Shira Bareket is a Strategic Narrative Consultant who has helped 80+ B2B tech companies to effectively establish their story. I talked to her to understand the bigger picture of how strategic narrative fits in with positioning, messaging, and conversion copywriting.
What is strategic narrative?
A strategic narrative is a story explaining your business’s purpose, positioning, and future plans. By creating a strategic narrative, you give employees a shared vision to rally around. And by communicating it publicly, you show customers how your offer will create a positive impact in their lives.
In the following interview we cover:
- What a strategic narrative consultant does
- How clients can decide if they need help in developing their strategic narrative
- When companies should consider creating a new category
- Processes that companies can use to figure out what their strategic narrative should be
- How to identify and learn from your audience ‘champions’
- Whether it’s possible to validate or test a narrative with the target audience?
- Success stories of companies who boldly changed their strategic narrative
- Signs that a strategic narrative is being executed well
Q. So what do you do as a strategic narrative consultant?
Shira: I've been in the tech world for around 20 years, and all of that time I was in B2B tech. So I've done product and strategy roles and consulting roles. And around six years ago, I really started working with B2B Tech brands on their narrative, positioning, and brand strategy. I’ve worked with roughly 80 B2B tech companies.
In the past year, I've really narrowed that down and focused my work around the strategic narrative. I’m working with early stage companies, mostly with the CEO and marketing leads, to really define their strategic narratives. Later on, this influences what they do with their marketing, their product, and everything else.
So that's what I do. And it's been interesting. It's always a different market, a different technology. And I'm kind of obsessed with technology. So it's fun for me to kind of go from one place to another and learn things and help shape new markets, new categories. That's what I love doing.
Q: At what stage of their journey should businesses start developing their strategic narrative?
Shira: Okay, so first of all, I'm seeing a shift in the past few years. A few years ago, we'd typically see bigger clients needing this. Now people understand that they have to come earlier, and I see smaller companies come to the point where they're asking, ‘is it too early?’ And it's a good question. But people understand the importance of having a narrative to guide their way.
Typically, I think it's always good to have a narrative in your mind, even when you are just developing the product. But mainly as guideline questions, just knowing that you have to eventually find the typical aspects of strategic narrative like ‘who is our champion?’, and ‘who's this person we're targeting?’.
And it's okay to start off with having a few target audiences. In the beginning when you're doing the product-market fit, you're actually testing these out. So you're starting wider, but having that question in your mind as important.
Another thing is really ‘what is the problem we’re solving?’ At the beginning there are usually several problem statements that we're kind of testing out. But having that understanding that eventually we'll want to focus on a single narrative and a single target champion is important, even if you're not actively doing it.
The really critical moment to start thinking about that is when you have some kind of product-market fit. Because before that, it's too vague, and we are not sure who we're targeting. What's the point of defining a story if you don't know who you're targeting? How do you have a story when you don't actually know what problem you're solving and for whom?
So ideally, companies shouldn’t do this exercise too early, when they have too many open questions. But also not too late when everyone else is already defining the market.
Jon: Okay. It's interesting that you say you've seen a shift in the trends of when people are working on this, why do you think that is?
Shira: I think the category of narrative is kind of becoming a bit more mature. And people are understanding the importance of narrative to set out what they do. You can see the companies that have strong narratives and who they're beating in their market. And actually, the market is won not by the product, but by having the best story out there.
And I think this is something that more and more CEOs are understanding. VCs that guide them are kind of asking them, ‘what's your narrative? And what what is the story you're telling?’
And so it’s become something you search for when you already have hundreds of customers and need to refine your positioning. But from the early stages of going to market, there is already the expectation of having a clear narrative.
Jon: I know in tech, especially in SaaS, a lot of companies are interesting in standing out. And one of the ways they can differentiate themselves is by creating a new category.
Q. How important is it for tech startups to consider creating a new category?
Shira: So first, I get this question a lot. “How important it is? Isn't it just a waste of money to do this? Isn't it costly?” And I think it's not essential for every company to create a new category. But for a lot, it is.
I totally agree with all the concepts that say that being third or fourth in the category does not make sense. Economically, you can't really win and make money if you're number three or four. So if you've gone to that place, a better practice is to kind of find a space that you could own. And define that and own a space rather than being number three or four tag-alongs in an existing space.
So that's an important thing. And I don't think it's always important to name a category, but to be known for an approach. And that could be a category. For example, with HubSpot, I don't think inbound marketing is a category.
So that's an example of not necessarily creating a new category, but having a term, having a discourse that you own, and having a new approach to the market, which you own. I think that's kind of the bigger importance, whether it's a category definition, or it's just a new approach to things. Owning your approach, I think that's important.
And many times it is a new category, especially as we work with early stage companies that are in fact creating something new that wasn't there before. There are a lot of new things in tech that don't have names. And part of the way of owning that is really articulating the problem, the narrative, and the name of that new technology.
