journey matters

We are truly living in the age of customer-centricity. Across the world, more and more organisations are waking up to the idea that only by focusing every business effort on the benefit it can bring to the customer can prosperity be achieved, and demise avoided. Here’s a pithy statistic from customer experience agency Walker to back it up: by 2020, customer experience will have overtaken price and product as the key brand differentiator. Just let that sink in – the quality of the product you sell, and the price you charge for it, are both less important than the customer experience associated with it. 

It’s a global mindset shift for businesses, and it’s one that here at The Storytellers we have helped our diverse portfolio of clients with countless times. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a story that we have worked on with our clients over the last five years that has not had customer-centricity as a key element of the mindset-shift that leaders want to see. It makes complete sense: if a customer-centric business is the aim, you need employees to have a clear and unambiguous view of what that means for them. After all, it’s the employees (customer-facing or not) who will deliver that experience.

So how can businesses ensure that their leaders are just as dedicated to the employee journey, as they expect them to be to the customer journey?

Fundamentally, the starting point is to approach the employee journey with the same dedication as the customer journey. So this means focusing just as much on how key messages are communicated, understood and reinforced, as it does what the content of those messages is. User experience is a key concept in the customer experience – it stands to reason that these principles should also apply when it comes to the employee experience too.

It sounds simple, but it’s an essential point. If businesses want to deliver great customer experiences, it’s the employees who will deliver those. If businesses want employees to come on board with this new approach, leaders need to win hearts and minds in much the same way that they go about making customers love their offering. They are certainly different stakeholders with different needs – but the process of understanding, communication and engagement should be consistent for both in terms of effort and quality.

Therefore, what can we take from customer experience principles when thinking about the employee journey? How can we creatively and meticulously bring that employee journey to life? 

Firstly, defining the overarching business Narrative is critical. Achieving leadership alignment around a shared strategic narrative, establishing the key goals, agreeing them at the executive level and setting tangible measures provides a solid base to work from and sets the correct expectations for everything that follows. The notion of inspiring people in the journey that a business is on is crucial – and starting with a vision of this that is aligned at the most senior level is a vital component in helping employees to think customer-centrically.

Next, just as a business would do with customers, it’s important to get a strong grasp of the Identity of the employees across the organisation. Persona research, employee surveys, focus groups – they all provide key insights that shine a light on the different kinds of people that need to be appealed to, and helps begin to answer that vital question: ‘what’s in this for me?’ Without this kind of activity, it’s much more likely that employees will see new initiatives as something that is happening to them, rather than something they are truly a part of. It’s in making this kind of listening exercise a part of the initiative from the beginning that employees will see a change in their own journey, before they embark on changing their approach to the customer journey. Again: these are UX principles that take time and effort to apply… but if you truly believe that it’s your employees who will deliver the very best experience for your customers, isn’t this something worth investing in?

Understanding the different identities in a business, and taking the time to ask people how they feel, what they want, and where the pain points are, are all key to understanding the correct Emotion to channel. It’s important to create a unified sense of emotion at the organisation-wide level of a business – but understanding the emotional journey that employees are on at the more specific persona level is much more likely to yield positive results. Better empathy and understanding is crucial to the notion of customer-centricity: a better understanding of your own employees at an emotional level is a requisite to increasing their own empathic skills when it comes to the customer. As a leader, it’s a must if you want your key messages to land – you have to be emotionally literate when it comes to your people if you want them to follow you.

Finally, once these various insights have been gathered, it is crucial to closely examine the Communication that exists within the organisation, in order to consider what the key touch points and channels will be. In terms of achieving a company-wide movement of change in support of a more customer-centric approach, this is crucial in demonstrating the kind of user-focused approach that is sought for customers. It’s not enough to just roll out a message at the leadership level through a handful of channels as a one-off activity. Consistent, tailored messaging according to the research and insights that have been gathered is far more likely to deliver a lasting mindset shift.

Understanding a business journey through these four lenses is useful on a number of levels – using them from the perspective of user experience to design the employee journey is an enormously valuable process to drive deeper engagement in an employee base. 

But what happens when the situation is more complicated than this? We often see two scenarios played out.

The first is when the organisation is large, complex, diverse and across several geographies. When this is the case, we often hear of a need to reinforce the brand culture, along with the headline need to create a better customer experience. In this kind of instance, we have especially seen the benefit of engaging Executive leaders throughout the communication process. This serves a number of benefits:

  • Firstly, bringing the C-suite into the design stage of a communication roll-out builds in a level of authenticity that cannot be achieved by just bringing them in at the end. Authentic, personal and emotional Executive communication sends a message to the entire organisation that the leadership are interested in a dialogue, not one-way communication.
  • Secondly, this approach entails the C-suite speaking honestly and personally on the role that they play in the journey. Doing this establishes the causal relationship between the strategic narrative and the idea of ‘what this means for me’. Creating this tangible sense of what needs to happen is critical, and this needs to start with leaders accepting and speaking to their own responsibilities on this journey.
  • Finally, those leaders begin to role-model the behaviours that they are looking for, especially at the next layer of leadership – communicating in a way that is personal, understanding of the audience they are speaking to, and actively living the company values.

So doubling down on the detail around communication roll-out is key when it comes to larger, more diverse organisations. Weaving in the next layer of leadership into the design process, making them a part of the solution and leveraging their insights is one way to mitigate those risks.

As businesses continue to develop their customer-centric approaches, we know that employees must be given the motivation, means and momentum to see these objectives through. In pursuit of a strong brand culture that champions great customer experiences, give your employees the same attention, focus and care as you do your customers – and you can expect them to do the same.

How to paint the big picture

‘Can you see the big picture?’

You can imagine the scenario where this kind of question might arise. A discussion is happening about what a situation really means. We’re not talking about tactics any more, we might even be going beyond the current strategy. It’s not clear yet, but we’re probably talking about wider implications, ideas beyond the obvious and immediate. There’s an appetite to explore the global view, a desire for a holistic take on the matter at hand. The burning need is suddenly laid out…. “we just need to see the big picture…”

Why is it that we resort to talking about pictures at such crucial moments as these? 

Pictures are synonymous with total, intuitive, immediate understanding. According to scientists at MIT, the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees in as little as 13 milliseconds. The sluggish pace of reading or hearing words is simply no match for the electric power of our ability to understand images. We process information faster as images than we do as words. It’s a fact. 

So when we talk about seeing the ‘big picture’, we should perhaps consider this phrase literally. A picture can comprise so much at once. It is non-linear.  It has a non-sequential hierarchy. It can be taken in all at once, or individual details can be focused on – always with the context of its place in the larger whole. Essentially, it is holistic. It is analogous to the kind of complete view that is sought when a leader seeks to elevate understanding beyond tactical awareness – and especially when there is a need to re-engage with what we do at a new, fundamental level. Pictures are the big picture.

So when it comes to communicating a complicated idea like a business strategy… why is it that so few businesses consider the idea of communicating this level of complexity via images?

At The Storytellers, we have been advising our clients for years on this kind of ‘big picture’ thinking – to boldly paint the picture of the epic journey that a business is on, in words AND in pictures. Over the past 16 years, we have explored and imagined ways of visual storytelling for businesses all around the world – and the results have been astounding. For the first time in years, people say things like:

“I really get it now!”

