The Power of Narrative - Startup Innovation and Brand Identity

I want to approach the issue of narrative, stories, and fiction from two vantage points. The first is the creative power of fiction and its role in innovation; the second is the power of narrative in the formation of brand identity. Earlier this year, Alan Cohen wrote a terrific piece on “The Innovative Power of Fiction for Entrepreneurs.” His argument can best be summarized by the following quote, “Reading fiction helps by removing the denial that drains our imaginations. The ability to shift your thinking beyond simply accepting the conventional wisdom is frequently a key success factor in building an innovative company.” Reading fiction helps our brains break down the biggest barrier to innovation, denial, i.e. it cannot be done. We actively engage with characters, plot lines, and narrative that challenges our conceptions of time, space, reality in a way that opens up creative channels in our brain. So while exercise, sleep, and other forms of downtime are definitely important stress-reducers and are important to preventing an entrepreneur from burning out, fiction may actually induce innovative, creative thinking in entrepreneurs and help them overcome roadblocks in their creative processes. It is important to recognize that this isn’t the same with movies. While movies and TV are great for downtime, they do not stimulate the mind in the same way. Reading necessitates that the reader actively engage in the narrative and it is this active engagement that works to free our creative processes. So companies should encourage their entrepreneurs to pick up a book next time they feel as if they’ve hit a wall in their creative processes.

The second angle this post takes to addressing the question of narrative is one of brand identity. As a brand, it is always important that people recognize your designs, logo, tagline, etc. However, it is becoming increasingly important, especially for social entrepreneurs, to be able to tell a story that your customers can identify with and that encourages them to be champions for your brand. TOMS, Whole Foods, and Facebook are all brands with great stories that people identify with. There are tools out there such as Storify and Medium that are content publishing platforms for that purpose. Brands also use social media sites to tell their stories. Some stories go viral, some are part of an ongoing narrative about the brand and its identity. Co.Exist by Fast Company released an article recently about how one startup is using the power of storytelling to create a brand identity that is based around social entrepreneurship and doing good. The article can be found here.Soma is a company who is building the world’s most innovative water filter. While they have been successful selling their water filters, they wanted to do more and help solve the world’s clean water crisis in the meantime. To do this they teamed up with charity:water. Charity:water is helping Soma use its proceeds to provide clean water to those in need. However, Soma is taking it a step further and is going to Ethiopia for a month to do some work with charity:water in providing clean water filters to those in need. Each team member is documenting the project using different mediums that range from sound recordings and video to social media blogging and narrative. At the end of the project, they are going to create a multi-media story about their experiences. This is an incredibly innovative use of narrative and story-telling in terms of building a brand identity while simultaneously bringing light to one of the world’s pressing problems and its solutions.

So whether reading narrative or sharing it, there seems to be a compelling argument that stories should be an integral part of an entrepreneur’s repertoire. And as Ira Glass so eloquently put it, “Great stories happen to those that can tell them.”

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