Strategic narratives and competitive positioning:How telling your story will help set you inthe right direction and away f...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioning                                          Business leaders must look to na...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioningBusiness leaders fall short inarticulating a clear corporate strategy TALK...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioning                                          Strategic positioning undermined...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioningNarratives are an effective wayto create complete context THE NEED FOR CON...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioning                                          A narrative delivers clarity    ...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioningCreating a “Strategic Narrative”                                          ...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioning                                          Mapping your strategic narrative...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioningCase Study: A strategy unlocked and simplifiedin a commodity marketISSUE: ...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioning                                           About Joseph McCormack         ...
Strategic narratives and competitive positioningAbout Sheffield Marketing PartnersSheffield is a boutique agency that orga...
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Strategic Narratives and Competitive Positioning: How telling your story will help set you in the right direction and away from the crowd

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This whitepaper, authored by Joe McCormack, outlines key issues that executives can use to simplify complex strategies and use narratives as a way to explain how they are better than their competitors in a meaningful way.

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Strategic Narratives and Competitive Positioning: How telling your story will help set you in the right direction and away from the crowd

  1. 1. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning:How telling your story will help set you inthe right direction and away from the crowdJoseph McCormackManaging Director/Founder
  2. 2. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning Business leaders must look to narratives and storytelling as a more effective way to explain complex strategies. Many executives spend weeks and months crafting the right business approach that will set them apart, only to leave their audiences scratching their heads when they convey it in complicated, meaningless corporate language. What they really need is a simpler, more compelling narrative that explains their strategy and how it will beat the competition.2 © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved.
  3. 3. Strategic narratives and competitive positioningBusiness leaders fall short inarticulating a clear corporate strategy TALKING TOO MUCH BUSINESS LOST IN TRANSLATION People can’t seem to tell a good story anymore. I actually overheard this exchange at Midway Airport Waiting for a flight recently, I overheard two ex- in Chicago when I started writing this white paper; ecutives chatting before we started to board. it was like a gift from above. If I were a spy, I One of the guys says to the other, “Can I run you wouldn’t have known how to steal their corporate through two decks while you’re still munching?” secrets – it was completely unintelligible. His“Sure,” his colleague replies. What else could he colleague nodded his head, but it wasn’t clear if do with his mouth full of a McDonald’s break- he was agreeing, nodding off or just being nice. fast burrito? These exchanges are typical and harm an organi-His travel partner dives right in, hitting all the zation’s ability to succeed. Great ideas are beingbusiness buzz words with print out in hand: buried by words packaged in meaningless mes-framework, value prop, 4 Rs (rate, risk, reward and sages delivered in meeting after meeting, inrelationships), diagrams, bullet points, x-y axis, press releases heavy on boilerplate and light onbuyers, radars, true strategic relationships, deal substance, and in brochures that nobody reads.making, and a win-win thrown in for good measure. People can’t seem to simplify complexity or speakHe even attempts an analogy, “We’re like a pro- without the constant aid of a 40-slide presenta-curement organization for value.” Throughout tion. It is reaching a point where simultaneoushis verbal download, he continues to excuse the translation is now a business requirement.length of his PowerPoint deck, skipping slideshere and there, even saying at one point, “This is Businesses mistakenlywhere the color printer went bad.” feel that something that is complex needs to sound complicated.KEY DEFINITIONStrategy: A strategy is an elaborate and systematic plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved. 3
  4. 4. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning Strategic positioning undermined by complex messaging If you said GREAT STRATEGY, UNCLEAR POSITIONING Searching for understanding Smart organizations work hard to determine About a year ago, I got off a plane in Mexico and “market leadership” what differentiates them from their key competitors. stepped right into this reality. One of the country’s or “innovation” Unfortunately, many craft a positioning statement largest real estate development firms was losing that lacks meaning. At some point during the revenue in the midst of an economic downturn. was the key planning process, they call in the communications As a result, investment analysts had just down- component of the team to articulate their strategy. The goal is to graded the company’s stock. simplify all of the research, planning documents strategy, would In the minds of the firm’s senior management, and notes, and start building a message that your organization makes sense. however, they were guiding the company perfectly through an anticipated market downturn. They know what Usually, this is left until the end of the process, were following a well formulated plan. Internally, that meant? and there isn’t much time allotted for develop- they used the term “adaptive business model” ing a solid storyline. In many cases, the commu- to identify their strategy, but they didn’t have a nications team simply hammers out a list of key simple way to explain it outside the organization. messages to share the strategy. These messages And so they couldn’t share their story beyond are then interpreted by marketing writers, trans- the walls of their boardroom. The firm looked like lated by sales executives and ultimately confuse just another victim of the economy and analysts the organization’s audiences. responded accordingly. People may understand the positioning, but they can’t explain it. They default to the language of busi- ness speak and end up sounding like everyone else. Throughout this process, the strategy be- comes diluted and loses its meaning and impact. KEY DEFINITION Positioning: The process by which marketers try to create an image or identity in the minds of their target market for a prod- uct, brand or organization. In some cases, re-positioning involves changing the identity of a product, relative to the identity of competing products, in the collective minds of the target market. De-positioning involves attempting to change the identity of competing products, relative to the identity of your own product, in the collective minds of the target market.4 © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved.