The way we visually communicate our clients’ six-chapter narratives has become a mode of expression and storytelling in and of itself. But why is this form of communication, in visual terms, so effective? What is it about this seemingly simple format that delivers this ‘big picture’ understanding so intravenously, so powerfully, so lastingly?

Essentially, the advantages of visual storytelling can be understood through how audiences use a visual story to answer five key questions – and therefore how a visual story can preemptively respond to these needs.

“What is it?” 

I mentioned earlier that the marvellous human brain processes images in as little as 13 milliseconds. What if you could use those 13 milliseconds to convey the core idea of your organisation’s story? What if you could embed real understanding at that deep, intuitive level? 

When we work with our clients to come up with the right visual story, we often talk about the core message of a story. In other words, what is the essence of this story, the heart of the matter – and what do we want people to think, feel and do as a result of understanding this? It’s the tip of the pyramid – the clear understanding of what needs to happen, with all the reasoning, detail and context surrounding it.

By presenting a simple and complete visual story that encompasses the past, present and future of a business, we can effectively present this ‘big picture’. By working with brand and other key stakeholders, we can ensure that the resulting visual story feels both familiar (i.e. this belongs to us) and new (i.e. this isn’t the ‘same-old, same-old’). It’s daunting to think that it could be so simple… but this is both the challenge and the prize of painting the big picture.

“Where am I in this picture?” 

So, we’re 13 milliseconds in. Your audience have pretty much grasped the arc of the journey that the business is on. What’s going on in everyone’s brains now? The likelihood is that people are trying to figure out where they fit into this story.

The hero’s journey is a well-trodden path when it comes to storytelling – there’s no one reason for this, but perhaps one of the more relevant reasons for its use in business storytelling is that it covers so many different emotional states. 

At the beginning, we understand who a hero is, what they represent and what they have to be proud of. Then, we learn about their big challenge, the threat that it poses to their identity, and the negative emotions that this causes. Next, we are given a reason to believe – we understand how the problem can be solved, and what it will take from the hero to achieve this. We watch as they follow the path to the desired outcome, see how they deal with the final obstacles in their path – and, vitally, understand what it truly means to them when they make it to the end.

Now, all of this makes for a great story. But the big thing is this: all of your people will be on different points on that journey, which in many ways is simply a different kind of change model. So a visual story gives people the opportunity to find and recognise themselves against a positive journey of change, see the steps that are needed to move beyond their current state, and how good it will be to get there. I’m not sure how many more milliseconds this part needs. But if you want people to truly feel part of a journey, and that there is a place for everyone, no matter where they are on the change cycle – then it’s definitely worth it.

“Who am I?”

Pareidolia”. Another of those wonderful words that you may not know, but have certainly experienced.  Pareidolia is essentially the human propensity to interpret images and find something that is familiar to us in that image – and very often, that is ourselves!

We see ourselves in everything – and this is one of the more important yet counterintuitive parts of improving leadership through better storytelling. As any good storyteller knows, it’s all about the audience and how they put themselves in the story you tell – how the empathise and relate to it. This understanding is very much analogous to the business leader – you might love the plans that you’re setting out for a business, but it won’t mean much unless other people do too.

Visual stories especially allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of the hero before us, to walk the path that is set out, and to feel that. This represents a level of envisioning, anticipation and association is just not feasible in a rationally communicated strategy. 

The fact that this can be communicated by a static image, rather than an actual person, represents a greater opportunity for real association. If we’re looking at another person talking, we see another person and the immediate goal is to understand them. If we look at a visual story, our immediate goal is to understand how I would feel if I was in that situation. This is the kind of empathic experience that delivers real ‘aha’ moments.

“What’s next?” 

Whether you’re talking about the Bayeux Tapestry or comic books, ‘closure’ is one of the more important ideas to grasp. Essentially, closure is the idea that the reader will be able to jump from one static image to another and ‘close’ the gap. To mentally join the dots between those two points, and therefore complete the journey themselves. 

In terms of business storytelling, this idea is absolutely crucial – if we’re depicting the journey of a business that goes from good to great, the question is very simple: what does each of us have to do to get from here to there? In visual storytelling, the spaces in between are every bit as important as the images themselves.

This is another way in which storytelling augments strategy. It’s important for a leadership team to understand the strategy of the business, and to own this – but in many ways, their ownership of this is derived from the fact that they came up with it. If the strategy had simply been given to them, it’s hard to imagine that they would be similarly engaged.

The same is entirely true for an employee population – and therefore by giving employees the chance to ‘join the dots’ for themselves in the visual story, you give the opportunity for people to make the story their own, and begin to proactively imagine what needs to happen to get from A to B. 

“Why should I bother with any of this?” 

Ultimately, a visual story is a manifestation of an emotional journey. Our responsibility as storytellers is to first understand the emotional journey that an organisation is on, and then to tell a story that is meaningful with respect to that journey. 

We may be visualising the idea that ‘things will get better if we do x’. We may be visualising the idea that ‘if we do x, then we will really be the very best we can be’. Whatever the basic notion is, we need to highlight the bright spots in this story and the desired destination – and therefore, through storytelling, embody the part of the big picture that speaks to the rewards and benefits of following this journey through. 

Whether it’s a renewed approach to customer experience, or the need for everyone to be their best through a new M&A, it’s this shortcut to the ‘why’ that makes visual storytelling such a powerful asset for leaders. It’s difficult to speak simultaneously to the crux of what needs to happen AND the benefits of following this action through – but a visual story can actually do this all at once. 

Business transformation: routine to ritual

Engaging hearts and minds is one of the most vital elements in any business transformation. Here at The Storytellers, we often talk about the elephant (the emotional) and the rider (the rational) – if the elephant is not on board, then even the best laid plans of the rider are unlikely to happen. It’s a simple fable but it’s very true – unless people are both emotionally AND rationally engaged in the change that needs to happen, it’s very unlikely that any real improvements will be seen.

So when coming up with a campaign that engages large employee populations for our clients, we need to get to the emotional heart of what makes an organisation tick. But so often, finding out what the right emotional engagement for each organisation is can feel ephemeral, ethereal, out of reach – ‘fluffy’. As change experts, we have our own challenge then: how to take the essential goal of emotional engagement and make it more of a tangible, measurable process? 

One of the key questions that we ask our clients in this respect is as follows:

“What are your employees’ routines and rituals?”

At the ground level, this question reveals insights that tell us how things currently are, and therefore the space in which we can begin to introduce new elements that will drive the emotional engagement, and therefore, business transformation. Once identified, these existing routines and rituals become the framework for development, improvement, and measuring the success of the quest to create real emotional engagement.

But what are routines and rituals? Are they the same as each other? And why are they so significant when it comes to lasting change?

A routine is defined as “a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program.” In other words, it’s a process, a procedure, a drill. A series of steps that are followed with little question. One might say that they represent the objective of change – to make the conscious unconscious, so that the efforts and energies of employees can be turned to other immediate challenge.

On the other hand, a ritual has a far more elevated significance: “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” So although there is the same element of a prescribed sequence of actions, a ritual is by definition a heightened, conscious and mind-expanding experience. It represents the experience that delivers understanding, and connotes a much-more collective moment in a group than a mere routine.

