Changing the Way the World Thinks about Strategy
Business Story

Business Story

One of the incredibly interesting things about humans is our ability to make up stories.  Many of the hallmarks of civilization are really no more than this.  Government, the economy and money are all based on stories we have made up – and agreed to – over time.

A business can portray many of the reasons that drive success and failure as stories.

Your business is no different.  First of all, a corporation is a useful idea turned into a story.  Secondly, a business can portray many of the reasons that drive success and failure as stories.  We use Windows machines because Microsoft operating systems are better for business?  Definitely a story.  Rolls Royce automobiles are the epitome of luxury?  Also a story.  Wendy’s makes their hamburgers fresh?  A story, as well.

Now, most of the business stories that work are based upon some reality.

Microsoft, for example, designed Windows to be able to run legacy code written for MS-DOS.  This was a very important consideration in the 1980s for businesses that had invested heavily in new software.  Rolls Royce designed the Silver Shadow with beautifully appointed interiors and assembles it carefully from expensive parts.  And Wendy’s actually does have operating practices that assure their burgers are fresh.

An important part of stories is that people believe them, and purchase products and services based on those beliefs.

How can you use this idea in your business?  There are a few of key questions to address.

  1. What is different about your company, product or service?
  2. How can a customer tell that this difference is real?
  3. How can a customer feel confident that this perception validates that the product or service matches their ideals?

Many companies are aware of this approach but fail to successfully build a real story.  There are three good reasons this happens.

1. Instead of focusing on a single value or concept, we try to connect a laundry list of desirable traits to our brand.

This is a killer.  Customers don’t remember laundry lists.  They do remember stories.  We tend to want to dump a list on the customer, because we don’t know which value the customer will prefer. Unfortunately,  this usually just befuddles the customer, or worse, makes them think we are just like competitors.  The examples above (Microsoft, Rolls Royce and Wendy’s) all worked, because they started with ONE story built around ONE value.  While these stories became more elaborate later on, it’s crucial to remember that the early wins for any successful brand requires the single story.

2. We fail to dramatize the distinction that clarifies the difference in the customer’s mind.

If we claim higher quality, and competitors claim higher quality, who will customers believe?  It’s likely the customer will believe no one.  If the customer does believe one competitor, it will be the one who spent the most on effective promotion of their story – and not just through advertising.  For example, a (possibly apocryphal) story about Nordstrom’s tells of their accommodation of people attempting to return tires to a store chain that doesn’t sell tires. 

The point of the story is that the customer is right – even in ridiculous situations. 

The fact that the story seems silly is exactly why people remember it.  The same can be said about the old story about LL Bean replacing a pair of 25-year-old Bean Boots.  If you can back up these stories with real examples, and don’t see many counterexamples, you can grab the imagination of those who hear them.  Why don’t we do this?  Because backing up a story like this will cost us, and we are often afraid of cost.

3. We damage the story in pursuit of other things, like efficiency, cost management or volume.

A good example of this happened to McDonald’s a few years back.  For a while, the brand has been pushing the story that McDonald’s sells nutritious, quality food.  Obviously, some will believe this message while others won’t.  When stories about McDonald’s (and other chains) making burgers from chemically treated “pink slime” surfaced, this damaged their story.  I don’t know enough about meat to say whether this was fair or not, but the pictures of unappetizing-looking ingredients and discussion of the chemicals used was enough to hurt the story that McDonald’s wanted to sell.  Why did restaurants use this product?  It improved shelf life and likely reduced health risks that are very real when you are mass-producing hamburgers.  Good reasons, perhaps – but it damaged the story.

What is the compelling story behind your product or service? 

Can you tell the story in a convincing way – and do you back the story up with your practices and policies?  If you’re like most people, you’d benefit from having an experienced professional lead you through the strategic planning process, so you can focus on the content of your strategies.  If you’d like to explore how you could do this, please contact me at Center for Simplified Strategic Planning professionals have successfully conducted thousands of strategic planning meetings, and have a great understanding of how to best use your planning time.  Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning in the next few months to improve your results.

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Robert Bradford is President & CEO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  He can be reached at

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Co-Author Robert Bradford

Author Robert Bradford

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