There’s plenty of info on how to tell stories, the elements of a good story, but they are mainly fiction-based techniques co-opted to the business world.

You can see a load of them on my Pinterest boards. While they are useful, they are tactical rather than strategic and creative.

Business, marketing has its own rules and science. Unless these are incorporated into your strategic narrative, it will be nothing more than a pleasant story.

Your new story might make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it won’t really deliver any new business.

In this post we will look at how to discover your strategic story. Later posts will cover how to develop it and craft it into something powerful.

Always Start with Research

Any good marketing or business project starts with research. Research will give you valuable insights and spark relevant ideas upon which you can start to uncover your own strategic story.

The first part of the research is to look at yourself and your business.

  • What do you want from it?
  • Where do you want to take it?
  • Is it delivering what you want?
  • What’s its culture?
  • What’s its history?
  • Ask your staff similar questions.

This requires a great deal of soul-searching, honesty and courage on your part, and really, you may be the worst person to carry out this research, which I’ll explain why in a moment.

The second part of the research is to ask your suppliers and customers why they do business with you?

  • What do they like and dislike about your business, products and services?
  • What do they find valuable and not so valuable.
  • What would they like to see you do and offer?

Tip: Your customers will usually give you the best ideas for stories and marketing messages.

The third and final part is to look at your market, your industry and your competitors.

  • What are they doing?
  • What are they offering?
  • Is it similar to your offering?

These questions are just starting points. Use the answers to delve deeper into what's going on in both your world and your customers.

Note: When I do this work with clients it takes between two to four weeks to get all of the above done. So don't think you can breeze through it in an afternoon.

The Trap of DIY Research

The problems with doing all this yourself are many. Firstly, it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle. That is you can be blind to what’s actually happening or will see what you want to see.

Also, when you ask your staff, customers or suppliers for their input they will usually tell you what they think you want to hear. Nobody wants to upset the boss.

Even if you do get some answers you don’t like, you may tend to discount them.

Therefore, the information can end up being badly skewed.

 

Get Outside Help

It’s always best to have an impartial outsider do this research, someone with an investigative, research or diagnostic background such as a journalist, market researcher, a good ad agency, marketing agency or pr agency etc.

Not only are these people trained in asking probing questions, they are also experienced in picking up on any subtle nuances or off the cuff remarks that may be covering up deeper issues and opportunities.

Once you have all the information review it and look for any trends, mismatches between what you think the company is about and what people are actually saying; any recurring themes and any opportunities in the conversations.

The results should be sobering, maybe even upsetting. If they aren’t you probably haven’t done the research right, which is again why you should get outside help.

The purpose of the research is not to get answers, but to get a clear picture of what’s currently going on in the market and where you sit in it.

Are You Really Different? Unlikely

If after all this you find that your service offering isn’t that much different from your competition, and you probably will, then you have a problem. 

That’s because there’s nothing to distinguish you from your competitors in the customer’s mind.

You may think you offer a better product than all of your competitors (and you might) but if it’s not presented in a way that makes a real difference in your customers’ lives, then it’s irrelevant.

The customer will make their buying decision based on which supplier is cheaper, closer, has a funny logo, or a range of factors that are all out of your control.

Once that happens you’re a price taker and at the mercy of the customer, and obviously that’s not what you want.

 

Don’t Solve Problems

It’s at this point that many businesses and marketers start to ask the questions: “What’s the customers’ pain points, what problem does my service solve, what keeps my customers up at night?”

All still somewhat useful questions, but the answers are not going to help you create a compelling and memorable strategic message.

The problem is we’re all pretty comfortable these days and sleep really well. If we do have any minor annoyances there’s usually an app or an on demand service to fix them.

Businesses that fix customers’ pain points, or solve their problems are reactionary, they are always following the customer, waiting for the customer to realise they have a problem.

As such they are always at the mercy of the customer and reduced to be a price taker again.

 

Create a Desirable Future

A better approach is to figure out where the customer actually wants to go. What do they want to create for themselves that your service can help them achieve?

This is a more creative approach, as it speaks to a customer’s desires and dreams.

This approach makes you a market leader rather than a follower. Instead of waiting for the customer to recognise they have a problem, you are presenting the customer with an opportunity to achieve something.

You are creating new possibilites rather than solving problems.

It is the approach used by most disruptive businesses. They are disruptive not because of the technology, but because somebody had an idea of doing things differently or of inventing something the market didn’t know it even wanted.

When the story is compelling enough, customers eagerly flock to it

See Always Add Value section below for more details on where to look for new ideas.

How do you be Creatively Disruptive?

Go back to the research. In the first part you discovered where you really sit in the industry and in the customer’s mind. That’s your baseline, a good place to start.

Next you need to start asking more questions

  • What’s not working in the industry or market?
  • What is everybody talking about or complaining about and not doing anything about?
  • What’s changed in the industry?
  • What’s changed in the customer’s world?
  • What are the consequences of those changes?
  • What opportunities are there in those changes?
  • How can I add value to the customer in dealing with those changes?

 

Make the Customer the Hero

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes for a while.

The customer should always be the hero of your story. Even though it’s your strategic story, its purpose is to help you win new business. So always view the world and the market from the customer’s viewpoint.

When you start to ask customer centric questions several things will happen.

It will take your focus off your own products and services and shift it to what’s going on in the customer’s world.

Always Add Value

Then you can start to ask yourself: How can I add value to the customer’s world? What products and services can I create to help the customer achieve their goals?

When this happens, you will start to see opportunities for new ways of doing things, new ideas for products and services you were previously blind to.

This is different to how many of your competitors are operating. Many of them are just trying to sell the customer more of their stuff, their services. Their focus of value is on themselves not the customer.

Referring to the image on the right, their focus is on "table stakes" and "functional value" at the bottom of the value pyramid.

To be a market leader and a price maker, you need to move higher up the pyramid; at least higher than any of your competitors.

Getting there is a transformative process. It completely changes your perspective of your business, your market and your customers.

While this is easy to say it’s hard work to do, which is why many firms never do it.

But that means if you do do the work, and create a new innovative product or service you end up having the market to yourself, at least for a short while.

Elements of Value

Click image for larger view.

This image gives you some ideas on where to start looking to add value to your customers' world.

Source Harvard Business Review & Bain & Co

Once the transformative change begins then a new strategic story will begin to emerge; informed by what your customer is going to achieve by using the new products and services you are going to create, not by the ones you and everybody else has been selling for the past few years.

This is not your final strategic story, but it should be a clear starting point for a new one, a little exciting and scary at the same time.

It should become clear that your new strategic story is very different to what you originally thought it was going to be. This is a good sign; it means you have the beginnings of something that neither you nor your competitors have thought of.

Let it All Percolate

This is the end of the first stage of discovering your new strategic story. You will have asked many questions and got some interesting information. New ideas and possibilities should be bubbling to the surface.

Now you just need to let all that sit and percolate for a while and keep note of any emerging interesting ideas.

In later posts we’ll look at how to take all of this information and begin the creative process to craft a new powerful strategic story.

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