Stories and storytelling are, of course, rooted in this concept of ritual – and in many ways, our responsibility to our clients is to help them deliver these ritual experiences, from which the collective emerges enlightened, engaged, and ready to face their duties differently. To put it simply: it’s the first step to making the extraordinary a matter of routine.

There are relatively few accurate synonyms for ‘ritual’. However, there is a phrase that captures perhaps the most critical element of what constitutes a ritual: liminal experience.

We have written previously on the importance of liminal experience, particularly in terms of live events, but liminal experience is a concept that very much applies to workplace rituals too. An anthropological term, ‘liminality’ comes from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”. It means the quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of rites, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. In other words, it is the moment in a ritual when change happens, the moment when the path towards making improvements part of the everyday begins to be glimpsed.

Broadly speaking, it’s this quality that we are looking to create – whether at a leadership event, or as a key driver of change in the workplace. Practically speaking, it’s a matter of taking the existing logistical framework that exists within a business and seeing where this can be disrupted, by making a ritual out of a routine. But what does this look like in practice, to create this liminal space in which individuals can find new meaning? What does it mean to give what was routine that special, ritual quality? Here are five key transitions to look for:

Tedious and meaningless to symbolic and meaningful

Operational communication is essential – it’s not a question of replacing this, or trying to make this something it’s not. It’s a question of introducing new elements that create that ‘round the campfire’ feeling – and there’s no better way of doing this than through stories. It’s stories that create that sense of being on the threshold of understanding what we do in a more sophisticated, complete, effective way than we did before.

Making this experience symbolic and meaningful must be with respect to the overarching journey that a business is on – it’s having this clearly defined bigger picture that creates the opportunity for anecdotes to become enduring symbols of the change that needs to happen. Sharing stories of progress on a regular basis as part of existing meetings is sure to shift the dial from tedium to meaning.

Externally motivated to Internally motivated

The key words here are proactive, discretional and voluntary. As a manager, call out instances where your employees have gone above and beyond – it’s these instances that crystallise an internal motivation to succeed on the journey. What is routine is what is expected – it’s the outlier examples that show a greater determination and alignment with the strategic journey. It’s so important to actively search for these, and visibly give credit where and when it is due.

The most useful asset here are the company purpose and values – tying real life examples back to these pillars of identity and ‘how we do things around here’ will bring to life exactly why certain examples deserve to be celebrated above others. Finally, be sure to proudly pass on these stories of outstanding motivation – they are the icons that build momentum behind a movement of change.

Work as a duty to work as a celebration

Rituals are inherently a form of celebration. Whether it’s solid, consistent performance or outliers of excellence, rituals elevate appreciation it to a superior level, making us feel proud of what we have collectively accomplished. 

It’s important to think creatively and proactively on this aspect – particularly where it comes to operational areas of a business. Finding the connection between what can be regarded as ‘day-to-day’ and the deeper purpose of why a business exists can be difficult, but it’s so important in terms of creating a complete purpose-led culture.

Consider whether you are hearing stories from ALL areas of your team. Not everyone can be the hero every time – but everyone needs to be the hero sometimes. Fostering an atmosphere of celebration by championing the people who consistently perform, as well as the outstanding moments of excellence, is the catalyst for future stories of success.

Little sense of belonging to increased sense of belonging

Talent retention, and avoiding the debilitating effects of attrition, are key, measurable drivers of many of our clients’ programs – and this is an area in which the need to create a feeling of ritual is particularly crucial.

Rituals are all about creating a circle – of trust, of belonging, of commitment. When we share experiences collectively, we feel that we belong to something bigger. We feel powerful, and capable of changing the world. 

Gathering around at least once a week in order to share stories of progress, challenges and success might seem a little strange at first – but over time, this becomes a ritual that cements a deeper sense of belonging, of a collective experience that we go through together. If you’re struggling to keep hold of your brightest talent, make sure that you are nurturing a sense of belonging. Getting together as a team more often, and doing this around a culture of story-sharing, is an excellent place to start.

Focus on completion of tasks to focus on performance of tasks

Perhaps more than any of the other dimensions, this one epitomises the shift from routine to ritual. Completing a task is a binary action – it’s either done, or it’s not. Introducing a performance-based approach elevates this to a richer, more nuanced learning experience. It’s not just about ticking off obligations – it’s a much more qualitative, transformative approach.

As customer experience begins to overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, it’s so important to introduce a more user-focused approach to all areas of a business, not just the customer. Highlighting and drawing out the elements of a story that vividly bring to life the key qualities that we are searching ensures that this CX focus is consistent throughout an organisation.

Encourage your team to focus on the small steps that happen towards the completion of a task. Taking the time to tell the story of what is seemingly simple, boring and run-of-the-mill can reveal hidden emotional depths – and shift the culture to one that is proud of how we do things, not just what.

Taking your ordinary, well-worn business routines and turning them into something meaningful, memorable, and a key driver of change is to create the feeling of ritual. By doing this, it’s possible to make the extraordinary routine, and for businesses to take the first steps over the threshold to a brighter future.

Make storytelling great again

Just four little words. 

In one simple phrase, the US equivalent of Alan Sugar had galvanised a decisive section of the American public like no other political slogan ever had. As the Obama era, with all its hopes and dreams drew to a close, ‘Make America Great Again’ powerfully made a promise to a vociferous, empowered contingent, inflamed some of the worst civil unrest the USA has seen for decades – and played a crucial role in delivering the presidency to Donald Trump.

Two years later, President Trump is half-way through his first (and possibly last) term as the domestic and international leader of the world’s biggest economy – and the time has come to re-evaluate the MAGA promise and draw some key lessons.

‘Make America Great Again’ is a phrase that invites analysis from all angles – political, social, psychological, historical and more. But what does MAGA mean from the holistic perspective of storytelling? What can business leaders take from this extraordinary example of storytelling and leadership, and apply positively to their own circumstances? How can business leaders win the hearts and minds of their own people – at the same time as scrupulously leading towards a positive future for all?

Let’s start with the words themselves – what part does each word play, and what is it about these words that make it such a powerful rallying cry?


Lesson 1: Give your rallying cry a simple and empowering verb.

‘Make’ – it’s interesting to note that the phrase does not start with ‘Let’s’ (more on that later). Instead, the phrase is a powerful directive to the individual: emboldening rather than unifying. Every individual has a role to play in this rallying cry, and that’s very empowering. So the verb selection is excellent – it tells people what they need to DO, and this is an essential element for any business rallying cry. When considering your own rallying cry, you need to ask yourself: what is the simple verb that essentially describes what we want people to do?

Lesson 2: Identify the one or two stories that really define your business and refer directly to them.

America’– this puts the whole phrase in a powerful, patriotic context. It’s a word that has been shown time and time again to resonate with Americans in a way that far exceeds the way British people respond to the word ‘Britain’.  Consider how many films have the word ‘America’ or ‘American’ in them… and in contrast, how many films that feature any other nation in the title. The word ‘America’ represents an entire mythology – and referring back to this is incredibly powerful storytelling.

