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  • Writer's pictureAaron Zaslofsky

Walk the brand narrative talk like TOMS Shoes

Remember the sense of giddy pride you felt when you knew the answer to the question before the teacher finished asking it? As I recently learned, there’s a wondrous professional equivalent to this feeling. And it was prompted by the following question from a client:

“What’s the difference between a story and the telling of a story?”

It was one of those rare conversation starters that stoked the flame of my professional purpose. Let’s just say that if you’re in strategic communications, and know the true power of a brand narrative, the slot machine just came up 7, 7, 7 on a max bet.

TOMS Shoes, SoulCycle, Warby Parker. All understand the power of narrative in capturing the aspirations of employees, investors, consumers, suppliers, etc. They realize what many do not, which is that a narrative isn’t the story itself, but the telling of the story. While a story is a sequence of events, a narrative recounts those events. With a strong narrative, a brand and its leaders can develop shared meaning, which is the ultimate goal of communication.

TOMS Shoes: Brand narrative personified

When the narrative question was raised, the first brand that came to mind was TOMS. I did my best in the moment to capture the five components of their brand narrative. However, with a few days to reflect, here’s how I would have positioned TOMS’s sincere and meaningful narrative:

  1. Setting: While traveling in Argentina in 2006, TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. Wanting to help, he created TOMS Shoes, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need.

  2. Protagonist: TOMS and the humanitarian organizations who incorporate shoes into their community development programs.

  3. Antagonist: An extremely competitive industry with products very similar in price, quality, and style.

  4. Conflict: Incorporating societal benefits – shoes for children in need – into a profitable business model.

  5. Resolution/Change: One for One® – with each pair of shoes purchased, TOMS provides a pair for a child in need.

The power behind TOMS’s narrative is its simplicity, societal significance, and the fact that each stakeholder can see themselves in it. An employee, investor, consumer, or supplier can easily identify with the role they play in the purpose of the company. From the narrative, each audience can believe in and relate to the mission behind TOMS. After all, personal beliefs largely drive our actions.

After the conversation ended, I had a realization. Companies like TOMS spend big money to evaluate employee and partner commitment through surveys, performance reviews, etc. But, unless employees and partners understand the context in which the company operates, leaders can’t properly measure engagement and the emotional connection to the brand (which has big implications on retention). A meaningful narrative is the context each audience needs to pursue a brand’s purpose with (almost) as much vigor as the founder. It’s a high bar, but one worth setting.

Here’s one last thing I wish I would have thought of in the moment. Experience tells me that developing a brand narrative is the fun and easy part. What some organizations miss are the steps to alignment behind the narrative. Once the narrative is set, here’s what it takes to get everyone onboard:

  1. Awareness: Visibility is the name of the game at first.

  2. Understanding: Clarify what the narrative is and how it affects the audience.

  3. Acceptance: Demonstrate the narrative as a credible reflection of audience experience and worthy of their involvement.

  4. Commitment: Let the audience provide feedback on the narrative.

  5. Adoption: Integrate the narrative into all brand communications – inside and outside the four walls.

A brief aside. If you’re in Corporate Communications, challenge yourself to relinquish some control of the narrative. This idea makes communications professionals understandably uneasy. However, if we’re sincere in our hope that stakeholders “live” the narrative, they need to be dealt in and allowed to advance the narrative based on their experiences. That’s real empowerment and part of a healthy and trusting corporate culture.

Once again, what people do is based on what they believe. Beliefs and social expectations shape intentions, which, in turn, shape actions. All of this is made possible with a compelling brand narrative and the telling of the story by real human beings.

Next time someone throws around a powerful term like “story-telling,” remember that without a soulful narrative, there is no brand story. End of story.

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