Great marketing, as we all know, is about telling the best story. If you can build a beautifully simple narrative around what you’re selling, you make it instantly understandable and instinctively relatable.
But the more complexity you have in the products and services you’re offering, the harder it is to tell a great story. In fact, that’s one of the biggest challenges of leading marketing in a huge company like Accenture.
When we go to market for an industry like retail, we’re not only positioning our company’s expertise, but we’re also selling everything from supply chain to store operations to customer experience, and much else besides.
There’s so much diversity in the offerings, and so much to say about each part, it’s easy to overcomplicate your story and lose that clear narrative thread you’re aiming for.
It’s a problem all large professional services organizations face. How do you tell a story that’s broad enough to bring together everything you do, while being intuitive enough for your sales teams to actually use—and simple enough for your clients to easily understand?
The bad news is there’s no easy answer to this question. It takes a huge amount of hard work to get it right. The good news is that by being systematic about your process, you not only tell a better story in the end, but you can also help your whole organization get there much faster.
Here’s how I go about it. There are six key steps.
Step 1 — Decide what you want to be known for
This sounds simple, but it’s actually the hardest part. You need to nail down what you want your business to be known for in the industry you’re targeting. And this goes right back to your company’s broader purpose, strategy, and brand.
At Accenture, we’ve just launched our largest brand campaign in a decade: “Let there be change”. This is a wonderful articulation of our company’s purpose to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity and our vision of providing 360-degree value to our clients.
So when it came to our industry narratives, we had this great starting point. We could hang what we wanted to say off this idea that change is inevitable and you need to embrace it and adapt to it.
Of course, there was still a lot of work to be done for each individual industry. In developing Accenture’s retail narrative, for example, there were two really important actions we took. The first was to get a clear understanding of what the market was saying about the industry—including the media, our competitors, and our clients.
The second was to hold a series of workshops with our retail leadership to clarify our positioning. When you do this, it can be really valuable to bring in someone from the outside—a luminary in the industry—who can facilitate. Strategists from your creative agency can often perform this role really well.
Having gone through this process, we realized there was a clear differentiating message for Accenture in retail. Pre-COVID, there was definitely a pervading sense of doom and gloom. It was all about the retail apocalypse, the Amazon effect, the fact that everyone’s shopping online, and so on. And once COVID hit, many of these issues were exacerbated.
We felt that there were a lot of scare tactics being employed. And rather than add to that, we realized we could offer a much more positive message about retailers emerging stronger with a sense of purpose. And from there, we brought in the broader Accenture message of change to develop our industry narrative around the notion of “Adaptive Retail”.
Step 2 — Simplify with an elevator pitch
Once you have your overarching message, you need to start fixing the detail and building out the storyline. That means creating an elevator pitch. In other words, how would you tell your story if you only had 15 seconds of someone’s time?
When you do this, it’s really important to focus on solutions, not challenges. Everybody in the industry knows the challenges already, so you’re wasting valuable time by repeating them. You want to get straight into what needs to happen next. Your pitch needs to be a message of hope, not fear.
It also helps to look for the three or four core components of your story that hang directly off the overarching message. Coming back to the example of Accenture’s Adaptive Retail narrative, we identified three key areas where we thought retailers needed to embrace and adapt to change:
- New climates—Adapting to changes in the planetary climate on the one hand, but also to the big shifts underway in the economic, political, and social climate on the other.
- New ways of working—Not only adapting to much higher levels of working from home, but also the broader transition to digital working, intelligent automation, collaboration with ecosystem partners, and so on.
- New expectations—Adapting to the broad array of changing customer needs and preferences (everything from COVID sanitation in store to next-day deliveries at home), as well as those of employees and investors.
You can see that this process creates a simple framework for your story that anyone can instantly grasp. It gives you your elevator pitch. It also gives you a structure to guide more detailed storytelling.
Step 3 — Validate what you’re saying
At this point you might think you’ve got a great story. But how do you know anyone else will agree? You need to validate it, making sure the story you’re telling is credible and is more than just a subjective point of view.
That means getting proof points, ideally from your own research department. For our retail narrative, we had insights from several waves of Accenture COVID consumer research throughout 2020. We also had an annual holiday shopping survey and a whole range of published thought leadership and research pieces to draw on.