While using ‘America’ in any title has widely become a shortcut to interest and engagement in the USA, for businesses it’s much more a case of a listening exercise to identify what their own ‘origin myths’ are. Effectively, every business has its own language and stories from the past – stories that are meaningful to those that work there, and take on bigger, iconic meaning. Simply put, it’s critical for business leaders to use the language and stories of their own people in communications. America wasn’t Trump’s story – it was the American people’s. 

What’s are your business’s’ origin myths? Find them and use the same language in your rallying cry.


Lesson 3: Set out an ambitious vision that doesn’t undercut where we are today.

Great’– the qualifier that sets the required goal. Necessarily vague (but usefully having the double meaning of both ‘excellent’ and ‘large’) and again, a simple, memorable word that keeps the syntax tight. For businesses, getting this qualifier right is so important – it goes to the specific kind of ‘good’ that is sought, and inherently reveals the perception of where we are now. 

More often than not, the qualifier needs to reflect positively on where we are today, as well as speaking confidently to the heights we can reach tomorrow. As a business leader, if you’re going to include any negative element in your rallying cry (whether implicit or explicit), it’s so important to be thoroughly honest, clear and frank about any shortcomings that need to be addressed. By using the word ‘Great’ with all it’s negative implications in such an unqualified way, Trump implied that America was not good enough without speaking to the measurable change that was needed. One can see today’s unrest as a direct consequence from this. Shrewd electioneering – terrible leadership.

Qualify ‘what good looks like’ – and where there is a need to be critical, be utterly honest, transparent, and measurable about what the change looks like.


Lesson 4: The rallying cry must speak simply to the journey that a business is on.

Again’– the most important and contentious word of the four. In terms of storytelling, this goes directly to one of the most powerful archetypal journeys: rebirth. Positioning his campaign as the resurrection of a better America, Trump aligned his candidacy with a narrative that spoke of returning to a better time. 

By consistently aligning his rhetoric around this simple, primal narrative, and condensing that narrative down to just four words, Trump powerfully used the principles of storytelling to audacious effect. He set out a journey for America to go on – and MAGA spoke directly to that journey.

The rebirth archetype is a powerful narrative that has precedent in the political sphere. Consider the memorable title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. These words encapsulate the dramatic story of Mandela’s story: the years in prison, the return to the outside world, and his quest to unite South Africa in freedom. Not only was it a story that grabbed the attention of the entire world, it remains one of the best-known political biographies – the fact that those four words speak so clearly to the rebirth narrative is surely one of the reasons why.

The key difference between Mandela’s resurrection narrative and Trump’s is that while Mandela’s subsequent leadership fully focused on taking a divided country to a happier and more united time for all, Trump’s leadership has focused almost wholly on using existing divisions for political gain. There is still time for Trump to turn things around – but as things stand, it’s difficult to envisage a better America post-Trump, and all too easy to imagine one that is actually worse as a result of his leadership.

Defining the journey that your business is on is an essential part of business leadership. Understanding how this fits to the basic archetypal stories that feature again and again in human life and art is critical to how leaders speak clearly, confidently and concisely to the big shifts that need to happen to achieve success. 

When defining your own rallying cry, consider: what is the essential journey that our business is on, and how can we speak to this directly in our rallying cry?


Lesson 5: Understand the dominant, and often unspoken, narrative

So Trump apparently uncovered a magical combination of words that spoke to the American people. But here’s the scoop: as a political slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’ is not new or original. Ronald Reagan used the same words as his official 1980 presidential campaign slogan, albeit with an inclusive ‘Let’s’ at the beginning. Even Bill Clinton used the phrase in a 1992 speech – so this certainly wasn’t a lesson in creativity from Trump. The phrase was already out there.

In terms of winning the election (interference and other subterfuge aside), the key difference was that Trump really tapped into a key dominant narrative in American culture. Namely, the swathes of white, lower-class Americans who had been bottling up disgruntlement, disenfranchisement and disaffection over many, many years. No-one had truly spoken about this narrative, or to it – but Trump and his team recognised this, and were able to communicate in a way that truly tapped into what for many people was an unspoken truth.

When we help our clients define their own rallying cries, it’s so important to really understand where their business is today. It’s one thing to define a strategic narrative and create a slogan that matches it – but it’s only by speaking to the current mood in the business that storytelling can generate renewed engagement and action. 

So the question is: what is the dominant, unspoken narrative in your business, today?


Lesson 6: Think carefully about where your rallying cry is manifested – and try to make it physically iconic.

So far, we’ve just discussed MAGA in terms of the words themselves, the historical context, and how Trump deliberately created a powerful narrative that those words directly spoke to. But when it comes to designing a successful rallying cry, thinking about the physical space in which the slogan is manifested is just as important.

Purely in political terms, the MAGA baseball cap was a stroke of genius. Wearable, clearly identifiable with the Republican party, pointing to an everyman image, cheap to reproduce and purchase… and worn with formidable frequency by Trump himself. The MAGA cap has become a divisive icon of all that Trump represents, but from a design perspective it’s simply brilliant.

There’s a very simple lesson for businesses here: it’s not enough to just have the words of a rallying cry. It’s not enough to use them on printed materials or at one-off events. So often, businesses overlook the power of ambient design – any campaign must champion and celebrate the central messages, and making sure that this happens in physical space is another essential lesson from the MAGA campaign.

Where are the physical spaces in your own business – and how can you bring the story to them, and make it alive in their day to day?


Lesson 7: Use storytelling to deliver purpose, direction and fulfilment

MAGA was undoubtedly a successful campaign. When it came to making a rallying cry successful, Trump and his team overachieved, scoring a result that few political experts thought possible. When it comes to businesses coming up with their own rallying cries, there is clearly a lot that can be learned here about how to engage large and diverse populations in a movement for change.

But the divisiveness of Trump’s leadership raises serious questions about how storytelling ought to be used. We are widely held to be living in the post-truth age, and Trump with his MAGA cap is undoubtedly the poster boy of this. So, is it even ok to use rallying cries any more, and use the power of storytelling to engage people?

Firstly, the fact of the matter is that America generally does not feel that Trump is making it great again. Trump’s approval ratings are the lowest of any US President post WWII, and that is something that no amount of campaigning or catchy slogans can hide. It’s all well and good making promises, but what we currently see is a President holding back a very large tide of reality. Storytelling can help you be a more compelling, engaging and clear leader – but it cannot and should not ever be used to pull the wool over people’s eyes. 

As a business leader, use storytelling and strategic narratives as a sincere, honest opportunity to progressively unite a leadership team behind a positive vision of the future – not to mask failures and inadequacies.


Lesson 8: Storytelling is the most important tool for empathy we have – let’s not degrade it.

The final lesson is perhaps the most important one, and where we need to be more emphatic than ever.

All around the world, leaders have a responsibility to use the power of storytelling towards a better future. From bedtime stories to Netflix box sets, stories are how we interpret the world, make sense of it, and take our cues for how to behave in it. Above all, it’s the most important tool for empathy that we have – and as we collectively navigate a world of increasingly complex challenges, we need storytelling more than ever to help us relate to each other across strange new boundaries.

However, it was clear from Trump’s narrative that the new America he promised was not for everyone – and this wretched worldview has been borne out in his post-election decision-making and rhetoric. He may have got the technical aspects of storytelling and a good rallying cry spot on – but his words have deliberately appealed to a latent bigotry, racism and fear in America, and this was purely for personal and political gain. As we look back on two years of utter chaos, hate and fear, it’s impossible to conclude that Trump has delivered, as a leader, on those promises.

