Narratives are underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive human behavior. That's a big tent concept. At Monitor 360, we've spent the past 10 years exploring it in full and asking how leading organizations around the world can better understand and wield narratives to their advantage.
Narratives operate on multiple levels, at virtually all aspects of life:
Individual and familial narratives: We tell ourselves a story about who we are as individuals — what defines us, where we came from, and where we are going. And we develop a shared story with those who are closest to us. We know that families that have developed a strong, shared narrative are more resilient over time. Some of those familial narratives are ascending, others are descending, and others have their ups and downs. What matters most is to have a strong narrative. Companies also develop narratives, sometimes rooted in their origin myth, that define what it means to be part of the group.
Brand affiliation and loyalty narratives: We tell ourselves a story about what organizations, brands, and affiliations we attach to. These narratives provide the logic for why we identify more with one brand vs. another. It's not about product features and attributes, but the larger validating story. Brands must curate, cultivate, and manage these narratives with great care, and also understand how they compare to and are different from competitors.
Issue-area narratives: We tell ourselves a story about how to think through complicated issues with no easy answers: from climate change, to income inequality, to genetically modified foods. Issue-area narratives do battle with one another — and to the winners go the policy and profit spoils. Industry leaders must navigate these issue-area narratives to protect their own brand and regulatory environment. Foundations make major investments to shape the conversation around these critical issues to fulfill their mission.
Cultural narratives: We tell ourselves a story about what it means to be American — or a citizen of any other country. These are the deepest roots in the tree of beliefs — broad, shared narratives that define the culture of a nation and bind the fabric of society together. Cultural narratives answer questions like: What makes our culture or nationality exceptional? What grievances have we endured and what debts are we owed? What hopes do we have for the future, and what must we do to get to the promised land? Some brands can credibly tap into these deep roots for great effect. For political campaigns, cultural narratives are an incredibly powerful and persuasive asset.
At Monitor 360, we got our start analyzing cultural narratives. We identified the deep roots of belief in over 40 countries for the Obama Administration, helping the US Government engage, negotiate, and communicate more effectively with foreign audiences.
In the last three years, we turned to the remainder of the narrative tapestry, helping corporations and foundations shape conversations, build brands and reputations, and understand and activate customers. Along the way, we started to integrate Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning Technology into our methods alongside our human narrative experts, bringing scale and data to our insights for strategic decision makers.
Leading-edge algorithms can break down narratives into their component parts, including argumentation structure, emotion, and metaphor. But narratives are still very human things. They are told, re-told, and evolved by real people who are both rational and emotional. So, the human judgment from our Narrative Experts — layered on top of state-of-the-art technology — is essential to capture the actionable essence of the beliefs that make us all tick.