By Harsh Pamnani
TATA is a name that immediately comes to mind when we talk about India’s most valuable brand names. The company has managed to establish itself as a trusted brand, even for those who haven’t had a direct experience with its products or services. It’s worth pondering whether the powerful perception of TATA is just a coincidence or a result of the continuous positive storytelling around the brand. TATA’s dominance in the literature on Indian brands is undeniable, with books on the company being a popular choice for readers. Moreover, TATA’s positive stories continue to make rounds on social media, further strengthening its reputation. TATA’s success could be seen as an exemplary instance of the constructive power of positive storytelling.
On the other hand, the Hindenburg report on the Adani Group is a prime example about the destructive power of negative storytelling. The report changed people’s perception of one of India’s fastest-growing business empires, causing billions of dollars in damage to its market cap.
The power of stories to shape people’s perceptions and gain mindshare cannot be overstated, as they can positively or negatively impact a brand’s market share and market cap.
According to Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” Leaders can use them to build trust and credibility with stakeholders. But what stories should business leaders be collecting? Here are 10 types of stories that every leader should have in their story bank:
Company’s origin story: This story helps customers, employees, and other stakeholders understand how the company began from scratch, which can establish an emotional connection with them. For instance, the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple from a garage is well-known and inspiring. Many entrepreneurs, business school professors, start-up enthusiasts, etc., share it as a symbol of entrepreneurship and rags-to-riches success, generating free attention for the brand.
Purpose, vision, and mission stories: By communicating purpose, vision, and mission, business leaders can attract customers, investors, and top talent. These stories also help employees to visualize the possible future and understand what actions are needed to achieve the organization’s objectives. For instance, Tesla’s focus on accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy has helped the company stand out in the highly competitive automotive industry.
Customer success stories: By highlighting specific challenges customers face and how the organization’s products or services provide a solution, an organization can establish itself as a trustworthy and reliable provider of products or services, which can attract new customers and retain existing ones. For instance, there is a famous story about Flipkart founders going to great lengths to fulfill their first customer’s order for a book unavailable in their inventory and hard to find in Bangalore.
Organization’s culture and values Stories: These stories celebrate how employees embody an organization’s values in their work, how the organization has made decisions based on its values, and actions taken by the organization to positively impact employees. These stories reinforce the culture by making the organization’s values more meaningful, attracting employees who share the company’s values, and enhancing the organization’s employer brand and reputation in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. For instance, Tony Hsieh’s “The Offer” policy at Zappos offered new employees $2,000 to quit if they were unhappy with their work, and the company’s culture stories gained global attention.
CSR and impact stories: These narratives showcase the positive impact of an organization’s actions on society and the environment. These stories highlight the organization’s and its employees’ efforts toward the betterment of society and the planet. Such stories can help enhance the organization’s reputation in ESG (environmental, social, and governance) and reinforce its commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. One example is Salesforce’s 1-1-1 model, where they dedicate 1% of the company’s equity, 1% of their employees’ time, and 1% of their products to the community. Stories about why this model got created and how it has been making an impact have been popular.
Failures, successes, and pivots stories: They showcase an organization’s journey towards success and the lessons learned. By sharing these stories, organizations can boost employee morale, promote a culture of learning and growth, and build resilience to adapt to change. For example, Oravel Stays was a platform for budget hotels and home stays. But the founder, Ritesh Agarwal, struggled to standardize the quality of the properties listed on the platform. To solve this problem, he pivoted the company’s business model and rebranded it as OYO Rooms, a branded budget hotel chain. The pivot was successful, and OYO Rooms grew rapidly to become one of the largest hotel chains in the world.
Leaders and employees’ stories: Effective leaders and influential employees form the foundation of a thriving organization. These stories provide a glimpse into their background, experiences, values, and beliefs and reveal why they joined an organization and the different roles they have held. By sharing such stories, organizations can enhance their leaders’ personal brand and reputation. In addition, stories of employees who re-joined an organization after working elsewhere can also be included. These stories can enhance the organization’s employer brand, creating a positive image in the minds of potential employees, customers, and stakeholders. For example, Satya Nadella’s inspiring journey from humble beginnings in Hyderabad to becoming CEO of Microsoft showcases the importance of perseverance, hard work, and commitment to one employer for many years.
Strategy stories: Strategy flows from top to bottom, but execution flows from bottom to top. Through these stories, employees understand how their work fits the bigger picture and aligns with the organization’s goals. For example, in 1892, while on vacation in Europe, J.C. Fargo, the president of American Express, struggled to convert his letters of credit into cash. Upon his return, he shared his experience with his team, noting that if the president of American Express had trouble accessing his funds, ordinary travelers would surely face the same issue. In response, American Express created the traveler’s check, which has since become one of the most successful business models of all time.
Innovation stories: The narratives serve as a showcase of an organization’s endeavours to explore novel markets, innovate new products, and establish new brands. These stories have the potential to inspire employees to think creatively and contribute new ideas, as well as position an organization as an innovator, risk taker, and thought leader in its industry. Here is an example. In 2012, Matthew Walzer, a 16-year-old with Cerebral Palsy, wrote a heartfelt letter to Nike, sharing his dream of being able to attend college without relying on others to tie his shoelaces every day. The letter caught the attention of Tobie Hatfield, a designer at Nike. In 2015, Nike launched the FlyEase range of footwear. This story has won Nike a lot of praise on social media.
Counter-narratives: Employees may face anxiety when negative news is spreading about their company in the market. A counter-narrative can help diffuse negative rumors. For example, Infosys faced a crisis in 2017 when its CEO, Vishal Sikka, resigned, causing a drop in stock prices and criticism. To address this, the company appointed co-founder Nandan Nilekani as non-executive chairman to improve governance and focus on growth. Nilekani’s appointment helped change the narrative and restore confidence among stakeholders.
Leaders can leverage storytelling’s power for internal and external communication. Internally, stories can be incorporated into employee onboarding, team meetings, company events, and leadership development programs. Externally, leaders can use stories to deliver impactful speeches, interviews with the media, and persuasive pitches to investors, customers, and partners.
The writer is a business storyteller and author of ‘Booming Brands’ and ‘Booming Digital Stars’.