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The Leadership Perils of Creating False Narratives

Make your brand storytelling and strategic narrative congruent

Branding through storytelling has the power to engage employees, define organizational futures, and onboard stakeholders in the change process. But when leaders create false narratives, the consequences can be disastrous. Employees rely on leaders to interpret market reality, but brand storytelling and market reality are not always congruent.

In this article, I outline just how disastrous false narratives have proved to be, and how you can ensure that your organization doesn’t suffer the same fate because of them.

Three organizational failures and one turnaround because of false narratives

There are numerous examples of organizations that have suffered because leaders have failed in the narratives and branding stories they have created and shared. Many times, complacency has been at the heart of these failures, with leaders either unable or unwilling to recognize changing market realities.

  • Kodak

Kodak was the market leader in photographic film and equipment. It was innovative, forward-thinking, and creative. New products were released to market at regular intervals.

At its height, Kodak had a 90% market share in photographic film, and 8 out of every 10 cameras sold in the United States was a Kodak. A Kodak innovator even invented the first digital camera. But its leaders failed to recognize the changing market. Its story was that digital would never catch on. The rest is history.

  • Blockbuster

Like Kodak in photography, Blockbuster was the market leader in the movie rental market. Adapting from VHS to DVD was easy. Blockbuster didn’t have to adapt its branding story, or update its strategic narrative. Its brick and mortar business remained intact.

Then Netflix started posting movies to customers. Video on demand crept into the home movie rental market, as cable companies became competitive. Redbox put movies in vending machines, and sold them for $1. By the time Blockbuster’s leaders woke up to the market reality and altered the company’s strategic directive, Blockbuster’s business model was bust.

  • Sears

Sears had an amazing business model. Catalogues and mail order. It understood that people loved to buy from the comfort of their own armchairs. It introduced major brands to the market, like Kenwood and Craftsman. Then the web opened more consumer opportunities.

Sears’ narrative was to maintain the status quo, that its customers would remain loyal, and that the web would prove a non-runner in the home shopping market. Walmart, Target, and then, of course, Amazon, had other ideas of reality. Their strategic narrative was one of giving customers even greater choice and immediacy of purchase and delivery.

Sears is still going, but only just. Its shares, once trading at around $175, are now priced at less than $5. Consumers, employees, and suppliers have lost faith in its brand storytelling.

  • Nokia – the failure and the turnaround

Another market leader that fell into steep decline, though it’s also a story of a strategic narrative that saved a company from possible extinction.

Nokia was the undisputed number one cell phone manufacturer for more than a decade. Its brand story convinced its leaders that it could not fail. A pioneer in the smartphone market, it believed its Symbian system to be unassailable. They refused to believe that Apple was a serious competitor, or the shift in consumer demand that followed. The Symbian platform suffered from aging.

Samsung had been far nimbler. It adopted android heavily, and its gamble paid off. By 2012, its cell phone sales had surpassed Nokia’s. But something had already changed at Nokia.

Stephen Elop took charge in 2011, and immediately sent a now famous ‘burning platform’ memo to all its staff. In it, he described the demise of the company if it didn’t act drastically. He changed the strategic narrative of the company overnight. Nokia dumped Symbian, and replaced it with Windows Phone. Eventually, it sold itself to Microsoft.

How can you benefit from branding through storytelling?

Leaders can use storytelling and narratives to create a go-to organizational culture, in three steps:

1.     Use narratives to shape your future, not maintain the status quo

Often you will hear different narratives about the same circumstance. It’s important to gain a consensus, with leaders not afraid to use conflict constructively: promote healthy conflict to increase engagement. A consensus will enable you to produce a united and innovative approach to a constantly changing market. Let your storytelling start with the past and present, but focus on shaping the future with the new market reality.

2.     Avoid false narratives in your brand storytelling

Today’s confident branding story can easily become tomorrow’s failure. In this case, strategic narratives can quickly be deemed as false narratives. Leaders become impotent. False narratives often arise because of efforts to make sense of realities, isolating facts that fit into our view of reality rather than all factors into account. When this happens, it is usually because of leadership teams failing to function properly.

The imperative to void false narratives is to ensure team meetings are open, honest, and encourage participation by everyone. When people feel free to express opinions, your narratives will take on a more balanced view, and your view of reality will be driven by a comprehensive assessment.

3.     Seek out the incongruence

Pay close attention to possible incongruence between your brand storytelling and market reality. Don’t make the data fit the story, but shape your story to align with the data. If the consumer habits are shifting, so must you.

By researching your markets deeply, you will learn more about them. Listen to your clients, and the story of their footfall and purchases. Analyze their feedback. If something happens which cannot be explained, it is evidence of the limit of your knowledge.

Search for the incongruence – it will tell you much about the direction that your business should take, and the brand storytelling that is needed.

Utilize the power of narratives, and eliminate the perils

Your strategic narratives have incredible power to energize and engage teams, people, clients, and stakeholders of change. But where they are incongruent with reality, they also have the power to create failure. Find your narrative on a deep understanding of market reality, and the link between it and your brand storytelling will empower your success.

Contact Forward Focus today and take the first step to ensuring that the stories you want to be told – those that engage your people and inspire them to reach their full potential – are the ones that are told.

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