So I don't think people should be as afraid of that in terms of the money because it's just an allocation of money. Instead of putting a lot of money in your main brand name, you're putting the money in the category, and, it serves the same purpose, but you're just putting most of the money on this new approach. If it's a revenue intelligence, or inbound marketing or brand interactions, you're owning that space, and you're putting less on the actual brand name. So it's not double the spend, it's just a different allocation of the spend.
Jon: Okay, that's good. Well, that sounds like the answer is that when you genuinely are doing something new, that's the time to name a new category..
Shira: Don't be afraid to name it and own it. But whatever you do, own a new approach, even if it's not a category and that's important to understand. Sometimes it's the approach. Sometimes that's the way to go.
Q. What are the signs that a company has a problem with it strategic narrative?
Shira: Okay, so the first thing I like to ask my clients is, “what would your customers, investors, partners, and staff say if I asked questions like, ‘who are we?’ ‘what's this company?’ And ‘what problems are we solving?’”
And typically, unless you have a clear strategic narrative, you will get 7, 10, even 20 different answers. And that's an issue because everyone is perceiving you in a different way. It means you’re not telling the world who you are, what you’re solving, and what’s the story.
So they have this kind of vacuum and they kind of stitch different things together and try to define it themselves. And that's the majority of things that I see when in companies with this problem. No one is spending the time to define the narrative, and so everyone's defining them in different ways.
The long term goal is to have stable branding, recognition, and perception, and to become a meme in the market. And you can't do that when you have factions of people telling different stories out there.
Identifying market perception problems
You can also go through websites of companies, and I can very clearly see if someone has a very clear problem definition story. You know, where it's just a bunch of words trying to fit all audiences with a generic theme, repeating what everyone else is saying.
I also see other places where the company is perceived as just one of the generic market. Oh, it’s one of those automation tools, one of those medical AI companies. You can’t clearly say what's the difference between them and a bunch of others.
I’ve also observed something that happens with more mature companies. Bigger companies sometimes have a perception problem, when people perceive you in a way that’s not what you want.
For example, I was working with one client and we did a whole survey of their target audience. We realised the company was perceived as old school and slow, with lots of bad attributes. At that point we realised there was a problem. And we had to set a new discourse and show what the company really is and why it’s different and unique and valuable.
Jon: I have noticed similar patterns myself. As part of my copywriting projects I often interview my client’s customers. I sometimes find that there is a misalignment between how the customers see the company and how the company sees itself. I think businesses sometimes need an outside perspective in order to get that clarity and get aligned.
Q. What’s your process for helping a company develop its strategic narrative?
Shira: First of all, I usually work with a very limited and small group of people. You can't really make a big decision like that with a wider forum.
So I usually do it with the CEO, a partner, and maybe another lead. Usually it's a marketing lead. Then I start by understanding the basics of the company, defining the champion, and getting to know what the competitive set is.
Next, the most integral part of the process and the most valuable part is talking to the target audience. Specifically, the champions that will be defined. That means hearing their words; how they talk about their challenges, how they talk about their before and after, how they talk about the shift in their world, and how they see it going into the future.
We want to understand the company’s relationship with the champion and ask lots of questions that help us understand where we could land the story. Because I like stories to be very focused and have a strong message there. It can't be about everything.
Finding a fresh perspective
Another important thing is, of course, to look at the competitive set and see what are the claims out there. If every single competitor in your market is already using the same phrase, it becomes transparent. This is what happened with the term AI, everyone was using it. And it also doesn't allow you to set a new discourse.
So if everyone else in our market is talking about being autonomous, we don't want to lead with ‘autonomous’ too. We might use the word in our messaging, because our product also works autonomously. But it can't be the lead of our story.
We want to find a fresh perspective that is very relevant to our target audience, that allows us to set the discourse. Usually there are a few different directions we could go in.
I like to see how a potential narrative is validated by the market and what customers are saying, by the words they are using. I think that capturing a very strong word is always a good practice. What is the word or two you want to really own in this marketplace? What is the theme you’re relating? What do you stand for?
And when we have one of those directions, then we can start crafting the actual narrative. And then it's a tiered process to refine it.
Jon: I love the idea of finding the champion, listening to the words they say and using them as inspiration. That has a lot of crossover with what conversion copywriters do also.
Q. How do you identify your champions?
Shira: One of the major kinds of discussions and decisions is really understanding who this champion is. I think a narrative can only really capture the heart and mind of someone very definitive. So understanding that champion is the first thing.
Once we have this person identified, we usually go through the company and find people who match this set of responsibilities we defined as a champion. This works even if we sell to different personas. So we might have a DevOps champion and discuss things with them because want to find the narrative that kind of captures them, knowing that we might have other derivatives for IT, security, procurement and other personas in complex B2B scenarios.
But you really want to have this person reading getting these messages and nodding and really feeling that this is an articulation of the reality that they are experiencing. And you can only get this nodding when you have a single person, a single champion.
Q. Is there anything you can do to validate or test the narrative with the target audience?
Shira: That's always the trickiest question I get, and I don't have a very good answer for it. Because there's an inherent problem: part of the effort of telling a new story is saying something that no one has heard before. And so asking people about it is gonna be an issue.
