Corporate Narrative Arcs – or – What’s Past is Prologue to the Future*

Every company has a powerful tool to build a strong internal culture.

It is the narrative arc of the company.

The narrative arc is a collection of individual story lines that weave together the larger story of the company.  It starts with the inspiration driving the founder(s)  to form the company, driving them to the early successes, and from the inevitable failures (generously called teachable moments) to the successes which reaffirm the company employees’ sense of common purpose.  It answers either implicitly or explicitly the questions of employees and customers alike:

  • Why was this company founded?
  • What is the common purpose that we all share?
  • What are the famous past accomplishments in which we take pride?
  • What are the dark moments in the corporate history, the turning points which demonstrate the resilience and resourcefulness of the company’s people?

All of these questions are answered through telling the corporate story.  In essence, the narrative arc conveys a sense of destiny, inevitability, a unified purpose and direction behind the company’s trajectory.  Done right it points to the direction the company will take in the future.

*Or, to slightly paraphrase the lines from the Tempest by Shakespeare (our favorite creative director) what is past is prologue for the future of the company.

You can visualize it like this (thanks to Mike Prentice who is now at the U of Mich):

Corporate_NarrativeArc

All too often companies overlook the power of their past to shape perceptions of the future.  Sometimes they deliberately leave out portions of the story that make them feel uncomfortable.  Other times the stories have been forgotten from disuse, hidden away in archives and the fading memories of former employees, leaving behind a form of corporate amnesia.  Or the stories have gotten stale from they way there are told.

When you understand the cumulative power of these individual story lines, you will understand why some companies continue to mine the stories of their past and retell them today.  It isn’t limited to small companies like Patagonia.  They are big companies like Coca Cola, McDonald’s, IBM, GE and Lockheed Martin.

Example on Effective Use of Corporate Narrative Arc:  Lockheed Martin

100Years

This year (2012-2013) Lockheed Martin is celebrating a major milestone, its Centennial.  To double down, this company is actually celebrating two centennials-in-one: it is the centennial of both companies that eventually combined to form Lockheed Martin.    [Full disclosure, my team at Verse Group worked together with Lockheed Martin on this program.]

From the 100th Anniversary website:

To mark our 100th anniversary, we’re looking back at the innovations and achievements that helped our customers rise to some of the world’s most vital challenges. And we’ll look forward to emerging global challenges and the technology that will change our world for the next 100 years. [From  website].

100 years ago the Glenn L. Martin Company was founded by…Glenn L. Martin.  That very same year the Alco Hydro-Aeroplane Company  was founded by the brothers Allan and Malcolm Lockheed.

All of three of these men were pioneers with the vision, determination and smarts to make breakthroughs upon breakthroughs which transformed aeroplanes from novelty rides into a robust form of commercial and military travel.

There is real drama in their stories, and the stories of the men and women who worked with them, those who flew their machines and those who benefited from the advances and achievements they inspired.  From their bold visions and humble beginnings in a barn and church came the great innovations which helped land Neil Armstrong on the moon and are now giving us sight into the past through the Hubble telescope — to name just a few of achievements that their successors made possible.

LockheedMartin

Through-out this centennial year the company is sharing 100 story lines that weave together into the larger corporate narrative arc.  100 Stories.  100 Years of Accelerating Tomorrow.

Just as important are the stories shared by individuals with their own very personal experiences of Lockheed Martin.  There is real power in the reminiscences, imaginings and memories of these people.  The company is tapping into this power by inviting the public to share their own personal stories online.  These individual and the company storylines weave together, co-creating the larger narrative arc.

ShareYourStory

Sharing stories is what brings a brand closer to its audience.

Add them all up and these shared stories form the larger narrative arc of the company.

And that is a powerful tool for building a strong internal culture based on a common understanding of their shared sense of purpose from where they came and where they want to go next.

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