  5. 5. Strategic narratives and competitive positioningNarratives are an effective wayto create complete context THE NEED FOR CONTEXT It’s interesting how politicians shape their mes- Context is created What the real estate firm in Mexico was failing to sage through narratives. In fact, we often ask: what convey was the context for its strategy. Without is a candidate’s narrative? In other words, how when messages the right context, a business strategy has very can we synthesize the essence of their message start to mean the little meaning or immediate interest. On its own, into a short story? Is it about taxes, fairness or“adaptive business model” can mean anything to some other issue? When a politician’s message same thing to anyone. It fails to communicate in compelling can be framed so clearly and simply, it gives the everyone involved. detail exactly what specific business approach the voting public a way to understand the deeper real estate development firm is pursuing, why meaning behind the message. they chose it, where they stand on implementing Many businesses today need to take a lesson it and what it means to their stakeholders. They from the field of politics. In fact, the real estate left the job of filling in the details to their audi- development firm I met in Mexico did just that. ence, and their audience got it wrong. The company created a narrative that providedMany years ago, I met someone in Chicago who the context for its “adaptive business model.”was running for U.S. Congress. When I asked what They explained why they created it, how they werehis campaign message was, he told me a story. His executing it in the current economy, and howrival was a second-generation incumbent, who felt they were faring better than their competitorshe was entitled to office because of his last name. because they were poised to adapt to sharp mar-My friend spoke passionately about how govern- ket turns and remain profitable. Soon the marketment positions were not something to be inherited. got it. Their positioning was understood, andAnd he recounted examples of how an expectation they recaptured the favor of influential analysts,of entitlement often results in failed leadership. investors and potential partners.KEY DEFINITIONContext: The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede a specific word or phrase, usually influencing its meaningor effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context. The set of circumstances that surround aparticular event, situation, etc. © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved. 5
  6. 6. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning A narrative delivers clarity Within a narrative, BREAKING THROUGH Mapping it Several years ago, I met a graphic artist and illus- So why don’t organizations share the broader messages fall trator who works for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. context of their strategies? Why don’t they take into place like the He stood out nationally among thousands of the time to communicate their ideas more clearly bricks and mortar highly accomplished designers and illustrators. to their audiences? Maybe it’s because they His secret was he had a way to immediately think the reasons are already obvious. Or maybe of an idea. explain and show what sets him apart. It wasn’t they even fall in love with their answers and simply his creative talent, but his ability, as he somehow just skip the question. Or even more explained, to “take tough, hard-to-define concepts likely, they can’t simplify their message. and boil them down into simple, easy-to-under- For most organizations, developing a strategy is stand visual ideas.” I was sold because it matched extremely time-consuming. It is easy for executives the very issue that I battle as a communications to get so deep in the details that by the time the and marketing professional. Together, we col- plan is ready to launch, they have lost the ability laborated on many rewarding projects. to explain it concisely. So before the shift from For the graphic artist in St. Louis, the real estate strategy development to communications outreach, development firm in Mexico and the congressional they need to get back to basics. They need to as- candidate in Chicago, framing their strategy and sume that their audience knows nothing and positioning in the context of a narrative was the really isn’t interested in deciphering another list key to success. It’s what enabled them to connect of key messages and data points. They need to with their audience and establish immediate erase the whiteboard and map out the compel- understanding and differentiation. ling story behind their differentiation. What is A strong, simple narrative our role? Who’s the villain? can answer many questions What’s How do we Hero? Why are we What’s the stopping us? that key stakeholders have stand apart? doing this? silver lining? in mind. KEY DEFINITION Narrative: A story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. It creates interest through conflict- resolution devices that help audiences understand and appreciate why.6 © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved.
