What is a Narrative?

Friday, September 29 2017 Martin VP, Marketing Categories:

Why Narratives Matter to Marketers & Communications Executives

Narratives are everywhere. Today we hear the term narrative referenced in places ranging from New York Times Op-Ed columns to sports heroes like Steph Curry. So what is a narrative? At Protagonist, we define narratives as the underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive human behavior. In other terms, they’re stories that help us make sense of the world. They are part of our identity as individuals, as family units, as communities, and as organizations and brands.

They do not consist of just one story and rarely reflect a single data point. They are established over time and formed from a combination of stories. As anyone paying even the slightest attention to politics over the past year can attest, they’re also often driven by emotion rather than facts. Narratives are important to us, but this often happens behind the scenes. Even though they’re not always top of mind, they have a strong influence on our lives as they drive much of our decision-making.

“We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love in narrative.” –  Barbara Hardy, the Narrative Initiative

A Modern Day Narrative

To help understand the power of narratives, let’s examine the generic “American Dream” narrative that was so prevalent in the 1950s and is still going strong today. The “American Dream” is the belief or narrative that essentially says that if you work hard, you can achieve success and happiness in America. It is the land of opportunity and prosperity, and where dreams come true.

Everyone from marketers, politicians, musicians and leaders have used this narrative to tap into the emotions of their audience. Refer to the “American Dream” and most people, regardless of age, ethnicity, political party or geography, have a shared understanding of this narrative and it evokes strong emotions and feelings of strength and pride. Associations with this narrative are almost always positive and this is why it “sells” just about anything. It exemplifies why successful organizations use narratives to engage their customers.

The Role of Narratives in Business

The underlying beliefs of a group of people influence purchase decisions, advocacy, and so much more. If all we had to do as the CMO or PR professional to engage our buyer was run one campaign around the “American Dream” narrative, we’d be in luck. However, narratives are ever-evolving and different buyers identify with different narratives, so understanding what narratives mean for your specific audience is critical to success. Narrative Analytics enable teams to do just that.

Imagine a demand generation team that taps into a powerful narrative, using the most compelling messages and language to drive buyers to a specific call to action. Or a product team that uses narratives to refine an application to better meet customer demand. Think about a communications team that knows their narratives inside and out, so when a crisis occurs, the remediation strategy is quickly implemented, damage is minimized and the brand remains in favor without impacting revenue. These examples show how modern marketers need to leverage narratives for impactful customer engagement.

Bringing Narratives to Light

To do this, you must first surface the relevant narratives, then quantify their impact and track their evolution over time. With the explosion of digital data in recent years, this is a daunting task as billions of data points and conversations happen across the social web 24 hours a day. To accomplish this manually is impossible. Enter the role of AI-enabled narrative analytics platforms like Protagonist.

When dealing with the narratives that truly shape beliefs about a subject or company, those are often harder to identify. Although we may not realize it, the narratives that impact us positively or negatively are always in play, but may not be visible or disruptive yet. Narratives are like a shark ready to surface and cause a reaction. We know they are there, but we can ignore them when we choose to. However, once they reach the surface, there is little time to strategize to attempt to change or harness that narrative. In that situation, we’re on their heels and in reaction-mode, never an effective way to manage narratives or our brand.

Once narratives are understood, an organization has the levers to strengthen their brand positioning, encourage an audience to buy and succeed in narrative battles that unfold every day. It’s all about knowing your buyers best and understanding how to engage with them. Narratives give us the power to do that in an unprecedented way. Organizations that harness that power will have an advantage over their competitors, regardless of industry, vertical or product.