As business leaders, it’s so important to inspire without overreaching. Finding that happy medium is a challenge – but here at The Storytellers, it’s one we’re used to. By defining an agreed strategic narrative, ensuring that the human value of the story is loud and clear, and creating a rallying cry that is both inspiring AND real, these are pitfalls that can be avoided.

Ultimately, storytelling is an enormously powerful way to engage hearts and minds. The potential that a deftly created narrative and a well-chosen rallying cry have to create real change on a mass scale continues to surprise the world – but there is a science to this that can be learned.

At The Storytellers, we are well aware of this power, and work closely with business leaders to define strategic narratives, rallying cries and powerful campaigns that engage whole organisations and make better leaders. By seeing storytelling as the perfect alchemy of logos, pathos and ethos, and by accepting our responsibilities as leaders in this, we truly can make storytelling great again.

Leadership wisdom: becoming the mentor

The Hero’s journey is a well-trodden path when it comes to storytelling, and the world of business is no exception. Seeing your organisation through the lens of a journey that takes you through through a series of emotive and meaningful steps of change has proved to be a formula that truly helps businesses turn situations of despair into ones of resurrected promise.

So this is one great use for the Hero’s journey in business: the portrayal of who we are as an organisation in order to engender greater understanding of the journey that we are on and drive visible change in service of that same journey.

But there is another aspect to the Hero’s journey that is sometimes overlooked in how businesses apply storytelling as a vital internal capability. A way of seeing that considers the key characters in the Hero’s journey, as well as the journey itself – and in so doing, shines a light on the intergenerational and interpersonal challenge that we see dawning across the world.

Across the world, the faces of companies are changing – literally. Bosses are getting younger, people are retiring later in life, and less people than ever are electing to spend their careers climbing a single company ladder – succession planning in the midst of all of that is frankly a nightmare, and the statistics show it. According to Harvard Business Review, a 2010 study revealed that only 54% of boards were grooming a specific successor, and 39% had no viable internal candidates who could immediately replace the CEO if the need arose. It’s not an overstatement to say that this represents a global leadership crisis, and it’s one that we continually hear from our own clients too.

So how could looking at this global challenge through the lens of storytelling deliver fresh insight? If we look at the Hero’s journey in its classic, Joseph Campbell incarnation, we see that there is a key moment in the story that introduces us to an important archetype in the alchemy of the Hero’s journey. A figure who may not just play a key part in the overall arc of the journey, but also someone who plays a critical interpersonal role, and specifically in the growth and development of others.

Early on in the Hero’s journey, after our Hero has heard the ‘Call to Adventure’, we meet a character known sometimes as the ‘Mentor’, which we can take as a highly relevant term in this instance. Classic examples of this character include Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Obi Wan in Star Wars. (Unfortunately, as is so often the case, many of these classic archetypical characters are played by men – Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of shamefully few examples in film and literature that show that women can be Mentors too.) 

To the Hero, the ‘Mentor’ is a friend, teacher, guide and role model all in one. Here are some of their key attributes:

  • They are entrusted with the care and education of their charge
  • They are equipped with the knowledge or expertise to nurture those who face the challenges ahead. 
  • They give what they know with no expectation of immediate reciprocation or remuneration, beyond striving for the greater good
  • Ultimately, in the context of the overarching journey, they come to represent accomplishment, knowledge, skill, and virtue.  

This is an immensely important and noble role that is played as the Hero’s journey unfolds. This person emerges very near the beginning of the story, guiding the Hero on the starting principles as they set about their challenge. Without the Mentor, the Hero’s journey is not remotely possible – meeting the Mentor is the first and most providential of many fateful sliding doors for the Hero.

So coming back to the shifting world of business in the 21st century, doesn’t that list of attributes sound like the kind of person businesses crave now, maybe more than ever? It seems that the present global crisis of succession planning could be improved if senior business leaders were able, at the right time, to see themselves more as the Mentor and less as the Hero… so how can businesses help their senior leaders to shoulder these responsibilities, and know when being the Hero of the journey actually means they need to be the Mentor?

The first step is to consciously understand that teams of leaders are also on evolving journeys of their own.

In life, we are all on a personal journey. We go through a series of changes, and change roles throughout this: daughter, friend, teenager, student, employee, partner, boss, grandmother – we continually redefine the terms we use to fundamentally describe ourselves… so why should the world of work be any different?

There’s an evolving leadership story that organisations need to get better at telling here, in order to help individuals make the transition from Hero/Leader of the organisation to increasingly playing a Mentor role. It’s one that doesn’t supplant the need for an organisation-wide narrative, but rather expands and enhances the meaning of this for those playing a leading role within it. By understanding our role in an organisation story as a fluid and changing one, business leaders will be better placed to respond to the key drivers of that narrative, over time.

The second step is to recognise that the relationship between Mentor and Hero is in fact a symbiotic one – both parties can learn from each other.

Chip Conley, a well-known thought leader on the theme of intergenerational change in the world of work expands on this theme in one TED talk in particular. Conley vividly recounts his own experience of intergenerational relations at work, sharing a story of his time as a seasoned veteran in the world of hospitality entering the tech start-up world of Airbnb. 

Self-effacing and humorous, Conley acknowledges his own lack of expertise and knowledge of the tech world… but counters this with a sharp awareness of the ‘wisdom’ that he brought to the fledgling tech company, and the endorsement he received in this way from his younger, more tech-savvy colleagues.

Conley sees himself as a ‘Modern Elder’ in this regard, and this is effectively another way of describing the ‘Mentor’ role in the Hero’s journey. What is different about Conley’s perspective is that he wisely identifies that the learning curve is not just for the younger party – and this is something that ought to draw senior leaders closer to younger counterparts as they begin their journey to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. These interactions ought to be taken in the spirit of mutual benefit – the latest industry and technological understanding meeting with timeless business savvy.

By framing the topic of generational change in the world of work in a symbiotic manner, Conley shows one key factor in how businesses can find a way out of this challenge – to encourage both ends of the generational spectrum to value what the other can bring, and encourage a culture of mutual learning through dialogue.

The third step is to frame succession planning through the lens of legacy – a single, rich word that unlocks a new way of thinking.

Rather than focusing on the fact that senior leaders are effectively stepping down as the Hero of the journey, there is an opportunity here to reframe this. If we do see ourselves as on a personal journey, then we must accept that there comes a point where that journey comes to an end in the shape of retirement. Looking at this key milestone in a career gives senior leaders the opportunity to then consider what will remain – what legacy will be left when they depart the stage.

Not only does this give scope for leaders to begin to come to terms with their own retirement, it also frames this in a positive light. ‘What good can I do before I retire… how can I better prepare future leaders for my absence… can I be remembered as much for the foundations I laid for the next leadership team as for my own contributions as a leader…?’ All these are questions that can be asked and explored as a collective leadership team under that single, powerful word – legacy. 

So, the present challenges of succession planning demand a different approach, and there are three simple questions that draw on the power of storytelling to frame this:

  1. As a leadership team, what is the journey that we are on?
  2. Who can I reach out to and develop a mentor relationship of mutual benefit with?
  3. As a leader, what is the legacy that I want to leave?

