Sing From the Same Songsheet: Building Story Consensus

Old women singing – The Fundamental Group

In this second excerpt from our upcoming eBook on Story Development for brands, we delve into the question, “Who should be part of creating your story?”

Don’t try it alone.

One of the first considerations of embarking on the short (with us) initiative of brand and messaging development is: Who should be part of this initiative? For a new branding initiative to succeed, there must be an opportunity for all the key constituents to sound off on your brand or the lack of it. If the new message is developed entirely by the marketing team, there’s a good chance it will be noticed and adopted only by the marketing team. But if you engage key influential stakeholders from virtually every department, and they have a hand in the solutions, you will have evangelists. They will travel the hallways and cubicles and spread the message. And you have a greater shot at getting your initiatives approved (especially if you throw the CFO a bone and let him have a big say)

Who Should Participate?

Deciding who should join in the story development process can be a challenge. B2B companies should make every effort to include the following groups in their story initiative:

  • Customer-facing team members. The people who have the most contact with prospects and customers must be represented in the process: sales team, customer support/success, and anyone involved in implementation/onboarding with accounts. They offer a wealth of knowledge about how customers use your products and perceive your company, information that can provide an important reality check for your organization since senior management often has a rosier outlook on customer attitudes.
  • Product experts. The product developers are by nature forward-looking and have an important perspective and on where the organization is heading in terms of its product offering. It’s crucial to bring their insight into the branding process to understand their priorities and their limitations. When product experts buy in, they will more readily embrace incorporating your values and message into the product than if they are given this command from the marketing team.
  • Senior Management. One of the easiest ways to torpedo a brand initiative is to exclude senior management team members from the process. If they’re not included, they will be less receptive to new messages or direction. In short, they don’t like what they don’t know. At minimum, every department’s voice and opinions must be heard and understood.
  • HR. Involving HR is vital in a successful brand endeavor. Especially in companies with abstract products like software, the employees are the tangible, physical manifestation of the brand. Cusotmers’ interactions with them will send a message about the organization’s values and tell its story. The branding process will touch on the underlying values and purpose of your organization and enhance onboarding and retention. And because you will be using this brand to recruit, you get to experiment with brand language that promises a reward. After all, HR stands for Human Relations. And a brand is about nothing if not about creating human relations.

When people are invited to a party they can’t make, they still feel good.

Inclusivity can be unwieldy. You will need to balance inclusiveness with the need to keep the process moving. While it’s not practical to have everyone participate in all aspects of the process, it’s important that all constituencies within the organization are included in at least some activities. Seek out as many internal team members to interview in the process. Your extra effort to include people will help build the consensus required to ensure the new message is well received and internalized by the entire organization.

When you’ve identified the participants in your brand initiative, get their insights and opinions about your business and brand. Create an environment in which each of the participants feel comfortable providing their unvarnished opinions – good or bad – about the important topics. That’s easier said than done as you’ll be dealing with important strategic issues that often carry internal political baggage. A good brand messaging engagement is about discovering the emotional core of an organization – why it exists and why that should matter to anyone – to hell with the baggage. This brings up issues about priorities, such as which market segments the company should focus on; what products and services offer the best possibility for growth and profitability. As soon as that happens, the various factions within your organization will be exposed. Those factions are essential to identify to discover the limitations political baggage has burdened your brand with, and to get more stakeholders to realize this in the same room.

To Enterprise? Or to Mid-Market? That was the question.

At one of our clients, there was a never-ending tug of war over whether they should primarily focus on midmarket or enterprise prospects. Over a ten-year period, they vacillated between the two targets, which made it difficult for them to articulate a clear message – since they frequently tried to be both a midmarket and enterprise player. Internal interviews revealed that everyone below the senior management team knew this was the problem.

As one interviewee put it, “The midmarket companies see us moving upstream to enterprise, so we’re not a good choice as a long-term solution. At the same time, enterprise prospects see us as being too focused on the midmarket, and not adequate for true enterprise customers.”