Case studies are another vital tool in the toolbelt here. People are naturally much better at remembering concrete examples than abstract concepts. So, whether it’s your own firm’s work, a client, or just someone else doing a great job of illustrating your story, real-life examples of what’s happening on the ground are an essential way of bringing the narrative to life.
This process allows you to prove that what you’re saying is grounded in fact. If you just say something like “retail with purpose matters” people will rightly ask “says who?”. But if you can say “31 percent of customers are willing to spend more with a retailer that has a strong brand purpose”, that’s so much more impactful.
You can also use your research to build out the core components of your narrative into a series of thought leadership “chapters”. This brings structure to your marketing plan, allowing you to maximize the value you get out of your narrative by developing a series of points of view that tell the story over the course of the year.
Step 4 — Link your narrative to what you’re selling
Now you’ve got a great story, you’ve backed it up with evidence, and you’ve got a plan for how you’re going to tell it over a series of chapters. But unless it’s clearly linked to what you’re selling, your sales teams aren’t going to listen.
At the heart of this is a fundamental truth about what your narrative is really for. It’s a sales enablement tool. It’s to help your practitioners and salespeople stay consistent in what they’re saying to clients—and avoid a situation where you’ve got 50 different people going out and telling 50 different stories. When that happens, you end up not really saying anything at all.
A good way to approach this is to think about the different client personas you’re selling to. So, back to our Adaptive Retail example, when we’re talking to a CHRO we’ll want to focus on new ways of working, and when it’s the CMO new customer expectations will be more relevant, and so on.
This exercise should make it easier to see how your different service offerings fit into the bigger picture. At this point it can also be worth thinking about whether to co-create positioning with some of your ecosystem partners, or at least ensuring your messaging is aligned and you’re telling the same broad story.
Step 5 — Map your narrative to your clients
The next step is to make sure your narrative is relatable for your individual clients. That means letting your salespeople find a way of translating the narrative into a form that resonates with each of their client’s unique circumstances, while sticking to the same broad script.
This is all about training. For our Adaptive Retail narrative, we ran a series of training programs for our client account leads, helping them articulate the same story in different scenarios. That involved getting 60 leads together, exploring what clients were struggling with, what their goals were, and how best to get the message across as effectively as possible.
The point here is that it’s not enough to just have a story. You can have all the fancy websites or marketing assets you like, but ultimately you need disciples who will go out into the market and tell the story at a one-to-one level. And you need to help your salespeople take on that storytelling role.
Step 6 — Align with creative
So far, we’ve talked exclusively about the story itself. But there’s another part to this that’s just as important—the creative. You need to make sure your creative aligns not only with your corporate brand positioning but also with your unique industry narrative.
Inevitably you’ll be constrained to some extent by your corporate branding guidelines. But there’s still a lot for industry marketers to think about here. With Accenture’s Adaptive Retail narrative, for example, we took great care to get our imagery right.
Accenture’s brand imagery guidelines are centered around showing real people in real situations. But in the midst of COVID, we very clearly wanted to avoid falling into that prevailing doom-and-gloom, everything’s terrible messaging for the retail industry.
So we really pushed creative to ensure we were showcasing a sense of hope even in a challenging time, using optimistic imagery, heads up not down, a commitment to showcasing all forms of diverse people to represent our clients’ customers, and so on.
Then you can create a library of imagery, slide decks, social media tiles, etc. for your sales teams to pick and choose from. Creating a 30-second “sizzle” video is also a great way to convey the narrative in a bite-sized format, which salespeople can take to clients directly.
This is not the end of the process
If you think when you get to step six you’re done with your narrative, you need to think again. Really, this is just the start of the process. You have to recognize this is not some kind of box-checking exercise. You need to think of your narrative as a fundamental part of your marketing program for the year.
In fact, it is your marketing program for the year. If it’s done right, it’s a living, breathing thing that evolves over time, and guides everything you do in your campaigns.
I hope this post has clarified the often complex process of developing an industry marketing narrative. In a large organization, it can take a lot of hard work to get it right. But you get an incredibly powerful marketing tool when you do.