Thinking of the evolution of an organisation through the lens of storytelling does not solely have to be a case of mapping progress according to the steps on the Hero’s journey. The Hero’s journey is more than this – it is the alchemic combination of different roles, different skillsets, different moments along the way that bring a series of revelations and illuminations that make overcoming the challenge possible. 

Recognising and celebrating that these different archetypes within our own organisations have different wisdoms and learnings to share along the way is vital. Helping senior business leaders recognise that their true value has imperceptibly evolved, and now lies in playing the role of the mentor, rather than that of the Hero, is a mindset shift that brings generations closer. And helping leaders to focus more on the legacy that they will leave as Mentors of the next generation may just start to address the current generational gap in the world of succession planning.

3 steps to a healthy post-merger culture

Mergers and acquisitions are a science unto themselves: from defining an acquisition strategy, to negotiation, due diligence and implementation, the steps are many and each merit their own definition and exploration. But in the midst of all this complexity, how can one take control of the emerging culture, that elusive element that so frequently decides the success of these endeavours?

The story of how Quaker Oats flunked the acquisition of Snapple is a well-thumbed reference point in the world of M&As. In the spirit of brevity, and for those of you unfamiliar with the tale, here’s what happened:

  1. 1993: Quaker paid $1.7 billion for Snapple
  2. 1997: Quaker sold Snapple to Triarc Beverages for $300 million ($1.4 billion loss)
  3. 2000: Triarc sold Snapple to Cadbury Schweppes for around $1 billion ($700k gain)

It’s the very definition of a cautionary tale. In the space of a mere four years, Quaker managed to knock an eye-watering $1.4 billion off the value of a well-loved and well-performing brand… and in the space of just three years, Triarc managed to revive what was seemingly a dead duck into a sellable, respectable proposition once more.

So the question is: how did Quaker get it so wrong… and Triarc so right? As is so often the case, the answer is widely regarded to be down to a single element: the cultural dimension of how each acquiring company went about their business. 

As John Deighton of Harvard Business Review writes in his illuminating account of the fiasco: 

“There is a vital interplay between the challenge a brand faces and the culture of the corporation that owns it. When brand and culture fall out of alignment, both brand and corporate owner are likely to suffer.” 

At The Storytellers, our key focus and belief is that it is only by working to engage the entire employee base of a company in a shared culture that true, lasting change is possible. Our experience of working with companies going through M&As has shown us that there are three key emotional aspects to how employees can be engaged at the very beginning of life together, in order to lay the foundations for a healthy post-merger culture:

1: Celebration

One of the hallmarks of our narrative methodology is how we start our stories. Our experience overwhelmingly tells us that there is rarely a better substitute for a resoundingly positive start to the stories our clients tell – and this is arguably never more important than in the case of a merger and acquisition.

At the most basic level, there are fears that need to be dispelled. One company has ceded power and autonomy to another, one leadership team bows to the other. In these circumstances, it is so important to simply start by pointing out that not only is everything going to be just fine – it’s actually about refocusing everyone’s emotions on the huge opportunity to be part of something bigger and better, in scale, shared expertise and potential.

In the case of Quaker and Snapple, it seems that the circumstances got the better of Quaker. The acquisition of Snapple was largely a defensive one. With only one other brand in its beverage portfolio (Gatorade), Quaker was threatened by larger players with greater powers of economy of scale – as Leighton puts it, for Quaker the acquisition was a matter of ‘corporate survival’.

So it’s easy to imagine a distinctly un-celebratory beginning to the Quaker era at Snapple. Far from being framed as an opportunity for everyone to be part of something bigger and better, the feeling was one of Snapple being subsumed into a wider tactical battle, and one that they had little personal ownership of.

So start the journey on a positive note and show that everyone can take part in this shared success – by starting with a tone that speaks of immense potential, you at least make it possible for those heights to be reached.

Step 2: Recognition

It is particularly crucial to ensure that the leadership group of both companies (particularly those who have been acquired) are clear that just that they are valued, but to qualify why they are valued. Not only does this explain the reasons for the acquisition in the first place – it also establishes a positive, accepting culture that shows a desire to create a new culture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the case of Quaker and Snapple, it seems the case that this kind of approach and attitude was sorely lacking. Quaker already had a great success story in Gatorade: a company whose sales they had taken from $100 million to $1 billion over ten years through a textbook marketing approach. However, Snapple were a far different proposition, a different brand, and a different culture entirely. Far from recognising the culture and assets that the acquired Snapple had to offer, the leadership team at Quaker set about implementing much the same approach that had previously paid dividends at Gatorade with little regard to the differences in the two companies. 

By going through the initial step of visibly recognising what is worthy and valuable from both the acquired and acquiring company, it is possible to begin to glimpse a new, shared world together. 

Without recognising the values and culture of the acquired company, not only do host companies risk missing out on taking the best parts of the acquired company along with them, they also risk alienating the employees of that company. So often we speak with clients whose M&As of the past continue to haunt their corporate culture. Moving forward together and responding to new challenges, even years after the acquisition has happened, can become almost irrevocably bogged down in grudges quietly held for years. 

Get it right first time – reassure everyone that they are a key piece of the puzzle, and that their expertise and knowledge are valued. You won’t regret it!

Step 3: Expectation

The final part of this emotional curve marks the end of the beginning. Having firstly celebrated the merging of two great cultures, and recognised the value, expertise and capabilities that each company will bring to the table, it is now important to set a tone of expectation – as well as to clarify what the specific expectations are, for each half of the new entity.

Again, any M&A is likely to be fraught with apprehension around the process of fully integrating. By firstly celebrating the possibilities, recognising the worth that everyone is bringing to the equation, it is possible to speak frankly and confidently about the shared expectations that set the tone for how everyone now moves forward.

Positioning the expectations at this point in the newly acquired company’s emotional journey is far more likely to elicit positive reactions. It sets a tone of open and honest communication, and when open and honest conversations can be facilitated to deepen understanding about the detail of these expectations, so much the better.

In the case of Snapple, it is interesting to note how Triarc took a very sensitive approach to setting expectations of the new regime. Where Quaker came in with a prefab solution to problems that weren’t Snapple’s to begin with, Triarc immediately set a very different tone, bringing back a beloved character from previous marketing campaigns and moving with a speed and freshness that resonated with Snapple’s founding spirit. As Triarc CEO Mike Weinstein put it: “If we’d had a very structured process, forms to fill out, analyses to do, we’d have seen the risks, and we’d never have moved. Instead, we were able to move quickly, capture an early success, get the distribution channel excited again, and get the retailers back to believing in the brand.” The response was a huge turnaround in sales fortunes, and a renewed sense of belief in what Snapple stood for

Clearly not every post M&A situation will require such a response, but there is a clear lesson – when setting new expectations in the post M&A world, be sure to consider the prevailing brand culture that you are setting those expectations within. 

Every merger and acquisition will be different; have its own dynamic, its own challenges and opportunities. There is a clear lesson from case studies such as the Snapple-Quaker one: estimate the importance of culture at your peril. But behind this, we know that there is a simple, effective way to ensure that at least everyone is engaged in the new, shared journey that is beginning. By celebrating the opportunity, recognising all parties, and setting clear expectations, you give your M&A the best possible chance to move in a positive, fruitful direction.

