Crafting stories, changing narratives, shaping reality

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

I’ve always worried about talking to stakeholders about the power of storytelling. I fear it sounds juvenile, childish, even infantile. What springs to mind when you hear the word? Telling stories at bedtime to your son or daughter (or nephew, niece, godson or goddaughter)?

Perhaps that’s why we sometimes call it ‘brand narrative’. It’s way more grown up: grand, perhaps even arcane or opaque. To some, of course, it sounds like nonsensical jargon, management-speak, even gobbledegook. There are downsides to both articulations, but to all intents and purposes, they’re one and the same.

But why do we harp on about ‘storytelling’ and ‘brand narrative’? Why is ‘story’ powerful, and why should businesses, organisations and brands of all sizes pay careful attention to creating and telling their own stories?

The answer is simple – a story is memorable in the way that a fact sheet or report isn’t. A story moves our hearts, lodges in our minds and stirs us to action. A story evokes feelings, provokes a response and connects with us on an almost primordial level.

When you’re faced with a choice between brand ‘A’ and brand ‘B’ – the emotional factor will always play a disproportionate role in your decision-making. This is true for products and services, and it also works with personalities, countries and all other propositions.

As we go through life, we pick up all manner of subconscious perceptions, and they become our ‘truth’. If the messaging and the underpinning substance of a brand is clear, compelling and consistent, we understand, absorb and embrace a shared perception of reality.

Let’s do a little exercise.

When you read ‘Germany’ – what comes to mind? Something about efficiency, engineering, beer, perhaps some historical association with the two World Wars, maybe certain brands – such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW. The likelihood is that you have a few key thoughts, expressed through maybe a dozen or so words. Your list of perceptions might be different to mine – but they’ll be in the same ballpark.

German’s brand narrative is unambiguous and strong. To the casual observer, that seems to be just a reflection of the nation’s reality. Would it surprise you to know that this is something they work hard at? They certainly can’t do much about the weft and wove of their history, society and culture – but they can emphasise and communicate the positives, and attempt to negate and minimise the negatives. 

There are all manner of indices that rank nation brands, from the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index to the Good Country Index. Some focus on trade, some on tourism, others on inward investment. African nations seeking to become recognised as democracies might focus on improving their Freedom House score, gaining better standing in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and lowering their Gini coefficient.

Each index is built on extensive desk, qualitative and quantitative research – and provides a part of the overall picture. None are perfect, but all offer an opportunity for a nation to benchmark itself and work on strategic communications to frame itself in the best possible light, thus advancing its soft power standing in the world.

Let’s bring it down to a personal level. Individual brands are built in just the same way. They rise and fall depending on behaviours and positive or negative exposure to audiences through media and social media. This is as true for politicians as it is for pop stars. Great PR can’t change the nature of a person’s appeal – but it can mitigate the downsides and maximise their best character and competency features.

Take Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A cursory scan of his career to date has seen him take a roller coaster journey. Whilst he’ll always be seen in an unfavourable light by certain people, he’s enjoyed peaks of huge popularity, and troughs where his reputation has been low and his future seemed on a downward arc. Right now, it’s hard to pin exactly where he is, but there’s clearly room for improvement and his visionary leadership style is needed now more than ever.

Crafting a brand narrative takes time. It requires evidence, insight and powerful, persuasive messaging. It leverages the best of a proposition and builds on it – carefully connecting individual elements of its message to specific audiences and stakeholders. Done well, this builds awareness, shapes perception, and ultimately makes people think, feel and act differently toward the brand. And that’s why I still talk about storytelling: it’s neither childish nor trivial. Executed and implemented well, it changes reality.

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This piece was written for Nudge Factory.

We’ll meet again – in Busan

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a freelance thought-leadership consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Hands up who’s heard of Busan? Probably not that many! Until I visited South Korea I hadn’t either. Well, Busan’s a bustling port city with a population of about four million people. Its significance? In addition to its prominence as a thriving business and tourist destination, it’s the country’s alternative capital city.

Seoul is only 50km from the border with the North. The erratic and ruthless regime of Chairman Kim could easily use artillery and missiles to decimate the metropolis. Busan, meanwhile, is 325km from Seoul on the Southern coast. It’s closer to Fukuoka in Japan than it is to the capital, however you can get to Seoul in just two and half hours on their amazing 400kph bullet trains. This makes it a great deal more resilient in the event of an attack from the North Koreans. Many public sector and infrastructure businesses have already co-located their HQ between Seoul and Busan. The local stock market operator, KRX, has its head office in Busan. In short, it’s a viable alternative capital city.

What can we learn from this? I think a lot. If London was engulfed by a catastrophe, would the UK be able to function? Unfortunately, I doubt it. In 1953, the GDP per capita of Korea was $153. Barely measurable. In South Korea, it’s now $32,000 and fast catching up with countries like Italy. The country has rightly been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but, alongside their many other accomplishments, the ability to re-think and behave strategically surely lies at the heart of their long-term success.

When the issue of a post-mortem review of the Government’s response to the pandemic is raised the most frequent response is “now is not the right time”. It took the 9/11 Commission in the US almost two years to produce its final report. With its impact on the whole of our society and its international aspect, the inevitable inquiry could be a similarly long and convoluted affair. If it’s to be concluded and acted upon before the next general election, it needs to get underway.

