The 8 Elements of a High-Growth Narrative Strategy

Brendan Dell

In the modern consumer landscape, a killer narrative strategy can make the difference between rising to the top and getting lost in the shuffle.

Brendan Dell is the author of 12 Immutable Laws of High-Impact Messaging, and his goal as a technology consultant is to help companies become “unignorable” by zeroing in on their unique sales story.  

As part of our Wynter Games virtual event series, Brendan broke down the eight essential elements of a high-growth narrative strategy.

Successful marketing is focused on the customer

In the era of narrative marketing, there’s a secret framework to standing out: innovate for your customers, not against your competitors. 

Product differentiation is no longer enough to help companies stand out. So listing your products features as a sales strategy is no longer very effective. 

David Cancel, CEO of Drift summed up this sea change in a tweet several years ago. He said: “Product-based differentiation is going away. Act accordingly.”

If products don’t provide the reason to buy, then what does? 

Instead of looking inward to your product, try looking outward to your customers. How do you frame what you offer as improving their lives?

“What I've seen to be effective is that the way to go-to market is not to think about ‘we've assembled key features,’ but to think about ‘how do you tell a story that presents change and benefit for someone else,’” said Brendan. “By keeping both internally your team and externally your message focused on this story, what it does is create a customer-centric organization.”

Filtering your brand messaging through this lens is an important part of mastering the narrative-growth journey. 

The power of a narrative marketing strategy 

A lot has changed in the past decade. Since 2011, there has been a 5,233% increase in competition in the technology landscape. 

This exponential growth is a product of increased access to venture capital, and the rise of cloud applications like Amazon Web Services. 

Marketing Technology Landscape in 2011

Marketing Technology Landscape in 2020

In the last 50 years, 52% of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared or consolidated due to digital disruption. Today, 75% of venture backed companies fail. 

At the heart is the fact that every single company, no matter their product, is going after the same target audience. There is a finite number of humans on earth, and those humans only have so much attention capacity. 

“Every single one of these people is going after the same buyers,” said Brendan. “Even if it's not the same solution, there's only so much cognitive space we have to retain information and for people to gain a share of our mind.”  

Despite this dire picture, some companies still manage to thrive.

“In the B2B space,” said Brendan, “25% of the venture backed groups that stay in business are the ones that focus on being known: Gong, Drift, Zuora, right?

These people are synonymous in our mind with a specific promise. And it's because they go to market in a bigger way. They're not focused on these transactional ‘one click equals one conversion.’ What they're doing is building fame, notoriety around a story.”  

As we learned from our conversation with Mark Evans on the power of storytelling, information is 22x more memorable in a narrative presentation than just facts alone. And this translates into measurable business outcomes. 

The 8 elements of a compelling narrative 

So let's talk about what a great narrative actually looks like. What are the ingredients or elements that intrigue and inspire customers, and result in enhanced brand recognition? 

Great storytelling is baked into human DNA. But Brendan’s framework is specific to applying stories to organizations.

The goal is to set yourself apart, said Brendan, so ”people are searching for who you are, rather than what you do.” 

Below is a visual representation of the narrative journey, and a short summary of each step.

1. Best Customer

The people who buy fastest, spend the most, and return most often. 

2. Demand Type

New concept, new paradigm, established category.

“This is something that most people don't do when they design a narrative, they forget this piece,” said Brendan. “There are three kinds of demand: new concept, new paradigm and established category. The kind of demand you're trying to create affects the story you tell. We’ll dive deeper into what these are in the next section.

3. Change & Stakes  

How the world has changed making your solution an imperative. The winners and losers that come in the wake of change. 

“Part of being high-growth is having a reason that people have to do something right now versus that sounding like a nice thing to do,” said Brendan. “Creating that imperative is around showing them that if they don't take action, there's going to be consequences.”  

4. Villain

The thing standing in the way of change. What’s holding them back from reaching the promised land. 

“This is the thing standing in the way of change,” said Brendan. “Personifying a villain is what gives your audience - the people who believe you - something to rally against.”

5. Promise Land

The end state for customers. The result you’ll create.

6. Simple Promise

A one sentence promise for transformation. Your market knows it. So does your team. 

7. Superpowers 

The key features that create transformation. The “how” you do what no one else can do.

“The superpower is actually your features. This is where you get down in your points of differentiation,” explained Brendan. “And what you'll see is it's actually the least important part for the narrative on a market level, on a demand level, a brand level. Because people are going to replicate those features and benefits, but they can't replicate your story.”  

8. Proof & Results

The essence of great marketing is “people like us do things like this.” Show your best customers that others like them are experiencing the promised transformation. 

The goal of all this is simple. You want to become recognizable not for what you do, but for who you are. You want customers to be seeking you out proactively, as the result of successful narrative exposure. 

The 3 keys to become unignorable

Now that we’ve covered the eight elements of strong narrative, how do you put it all together in a way that will guarantee success?

Brendan said that it comes down to three key things. A winning narrative: 

1. Helps a specific someone

2. With a real, relevant and risky problem

3. Delivers clear, believable, hard to otherwise reach promised land 

Identify how you will help a specific someone

This comes back to elements #1 and #2 of a successful narrative: identifying your best customer and the demand type.

As we mentioned, the type of demand shapes the narrative you create. There are three types of demand.

  • A “new concept” is a new, disruptive solution. This type of product is rare. 
  • A “new paradigm” involves rethinking an existing solution and disrupting the status-quo. This is how most SaaS solutions take shape, and requires a strong narrative villain. 
  • An “established market” is an existing, highly competitive space. 

Brendan said, “A new concept requires an extremely compelling change, right? People don't understand this. You need to create a brand new world where they're going to adopt this new technology and it has to happen.”

Identify how you will solve a real, relevant and risky problem

It’s imperative that you identify a pressing problem that will encourage customers to act. 

One example would be this article itself. By stating that companies must harness narrative or fail, we’ve brought awareness to an existing problem and identified a solution that can help: mastering the eight elements of a narrative.

“I delivered a change in the world and stakes that makes it imperative to go to market in a different kind of way,” said Brendan. “If you feel at all a twinge of, you know, boy, I better think about the way I'm doing this! When I say that, you can see the effectiveness of this tactic. And it works across categories.”

Other brands have achieved success by personifying their problem - such as Mucinex.  The cough syrup company has made millions by personifying mucus as an unattractive cartoon advertisement. As Brendan phrased it - “disgusting, but effective.” 

Identify how you will deliver users to the promised land 

Finally, the third key is to show customers that you can deliver what you promise. Your customer can’t get there on their own. Your competition can’t deliver it. But you can.

“There's four elements of a successful promise land,” said Brendan. “We're going to help them thrive in a new world. It's going to be difficult to reach without help. It's going to help them overcome this villain. And as on a personal level, using our marketing example, it's going to help them self-actualize. “

Your company positioning statement can play a role in framing how you deliver what you promise. Companies can also leverage social proof and case studies to illustrate the benefits of working with them.

Brendan’s key takeaway on narrative marketing in the modern age is the importance of an outward company focus. 

Rather than focusing internally and talking about your company and what makes it unique, you should focus externally on the customer and their needs. Let customers inspire your innovations. Then, frame your marketing accordingly. 

“The whole transition you can make by being a narrative organization is to innovate for customers, not against competitors,” said Brendan. “When you do it right, it drives everything.”

Watch Brendan's presentation from Wynter Games here.

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