Searching for service excellence at Ikea

A wonderful case study of how to improve customer experience and reinforce brand culture, Ikea USA’s recent organisational changes have had a profound impact on employee engagement – for the worse. A recent Business Insider article paints a picture of employees left confused, disillusioned and demotivated by the changes that have been rung in. 

The statistics are damning: Glassdoor reviews have dropped from 4.5-4.7 in 2015 to 4.1 in 2017, positive reviews have dropped from around 90% to less than 70% – but it’s the employee quotes that really tell the tale:

  • “I get yelled at at least once a day because a customer couldn’t find an employee and I’m the only person in that department. It’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m with 12 other customers.”
  • “We were their biggest cheerleader. Now we’re kind of hesitant to answer questions from customers.”
  • “I’m this new employee taking this test and they’re asking me questions and it’s like — I don’t even know what this question means. I don’t even know what this role does.”

While this is undoubtedly wince-inducing reading for Ikea leaders, the direct commentary from current Ikea USA employees makes an absorbing case study for those investigating the dos and don’ts of handling organisational change on a nationwide scale. And this is the first thing to note from this cautionary tale – while the statistics frame the problem, it’s the verbatim feedback that really hits the hardest. The salient words spoken by those who are customer-facing represent Ikea’s biggest problem and, interestingly, they also point towards the solution.

Essentially, Ikea moved to effect two key areas: customer experience and reinforcing its brand culture. The introduction of the ‘O4G’ policy was intended to meet both these needs by redefining worker roles. According to Ikea, the objective was to “empower our co-workers to meet customers’ expectations in today’s multi-channel environment, and strengthen our position in the fast-changing US retail environment”, which all sounds sensible enough.

The challenge for Ikea therefore was to simultaneously create a radically customer-focused culture, whilst simultaneously retaining the internal and external culture that had made them one of the strongest brands worldwide. On paper, the customer-centric approach was simple: at a high level, employees previously specialised by department were now distinguished according to how customer-facing they were. Of the new roles, ’active sellers’ were carefully selected from existing ‘sales employees’ as the most customer-facing, sales-oriented team members. The other major structural change came from merging employees from restaurant, returns and cashier departments into a single ‘customer services’ function.

So what did employees take from these changes? The comments and anecdotes available to us are strikingly focused on certain topics, and those topics are predominantly negative in nature: pay disparities, lack of understanding of the new roles, lack of clarity from managers, and perhaps most importantly, a lack of understanding of the purpose of the new roles. 

It is this final topic that is worth most investigation. Purpose is perhaps never more important than when experiencing change, and this is surely one of the reasons why in the 21st century more than ever businesses are telling themselves to start with ‘why’. Starting with the ‘why’ would have been highly recommendable for Ikea in this instance. When restructuring roles, and changing well-grooved, intuitive understandings of team dynamics, it is essential to go back to the simple idea of ‘why’ we act and behave in certain ways at all. To underestimate the importance of this while roles were being combined represents a major oversight on Ikea’s part.

Moreover, it seems in this case that employees were largely left to create a new sense of purpose for themselves – it should be highly worrying for the senior leadership in the business that managers are mentioned by employees as being equally confused about the purpose and meaning of the new roles too. Engaging this key layer of the organisation is a critical factor in how the rest of the employees find a sense of purpose in their designated roles. It’s quite shocking that any manager leading a team through change would be so spectacularly unequipped to give context to team members as to what those changes meant, and how the team should respond – and yet this is exactly the story that is emerging from inside Ikea USA.

So the fact that the majority of the organisation was seemingly left to its own devices to understand the purpose of their newly-formed roles is undoubtedly a root cause and contributor to the other issues Ikea face. But the wider issue is the impact that all of this has had on Ikea USA’s brand culture. Here again, we hear more stories and quotes that underline the sense of rot that has set in. While Ikea has maintained a consistent brand voice externally, the different employee accounts suggest that internally, the tone has changed: “they’re doing all of these tiny things that are all adding up to us not being a good company to work for anymore” said one. So the external voice is maintained, but the employees feel forgotten and marginalised. If the idea is that the same demoralised employees are the ones expected to go out and deliver the bold new vision of customer centricity, it’s hard to see this playing out well for Ikea in the long run.

The notion that the internal and external brand of a company are two sides of the same coin is not a new one, and clearly there is room for difference between the two – but it is apparent that Ikea is not getting this balance right. Room must be found for customer-centric organisational change to accommodate employees and the idea of ‘what’s in it for me’, and it’s clear that Ikea did not sufficiently speak to this. Whilst one could attribute this to oversight, or analyse the quality of the company-wide discourse that ensued following the introduction of the O4G initiative, the critical factor is this: were managers equipped with a framework for the conversations that would inevitably take place through the changes?

The sense is that the leadership contingent of Ikea USA was simply not given the preparation, tools or training to properly guide their teams through the restructuring. ‘A framework for conversation’ was lacking – a roadmap to guide employees through the journey that lay ahead, and to enable dialogue that simultaneously crystallised the new sense of purpose that the changes entailed, the new behaviours that were required, and a sense of what new benefits employees could look forward to. It’s not enough to just define those aspects and communicate them over time – it’s the synthesis of these different elements into one idea that enables leaders to clearly and consistently make sense of the everyday for those around them. If you want to improve an area of your business like customer experience whilst consolidating and reinforcing brand culture, you need this framework for your leaders. It’s fundamental.

The feedback and thoughts from the actual employees on the shop floor at Ikea attest to an internal concept of customer experience that is at best delivering incremental improvements, and at worst, is the early warning signs of a crumbling brand culture. So while the stories are undoubtedly worrying for the leadership, the good news for Ikea is that the employee comments give an honest account of the problem, and this is where the manifestation of the problem can become the solution.

Illustrative stories of this nature are vital to an organisation. When times are bad, they illuminate problems and make strategy very real. When times are good, they serve to show why the changes are to be believed in, and indicate to those who are not quite there yet that there is a place for everyone. So one key approach for Ikea would be to focus on identifying stories that validate the structural changes, present the case for why everyone can feel a new sense of purpose in their new capacities, and also ensure that the picture is a holistic one. Embedding a storytelling faculty of this sort becomes both a barometer and a loudspeaker for company culture.

It’s the synthesis of the illustrative stories with respect to a single, dominant, strategic narrative that gives managers the chance to maintain clarity for their team during times of change. Time and time again, we have seen that an integrated programme that puts these two key storytelling pillars at the heart measurably delivers for our clients, and creates a long-term internal capability to manage future change too.

At The Storytellers, we know that listening to employees, ensuring that everyone has a voice and is recognised, and celebrating the everyday stories that inspire and give meaning through times of change are the key factors in how structural change can deliver on the lofty promises of new strategies.

Ikea would be well advised to keep the conversation going – and make their next goal to create and celebrate new stories that truly show the benefits of change for all.

The mnemonics of progress

Here at The Storytellers, we like to visualise our stories. A narrative with a beginning, middle and end that has been visually represented, bringing words and images together in a synthesised manner, exerts so much more power than words alone. By showing the emotional trajectory of a story as an image that connects the key moments of that journey, the art and science of storytelling comes to life.

