The problem

Marketing, in many instances, comes in too late in the development process. Regardless of size, age, industry or solution type, most organizations first develop key strategies and features before bringing in the guys who help connect with audiences. At times this approach works out fine; often it doesn’t – causing undue headaches for the desperate marketer.

The problem can then go on to affect a firm in two ways. On one the hand delayed marketing involvement can lead to poor connection with the audience – with everyone involved not too sure of what is being offered leading to convoluted user experiences (like most banking portals) and confusing marketing campaigns.  On the other hand, it could lead to over-hyped products or services and over-promising on what they can do (think the Nano) – this in turn leads to frustrated customers.

The solution

The obvious solution, and early end to this article, is to bring in marketing at the start of the development process.  However, in many cases this may not be genuinely possible for various valid reasons. This is especially true during the early stages of start-ups with limited resources and budget (or when you just want to validate a plan).

A narrative can save the day.

The workaround

People connect with stories and narratives. Marketing, in essence, connects you to people. So doesn’t it make sense for you to build and use a narrative as a patch for the void of marketinglessness?

Here it is important to note the difference between a ‘narrative’ in this context (the business narrative) and a ‘story’. A narrative is a sequences of elements and events people can relate to.  A story is a subset of the narrative viewed from a specific perspective or context. A narrative is that of three pigs, their houses and a wolf; stories are told from the view points of the three little pigs, or the poor hungry wolf who hallucinates his meals are building houses. Narratives are encompassing; stories are focused.

To put it yet another way, a narrative maps the different stories that are possible – it gives you a bird’s-eye view of how you actually connect with each entity in your ecosystem.  This makes the narrative a potentially strategic tool. It is what you (and marketing, later on) can use to build your positioning, brand, vision, mission, and specific stories, etc.  Indeed, your business narrative can even influence the solution you are developing.

A narrative, therefore, is built; it is not crafted like a story and so does not need specialized skills or expertise.

Here is how to …

Build your own business narrative

The three key elements to focus on when building a business narrative are:

1)     the characters

2)     the conflict

3)     the resolution

Other elements such as plot, view point, theme, tone, etc can come in later when you (or marketing) develop the positioning and messaging for individual stories that you take to market. The narrative should ideally be built before or in tandem with your development process given its ability to positively influence your solution. Moreover, waiting for marketing to come in and do it for you may be too late as, once everything is fixed, narrative elements end up shoehorned to fit the product.


The characters – understanding your ecosystem

In a narrative there is you, the princess, the king, the competition, the queen, the vendors, the users, the bad guy, his henchmen, the influencers, the buyers, your sidekick, your organizational touch points, the guru, investors, and so on.  Each one of these characters will be affected by the problem and react to your solution.

The characters in a business narrative are not just the users, but the whole group of individuals and organizations involved in your ecosystem.  They include:

  • You as an organization, along with various touch-points within the organization: touch-points of various stages of the buyer and user experience, touch-points with vendors, touch-points with investors, touch-points with influencers.  The internal enablers of your business: designers, engineers, technologists, etc., Also, the supporters of this infrastructure
  • Your clients: they may be the buyers or the influencers or the actual users; you also need to keep in mind the point in live where the interest, purchase and use happens for each of these characters
  • Your investors, your vendors and external enablers (ie consultants, analysts, media)
  • Competitors and regulators (along with their infrastructure)

Understanding and listing the first three sets of characters in as much detail as possible will help you connect with them, hone and craft your message to them and mould your brand position. The understanding of competitors and regulators is necessary to build effective business strategies.

Beyond just the narrative, this understanding will in-turn give you new insights to the interconnecting ecosystem these characters create and thus can influence your overall solution. It can help provide a new perspective on the problems you are trying to address as well as guide and impact the solution you are developing.  Which brings us to the next two elements:

The conflict – how the problem affects (the characters in) the ecosystem

The next step is the connecting of the dots between the problem you are addressing and the characters in the ecosystem — how does the problem affect each character? Each one is affected in a different way. The conflict is not the problem, but the relation each character has with the problem. The problem is the fairy’s curse; the conflict for one (the user?) is trying not to prick her finger on a needle; for the other (you as the solution provider?) the conflict is getting rid of the curse and evil fairy.

In the case of your business, the conflict for a vendor maybe that he or she needs to get a particular component of your product delivered in time. How you express to a vendor the problem you are addressing has a large impact on the quality and effectiveness of what he or she delivers.  Similarly, your understanding of how a competitor addresses the problem (how it affects them) can influence how you develop a unique and viable solution along with a winning strategy to compete.  In both instances, the perspectives derived from the narrative you build plays a key role.

Identifying the conflict, or how people are affected by the problem, means moving from understanding to empathizing. It means going beyond what people say they want. Here again, building the narrative can impact your strategy and the solution you are creating.  It helps with identifying and then keeping focus on (or aligning with) solving the actual or root problem. The quote “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, which may (incidentally, falsely*) be attributed to Henry Ford, is pertinent here.

A good resolution

Like with the conflict and problem, the resolution is not the solution. In a narrative the resolution is how the user, buyer, influencers and other characters will react to the solution offered. The resolution doesn’t happen when the bad guy is defeated (ie the problem is solved), the resolution happens when you rescue the princess – if the slaying of the baddie doesn’t elicit much of a reaction from the princess, it should be a good indication that something is wrong.

While in the earlier two stages, you just have to identify the characters and their conflicts, here and you need to list out how you plan to get each character to react in a positive way — which will be the ideal resolution for the character.

Identify how will you get: the influencers convinced? The buyer to buy? The user to use your solution to solve their need? the vendor to provide the right service? The touch point to interact the right way? The developers to create the right product or service as the solution? How will competitors react?

Putting the narrative to work

Documenting the narrative can be as simple putting all the identified elements in a matrix with individual characters forming rows and the conflicts and resolutions as columns. Mapping out the narrative this way will enable you to connect with your entire ecosystem and know what to say, and plan on how and when to deal with each character in it. Marketing can then use this base narrative as a foundation to build the brand and develop the right stories for the audiences they target, instead of having to create cookie-cutter versions which may not fit.

However, for the narrative to be relevant, this is just step 1.


You need to build consensus for it and then ensure it permeates to every relevant part of your organization.  It is here, after the permeating, that the narrative evolves from being just a patch to a strategy which can effectively mould the end solution as well as provide the basis for future marketing initiatives.

The mapping of your narrative will give you perspectives of your solution from various vantage points, and thus a deeper understanding of the ideal solution you need to develop to address the problem.

And you live happily ever after.

Written exclusively for Paul Writer.


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