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Kevin Dean
by Kevin Dean
on March 14, 2019

You probably know by now that, in order to be successful, your company needs to have a single narrative that aligns across all departments, informing everything from hiring decisions to corporate image, product development, and customer outreach. In a real sense, this strategic story is the company.

Because it's so essential, your story can't just be something your marketing department dreams up on its own, with just a few of your notes for inspiration. Nor should you hire someone from the outside to tell your story. Though marketing agencies are essential for revamping platforms and driving business, the strategic story needs to arise from the CEO's unique vision for the company, their sense of why it exists, how it's going to best serve the customer, and what core values drive the business forward. 

For the following reasons, your company's story needs to come straight from the CEO.

Only the CEO Has the Authority to Tell the Story 

Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, argues that companies that can't tell their story probably don't have a clearly articulated strategy, either. "The story," as he famously argues, "is the strategy." One result of this strategic failure is individual departments that operate according to different agendas, something that can eventually sap productivity, undermine profit, and at the early stages, instill doubt about product development and the ability to manage expectations.

The CEO needs to tell the story because only they have the overarching authority to deliver effective messaging to each department, allowing the whole company to pull together. As Horowitz points out, only a leader can ask the central "why" questions — i.e., Why would someone invest in this company, or Why would a customer purchase the product? When the CEO tells the story, they know the answer to these "why" questions, and that can quiet the anxiety of departments that may not yet have the resources to deliver.

The story drives a company forward even when the product is still in its developmental phase by giving employees confidence that they are working on message. Likewise, when a company fails to deliver its service or product effectively, the strategic story provides the corrective. If great customer service is part of your strategic story, improving logistics is more important than developing a new product line. The story tells the company where to put their energy.

The Story Has Emotional Power with Customers

Emotional engagement is proving to be even more important than rational engagement in winning customers over. The strategic story is what helps them identify with a company's brand. 

One company that is currently struggling with this dilemma is the online retail store LL Bean. The Maine company recently scrapped their generous return policy after a year of public relations battles that hurt their bottom line, including the recall of a child's water bottle that contained lead. LL Bean had banked on the fact that this policy didn't matter much to customers and vowed to widen its audience into new markets by appealing to a broader demographic and introducing its products to new retail outlets.

But not only does this new strategy depart from LL Bean's longstanding commitment to delivering quality products; it lacks a strategic story that comes from the top. In the wake of this vacuum, the company no longer knows how to handle customer service problems, and the entire business is suffering as a result. It's overall reputation score has dropped from excellent to merely strong, with the company going from the 16th highest reputation of all companies in 2017 to a position lower than 100 in 2018. 

LL Bean knows what they want — to sell their outdoor products in more stores — but in the process they have lost touch with their strategic story and are relying on hollow branding messages to carry the company forward. New brands, like Dogfish Head Ale, on the other hand, have build their entire company around the stories that compel customers to identify with each of the microbrews that they sell. Their emotional messaging drives brand loyalty and company identity.

CEOs May Need Help Developing Their Strategic Stories

The story needs to come from the top, but that doesn't mean the CEO has to go it alone. In fact, sometimes having a coach on board to facilitate the process of crafting a strong strategic story is an important part of the process. CEOs can find it difficult to think about their business in narrative terms, having grown accustomed to short branding messages that offer a pithy resonance but may no longer have a story behind them.

When a company's leadership team is struggling to identify the story behind the message, it can be helpful to bring in a coach or consultant to foster the process of strategic narrative development — but it still essential that the story comes from the CEO. If the CEO doesn't know why their company exists, that is a problem for the company as a whole.

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