The senior management team was divided on their focus – some felt midmarket was their bread and butter, and some were focused on moving to fewer, bigger, better enterprise deals. These early interviews set the stage for hashing out their priorities as it related to target market, which became a major focus of our engagement.

How to know who you are.

Identify the key issues and give everyone a chance to air out their concerns/opinions. Purge! Expel the demons of impossible ambitions and replace them with the angels of the achievable. We recommend one on one interviews with each key participant – for about 30 minutes. A few keys to making sure these interviews are fruitful:

  • Anonymity – Sometimes employees need cover to feel comfortable addressing controversial or unpopular opinions, especially if they are at odds with their boss’. Allow them to speak without fear of the boss learning who aired a controversial opinion. If you later use the findings from these interviews in a report, don’t attribute opinions to any one person.
  • Flexibility – Your question list is firm, but the discussion is flexible. Once they feel comfortable, interviewees will naturally the steer the conversation to what they deem important. Giving them that opportunity can uncover previously unknown ideas/issues/insights.
  • Assume nothing – It’s hard for employees who are so deep into the company, its strategy, its culture, etc. to avoid unintentionally reading more into a statement than is intended. For example, someone might say, “Our product demo is awful.” If you are familiar with the demo, and agree, you will have your own opinions about why the demo is bad. But your reasons can be very different than the reasons your interview subject may have. Always ask them to explain and articulate – don’t take their response for granted.
  • Record the conversation (of course only with the consent of the participants). If not, take really really good notes. You will need to refer back to these conversations throughout the process of developing a new brand message

Your internal interviews should identify the key strategic questions on which your brand message depends. For most businesses, they are readily apparent. Here are some ideas for questions – you won’t be able to address all of them, but review and prioritize them as you think about what’s most important.

Customer Questions

  • Describe what is going on in business in general (and in our customers’ businesses specifically ) that creates an environment in which our product provides value.
  • Who are the key decision makers within the targeted companies, and what are their needs and priorities?
  • Who else within the organization needs to buy in before the prospect will commit to purchasing?
  • What are the problems facing your prospects’ key decision makers?
  • How is their world different after using our product vs. before?
  • What emotional need do we satisfy for customers? How do we deliver on that emotional need?

Business Vision and Strategy Questions

  • Which products and solutions best meet the needs of customers? And which will generate the most sales and profitability?
  • What will be our company’s focus in five years?
  • How will the market evolve in the next two years? Five years?
  • How do you describe to prospects what our product does for them?
  • What is your elevator pitch for our company?
  • How is what we deliver better/deeper/more valuable than our competitors’ offerings?

If you target multiple market segments or verticals, you’ll need to answer these questions for each of them – or at least for the top 3-4 segments. Not every question can be addressed in 30 minutes. Think of these interviews as fact-finding and context-setting investigations.

These will not be easy questions and it may force the internal subjects to think about the business and their customers in different ways than they usually do. Persistence is the key to success in identifying insights that will be valuable in building your brand. It’s important to go beyond the simple answers that you often hear from internal sources. For example, when asked about what drives customer purchase decisions, software company employees give answers like, “We help make their process more efficient. “ It’s critical to drill down further on answers like these to discover answers that are:

  • More about benefits than features
  • More about emotional benefits than rational ones.

Keep challenging them to give you deeper insights. Don’t let them get away with one word answers. Ask them to give examples, provide anecdotes and expand on ideas vs accepting generic and “pat” answers.

Once you’ve completed the interviews, review what you’ve discovered. Look for alignment or dissonance about the vision for the company, its customers and product. Prioritize the issues as you move to developing a new brand message. What areas of disagreement must be bridged in order to have a consistent message? Are there ideas or areas of alignment that come up frequently? These should be part of the message and story you are crafting. You will see themes that emerge, a pattern of thought and response that can begin to create a story of the brand as it is and where it should go.

The fact that you’ve asked people to participate and let them speak their minds will go a long way toward helping you create consensus internally. As the rest of the process unfolds, you will want to let them know of your progress, and continue to involve them as the brand story takes shape.

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