I always give the example of how HubSpot created this whole movement around inbound marketing. If you'd ask someone 12 years ago what inbound marketing means, no one would know what it is or why they need it. So maybe it would seem like it's not a good story.
But after spending years kind of educating the market about Inbound Marketing, now every person on earth knows how important it is. And that's because Hubspot did it properly; it was a very good articulation of a problem, a very good narrative. And they spent a lot of time educating the market.
I do advise that, if you want to do some kind of testing around your narrative, first feel confident with the direction. And then speak with a limited group of people on a one-on-one basis, where you give them not just the tagline or the category name, but kind of go through the story with them. Use people that you trust and see show it to them in a very kind of structured manner to get initial feedback from them.
But I wouldn't go surveying about it, or trying to find a database-way to validate it, because I don't think that's the right approach here.
Jon: It seems to me that some of this is about just being bold, which you have to do in business sometimes. Companies need to just take a leap of faith sometimes and try something different.
Q: What are are some good success stories fom companies who made a bold change in their strategic narrative?
Shira: One of my favorite examples is Ada CX, a Canadian company, now a unicorn. They were really struggling because it was an amazing company, with amazing technology. But what everyone said about them was that they were a chatbot.
It's not an amazing category to be associated with, it doesn't sound grand. But through the work we did together, we learned that they're much something much bigger than that. By listening to customers, we understood that what's important for brands today is not just brand communication, but actually brand interactions
So now what Ada CX is owning in the space is this whole world of brand interactions. Because what they do is much more than a chatbot. They have lots of other products that integrate together and help brands interact with customers.
And I think I just admire the work that they're doing, because they have a podcast around this called now Brands Talk. And so I really like to keep following them and seeing how they continuously produce social posts, web materials, podcasts. And everything in the brand level is really about this theme. And I think it's an amazing thing that they did.
Inventing a new framework
Another one of my favorites is Quantum Metric, who were in this kind of vague market around web experience and digital experience. We worked on a narrative with them. And we understood that the whole world of developing products is different. And what you actually want is for customer feedback to be continuously integrated into your product development.
And we named this whole framework called Continuous Product Design, which is about building DevOps agility into the world of developing products. And Quantum Metric kind of own this space now. They created the accreditation for it and led this whole new practice of how you should develop products today in the digital world. I think they also have an amazing implementation of narrative there.
But I gotta give other examples that I love the world that are maybe more well-known. Where there’s a beautiful story that talks about how we have to rethink some things and act differently in a new world.
Jon: What would be your favorite example?
Shira: So I've mentioned HubSpot. And I, of course, love everything Gong does. If you want to know how to craft a category and narrative, follow Gong and just be amazed at what they do in content and leadership and focus. They work beautifully.
But actually, I like an Israeli company that I have no relation to, and they're called Walk Me. And what I love about them is their before and after. If you looked at their website a few years ago, they had this very generic theme of simplifying user experience. That was a theme back then, it didn't say a lot, and everyone was using it.
And what they understood was that the work that they do is about adopting digital products in the organization. And they named this whole category called Digital adoption.
I think the minute they did that, it was like a nod from the entire world understanding that in digital transformation, we need something that helps companies scale, and helps the entire workforce adopt a new technology.
And now they're owning this new space of digital adoption. I think they're doing amazingly, it's just such a clean way of articulating a problem and category name. For me, it really resonates. I think the whole world got it.
Q. What is a sign of a strategic narrative that has been executed well?
Shira: So first of all, everyone in the company needs to kind of get and understand the narrative, and then you work on implementation. The website, and the sales deck that has to tell this story in a consistent way.
But I feel today, the social presence with the stories has become important. People continuously posting, and sharing their thoughts, and in a kind of very authentic way. I see companies kind of building podcasts around their ideas. And you can feel it that everywhere you go - every marketing asset really resonates the same story.
It's beautiful to see when everything is consistent, using the same terminology and the same way of telling the story, so you can feel the problem in every place.
And sometimes you have to kind of sit maybe after a year and also work and refine and like I said to kind of make a few more additions see that, you know, you're doing it right. But it's amazing to see a company who can live by the strategic narrative.
Jon: Yeah, sure. I think that's really where the magic happens. And as a marketer myself, it's great to create marketing assets for businesses when they've got that starting point of a really strong narrative. And when you've got that, it's much easier to make it come across consistently in all those materials. Thanks for those examples.
Q. Where can people find you online?
Shira: My LinkedIn is Shira Bareket, that's what I currently have. And I'm also open to cooperate with other people who aren also in this space. I like to have partnerships with people and think about ways we can work together to kind of serve companies.
Key takeaways from this interview
- Defining a strong strategic narrative helps you resonate with your audience while also guiding the people inside your organisation
- Identifying and understanding champions is vital to the process
- Don’t be afraid to be bold when you’re genuinely doing something different
- Owning an approach can be as effective as owning a category
- Execute your strategic narrative well by ensuring the story is told consistently in your marketing materials, pitch deck, and internal guidelines