  7. 7. Strategic narratives and competitive positioningCreating a “Strategic Narrative” OrganizationsGETTING STARTED possibly lack a formal messaging process. ThoseA Strategic Narrative is a story that succinctly that do it at the end typically have a more formal have two distinctexplains the business context of a strategy in a messaging process and pull all the pieces together moments toway that the organization can easily embrace as a final step to planning. establish narrativeand act on. It is a critical tool to help senior execu- GAINING FLUENCY: messages.tives sell their approach effectively and win the GIVING EXECUTIVES A CLEAR VOICEbuy-in necessary to turn a vision into measur- Once business leaders define and understandable success. their plan as a Strategic Narrative, however,Organizations need to create a Strategic Narrative most will not be comfortable telling it like aas a framework for sales and marketing to get story for fear that they are oversimplifying orthe positioning right. A Strategic Narrative will missing key points. Fluency can be achieved bybring the story of a strategy back to its original helping executives reference points on a Narra-form, reconnecting elements of the strategy so tive Map as they would introduce characters in athat the direction gets clearer. joke and a punch line. And it ensures all of the par- ticipants have a common way to explain the planWhen is it best to conduct a Strategic Narrative using similar language and the same messages.in the planning process? Typically, the answeris in the middle or at the end. Organizations thatchoose to do it in the middle want to capturethe story while it is still fresh, are confident withpeople’s ability to think and react quickly and Most organizationsStrategic planning process: when to craft the message that have a strategic planning process need to determine the right moment to conduct a Research Assess Analyze Align Set Goals Narrative Mapping session: either mid stream, at the end—or both. Develop Strategy Assign Launch Execute Evaluate Narrative Mapping Session Go-to-market Messaging Session © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved. 7
  8. 8. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning Mapping your strategic narrative SIMPLE PROCESS, STRONGER STORY During the session, the group answers such Narrative Mapping™ (or Message Mapping) is questions as: Sheffield’s signature service. This is a distinctive • What’s the focal point of what we’re doing? approach to message development where the focus is to create a clear and concise visual storyline. • What is distinctive about us? Small groups are led by an experienced facilitator • Why is this needed now? through a four-hour session in which they openly discuss the key elements surrounding a topic • What are the main challenges and (i.e., a new strategy, product launch, service, busi- opportunities our market faces? ness unit, brand position, mission/vision, etc.). • How do we deliver on our promise and The objective of the workshop is to incorporate the address these needs? thinking of a variety of key stakeholders to form consensus regarding the essence of the story they • What are our strengths and weaknesses want to tell. Unlike other approaches to messaging, when compared to others aiming to tackle these sessions gather both logical and creative the same issues? elements that can serve as the basis for broad • When have we succeeded and what initiatives where the message really needs to stick. do people attribute to our success? Narrative Mapping sessions help establish a clear • How do we define success? hierarchy of messaging quickly. After only a few hours, • What’s the payoff? the group agrees on what needs to be said and can use the visual map storyline to guide the creation of a variety of materials to communicate the core story to distinct audiences in different ways. Narrative Maps are a powerful technique when embedded in a planning process. They help key stakeholders identify the essence of strategy, articulate key components (messages) and explain how success will be measured.8 © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved.