Which brings us to the seemingly bland looking image above: a simple stock price chart. This chart was not written by any one person, and it’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing. But as a story, it is utterly absorbing. It viscerally tells the tale of leadership gone wrong, sacrificed values, disastrous decision-making – and above all, a faulty, incomplete concept of progress that brought Volkswagen, one of the world’s biggest companies, to its knees. 

Much has been said on the VW emissions scandal regarding the idea of bringing values to life, that values cannot simply be words on a piece of paper. But I think it’s more than this. The challenge that Volkswagen failed to live up to is one that we continually see our clients wrestle with: how do we move forward without losing sight and sense who we are?

Fundamentally, it’s a question that leads to a deeper, even more slippery question: what does ‘progress’ really mean?

As you can imagine, there are countless ways to answer this: for you, maybe it’s technological – digital transformation is clearly changing the world we live in, and for the most part, for the better. How technology is changing our lives is one of the defining features of our era, and we can visibly see advancement in this respect. It’s obviously progress.

It may be scientific – indeed, our entire academic system is built on the notion that by pooling our efforts and resources, as a world we will be able to comprehend the systems and rules that underpin our entire existence. Our discoveries in the various scientific disciplines arguably inform every single other area of human thought, and this is a tradition that goes back for centuries – for some, the idea of progress is indelibly connected with scientific thought and exploration.

It could also be social – #metoo, black lives matter, transgender rights… arguably the story of the 21st century so far is of different sets of people rising up around the world to claim their place as equals. The liberation of all peoples has never been far from the broader idea of what human progress really constitutes, and this trend has shown no signs of slowing down in our era either.

Whatever your personal passions and inclinations, behind these different themes of progress that inform and shape the society in which we live and work, there is a more fundamental distinction to draw. 

Most prevailing ideas of progress are fundamentally forward or cumulative in nature. So for example, ‘technological progress’ presupposes that we will know more, be more capable, have greater resources tomorrow than we do today. Technological progress, as we tacitly understand it, probably would not involve replacing cloud storage with floppy disks or Uber with horse-drawn carriages.

However, it is clear that there is a growing sense in society that progress does not always entail a never-ending drive into the new and unknown. Indeed, when one considers the idea of environmental progress, it is evident that this kind of progress has many conservative aspects. Establishing colonies on Mars excepted, environmental progress is largely concerned with protecting the balance of our ecosystem; a balance that is threatened by other areas of human progress. Not losing the rainforests, ice caps and millions of threatened species would surely represent ‘progress’ in the environmental sense.

In the political sense of progress too, it’s striking to note that the two great shockwaves of our time, Brexit and Donald Trump, were both predicated and sold on the notion and appeal of in fact going back to another time when things were better. When it comes to the idea of political progress, we are seeing striking similarities across the Western world of people wanting to return to a better time, to a status quo that is already known and that people are familiar with. Even supporters of these movements would find it a stretch to classify this kind of progress as cumulative in the way that scientific or technological progress are.

In this sense then, there are two fundamental types of progress: one which is concerned with reaching ever greater heights, of voyaging bravely into the unknown – and one that is concerned with not losing what we already have, of retaining things that we have determined to be worthy. 

It’s not so much that one is right and one is wrong – it’s that in order to truly succeed and respond well to change, one must be prepared to synthesise these two concepts of progress. And it is here where we find the crux of the Volkswagen tragedy. To put it simply, the leadership of Volkswagen prized financial progress and growth above retaining the values that had made them one of the most loved and respected brands in the world. The result, a modern tragedy, is that Volkswagen’s executive team have spectacularly failed in the very thing that they set out to achieve.

So as a business, how does one go about finding this delicate balance between forging into the new and unknown, while retaining the values and identity that made a brand successful and respected by customers in the first place?

It is here where a strategic narrative is uniquely well-placed to dialectically fuse the old and the new, the future that we want sewn together with the past that we wish to retain. A strategic narrative necessarily incorporates the past, the present and the future. By agreeing the right elements for each of these parts, we take control over what we need to retain, and what we need to boldly build towards. It’s a behavioural contract and compass.

In this way, strategic narratives are a kind of mnemonic that we can all be held accountable to – by squaring the past with the future, we should find that there is nothing in our actions and behaviours today that are somehow outside of what we are saying is the way forward.

The illustrative stories that colour, enrich and bring true meaning to these strategic narratives are the lifeblood of a strategic narrative. Did any of the Volkswagen executives ever share anecdotes and stories that brought to life their value statement at the time – “Sustainable, collaborative, and responsible thinking underlies everything that we do”? It’s hard to imagine that any major, sincere efforts were made in this area. Conversely, it’s easy to imagine meetings and conversations that centred on how financial gains could be made, at any cost.

It sounds simple (and most likely a tad optimistic in terms of the intentions of the Volkswagen executive team), but I suspect the main problem at the heart of the emissions scandal was a lack of ability to see the whole picture at once. When we consider Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”), and what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’, we see that the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century continue to teach the same lesson: that until humans are given shorthand systems for behavioural judgment that simultaneously incorporate the past, an envisioned future, and a code for acting in the present, it is highly likely that how we choose to behave on a day to day basis will be desperately at odds with the desired destinations that, surprisingly often, we all share.

Strategic narratives and how we consciously connect the living, illustrative stories that happen around us are the solution to this problem. They comprise what can be called ‘mnemonics of progress’ – shortcut ways to hold in our hands the parts of our past that are worth bringing into the future, together with the bright new tomorrow that we bravely aspire to. It’s a heuristic that enables all of us, as individuals, as communities, as companies, to make sure that as we move into an ever more exciting, challenging and dynamic future, that we prevent what we have learned along the way, as a species, from being lost.

Key lessons from the SodaStream creative campaign

“Just like we need to be creative in attracting our customers, we need to be super creative in attracting new talent” – Daniel Birnbaum, CEO, SodaStream.

Earlier this year, SodaStream launched a new recruitment drive. Normally, this would not be particularly newsworthy, but this was no ordinary campaign. The ad tied in with the external campaign that had previously gone viral: and SodaStream didn’t skimp on the budget, once more bringing in actor Hafþór Björnsson (AKA ‘The Mountain’ from TV’s Game of Thrones).

Just like the external campaign, the recruitment film went viral too, currently sitting on ~450k views on Youtube alone. Not bad for a recruitment video by a company that makes fizzy water. And of course, it’s all great publicity for the product itself.  

It’s the kind of creative campaign that here at The Storytellers we strongly advise our clients to go with; there is so much that SodaStream gets right with this approach. It connects the internal brand to the external brand. Purpose-led senior leaders set out the journey that their business is on. Creative messaging targets a new generation that champions meaningful work above all else. A consistent ‘big idea’ sits behind how messages are communicated.

It’s a well-executed and wonderfully creative strategy. But what is perhaps most interesting about the SodaStream recruitment ad is the impact it has had on the company’s fortunes. SodaStream just recorded its most successful quarter ever. In the six months since the ad was aired, SodaStream has more than doubled its share price, going above and beyond market expectations.

So what are we saying: that a creative campaign targeted at company employees, that celebrates the journey that a business is on and shows visible, purposeful leadership can deliver measurable financial results?

In a word: yes!