So, yes, let’s build – however, we should also have a Busan strategy. Here’s a few ideas.

Designate a city as the alternative centre of UK government. The country is hugely over-centralised. London dominates. We need to be more like Germany with its multiple capital cities. Manchester gets my vote. 

Abandon the refurbishment of historic Parliament. Instead, build two new facilities – one in London and one in Manchester. The Palace of Westminster can be re-purposed as a heritage centre. We all agree that it’s a wonderful building, but it’s completely unsuitable as a modern workplace. It’s also the most disabled-unfriendly facility I’ve ever visited. We need a fully digital building optimised for local and remote working. It should be hugely accessible and be as green as possible.

Create The Department of National Resilience. Locate it in Manchester. Its aim should be to design, build and operate a resilience plan for the entire country. Not just the Government – all aspects of society.

Create an NHS Reserve. And model it on the military reserve model. All retired doctors and medical personnel should be enrolled, trained and paid.

Review our unwritten constitution. For a short while, the Prime Minister was gravely ill. It was never clear whether the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had taken the throne. If there had been a national emergency while Boris Johnson was in intensive care, how would urgent decision making operate? Who was in charge of the nuclear launch codes during that time?

Mr Johnson’s hero – Sir Winston Churchill – won the war, but lost the subsequent election. Despite the epochal Beveridge Report being issued in 1942 – in the midst of the war – the public didn’t trust the Conservatives to deliver the new society they wanted. I don’t want the same thing to happen once again. With more than four years before another election, there is now an opportunity to win both this battle and the next election. However, we have to start now.

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This piece was written for our website.

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I recently blogged that Boris Johnson must articulate a detailed vision and appoint a sound team to execute on it. He is doing that – and in the process annoying the loony left and some in the mainstream media.

Like Johnson, Michael Govestudied at Oxford and graduated with an upper-second degree, has written for TheSpectator and The Times, lists education among his politicalinterests, co-spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign and ran for Tory leader,twice. While Gove served as education secretary under David Cameron, it isJohnson – as prime minister – who has put improving life chances at the heartof his political agenda. While Johnson is determined to deliver Brexit byHalloween, it is Gove who has been put in charge of overseeing preparationsacross Whitehall for a no-deal scenario. There are many overlaps between thetwo gentlemen, not least their overall abilitiesand most especially their ability to express themselves both orally and via themedium of the pen (or keyboard).

Over the weekend, Johnsonrevealed (in anop-ed for The Times) that – in addition to previousannouncements on education, technology and towns – there will be furtherinvestment in the NHS. Plus, he confirmed new upgrades for hospitals andrecommitted to improving social care. Gove, meanwhile, defined the purpose ofthis one nation government in a tweet:“Our most important priority [is] rejuvenating our democracy, strengthening ourunion and embracing new opportunities”. In other words, the referendum questionwas clear, as were the pledges made at subsequent European, general and localelections, and therefore the mandate to move forward is without doubt.

During his first days in office – rather than setting off for Brussels – Johnson explored the ‘awesome foursome’ that make-up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); taking pit stops in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, as the Policy Exchange demands, patriots could “display their area’s symbol or county coat of arms, or similar, on their number plate as is the case in many other European countries like Germany and Switzerland”? Simultaneously, our freedom-loving international trade secretary focused her efforts on life outside of the EU, including freeports and new free trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others.

At the time of writing this, Ipsos MORI and YouGov have the Tories on double-digit leads over Labour. In Brecon and Radnorshire, we saw Labour’s parliamentary candidate drop to fourth place and almost lose his deposit. All this indicates a clear Boris bounce and an electorate totally fed-up with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity on the main issue of the day. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that two-thirds of voters now want to get rid of Corbyn before the UK goes to the polls again.

What else has Johnson been doing? In terms of protecting our nation and streets, we’ve seen him board HMS Victorious and appoint Johnny Mercer to head the new Office of Veterans’ Affairs as well as a plan to put 20,000 more bobbies on the beat over the next three years. This, combined with the home secretary’s vision to restore public confidence in law and order, should go some way to addressing the surge in gang violence, knife crime and moped theives affecting the capital’s residents, visitors and tourists.

Perhaps Sadiq Khan should’ve spent less time arguing for a second referendum and attacking the president of our closest ally, and more on the issues that impact Londoners. Is it any wonder that his approval ratings have tanked? Cameron and Johnson defeated Red Ken in 2008 and 2012; let’s ensure Johnson and Shaun Bailey – who has put addressing crime at the centre of his mayoral campaign – defeat Corbyn and Khan next year.

In 2018, almost a quarter of a million new homes were built in England – up from 225,000 12-months earlier and more than double the number when Labour was last in power. There have also been significant environmental milestones reached in England with a 90% drop in plastic bag purchases from the big supermarkets compared with just five years ago. As the environment secretary said recently, “We’re calling time on being a throwaway society”. We are investing for the future.

Borrowing from President Bartlett in The West Wing, I’ve asked myself this: ‘What’s next?’ Johnson’s current administration should build on these accomplishments and aspire to go even further in investing for a better future. I say current as, whichever way you look at it, it appears we are headed for an election this autumn.

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This piece was written for The Commentator (August 18, 2019).