  9. 9. Strategic narratives and competitive positioningCase Study: A strategy unlocked and simplifiedin a commodity marketISSUE: and simplicity of the strategy – and believe in it.The banking industry is filled with competitors that Nearly two dozen leaders ranging from heads ofall basically say the same thing. A few years back, finance, marketing, operations, research, corporatewith the market getting hit hard, a large bank communications and other functions convened towanted to unveil a new strategy based on delivering craft the “XCX story” in a compelling way. Afteran exceptional customer experience as the core less than four hours, the team was able tofoundation of what set it apart from its rivals. design a simple, yet powerful narrative that ex- plained the bold promise, why it was neededCHALLENGE: and how the entire organization could embraceAfter months of exhaustive primary and secondary it and leave behind confusing language and ex-market research, senior leaders determined that cessive business speak.this was a ripe opportunity for the organization togain market share. No major bank in their market The narrative challenged the organization to behad yet to achieve the status of brands like Lexus exceptional and gave examples that were real andand Nordstrom in terms of the customer experience. relatable. Plans were drafted to activate the strategy by weaving powerful narratives in all facets ofAPPROACH: the organization to give a face and meaning toThe executive team concluded that exceptional exceptional service. Corporate-speak terms likecustomer service (XCX) was the code word for pillars, execution, alignment and empower werean internal campaign to bring the bold promise replaced by words that were direct and filled withto life through new product offerings, promo- context (e.g., obsession to please, understand-tions and behaviors. The bar needed to be raised ing of what the client wants, convenient and easy,high, and employees needed to know the power and their bank of choice). A strategy with buzzwords like engage, operationalize, empower and execute was too boring and confusing to explain. A strategic narrative about being the “Nordstrom of banking” told a clearer story. © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved. 9
  10. 10. Strategic narratives and competitive positioning About Joseph McCormack Prior to founding Joseph McCormack is the founder and managing 2006, his boutique agency specializes in message Sheffield, Joe served as director of Sheffield Marketing Partners based in and content development for a variety of firms in senior vice president suburban Chicago. An experienced marketing markets like financial services, consulting, tech- at Ketchum, a top-five executive and entrepreneur, he has developed nology, transportation and consumer products. marketing/PR agency in breakthrough techniques like Narrative Mapping Chicago where he ran He has spoken at numerous industry conferences and Fluency sessions to help executives leverage the corporate marketing such as the Worldwide Public Affairs Symposium, their core story as a way to strengthen and clarify practice. His career AWA’s Mergers & Acquisitions Conference, the what defines organizations, innovations, products, accomplishments Command and General Staff College’s Senior services and driving market issues. include starting several Leadership Conference, and numerous universities. stand-alone marketing He has worked extensively with senior-level leaders Recently, he founded Navigant Films to expand offerings, running in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe to identify his vision into short-form video production and a small marketing and articulate powerful messages that simplify visual storytelling. consultancy in the what sets their organizations apart. Founded in late 1980s and serving as regional manager of Latin America for an aerospace manufacturing firm. For more information, please contact: Joseph McCormack 630.281.2860 jmccormack@sheffieldcompany.com 1311 Butterfield Road, Suite 300 Downers Grove, IL 6051510 © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved.
  11. 11. Strategic narratives and competitive positioningAbout Sheffield Marketing PartnersSheffield is a boutique agency that organizations product or service), clarify or solidify its marketcall when they need to create a powerful mes- position, or engage an audience in a way that issage and share content that is compelling and memorable. We serve functions in the organiza-tells a story. We work with large companies like tion such as Marketing, Corporate Communica-Jones Lang LaSalle, Harris Bank, FIS, SAP, tions, Strategic Planning and Employee Commu-iDirect, as well as start ups and non profits. nications/HR. Our core focus is to develop a narrative message and packaging content thatSheffield was started in July, 2006 by Joe McCor- tells a story in the ways it needs to be shared.mack. The original vision was to build a smallagency that would be adaptive to the changing Most of our engagements last from several daysneeds and dynamics of companies trying to find (workshops) to a few months (projects and pro-the best way to connect with its key audiences. gram retainers). Our clients are satisfied withAs technology and the Web continued to make a our work because we are passionate about theirdramatic impact on the world of marketing and business, understand it deeply, and want to helpmedia, the company quickly discovered a niche: them to communicate the essence of their storythe universal value of a story. Sheffield was able powerfully and clearly. We are comfortable com-to focus attention on that core point, regardless municating through a variety of media suchof an immediate concern if PR, advertising, or as case studies, white papers, press releases,any other discipline might be involved. Clients advertorial supplements, design illustrations,wanted help getting their story straight and newsletters, as well as short-form video, audiocreating content that told it. podcasts, presentations and Flash. Most of our messaging and content is designed and directedAs a niche agency, we are typically considered to be consumed online as organizations arewhen an organization is preparing to make an leveraging Web content to drive results.important announcement (e.g., launch a new © Sheffield Marketing Partners 2010. All Rights Reserved. 11

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