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To build a compelling narrative, bring your organization along with you

Blue Shield of California Foundation sets an example for how brands can move their core narrative beyond the abstract.

Uzra Khan is Vice President of Editorial and Audience Growth at Long Dash. She formerly worked at Reuters and the MIT Media Lab. She has contributed to Foreign Policy and Quartz.

We are increasingly entering a narrative-driven business landscape where brands and organizations must be able to tell their story at every touchpoint consistently and honestly. At the heart of this is a core narrative that articulates vision, purpose, and value for an organization—taking into account its market opportunity, audience needs, and core strengths. It is only when stakeholders can connect new products, services, and messaging with an organization’s desired impact, values, and priorities that they can truly engage and build meaningful relationships with the brand.

While many brands are recognizing the need to do this, all too often, the journey ends with a narrative that lives in the abstract amongst leadership or exists in marketing but isn’t felt internally. It is a challenge to translate it into an audience and employee experience. Blue Shield of California Foundation, a Long Dash client, represents a beacon case study for how a core narrative sets up an organization for long-term sustainability through a rigorous and thoughtful internal process of creating collective understanding.

In 2020, the Foundation underwent what they termed “strategy refinement.” Rachael Kagan, the Foundation’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs, joined me for to an in-depth conversation about the process. She was quick to make the distinction that it was neither a rebrand nor a change in mission, but rather a process to be more intentional about the organization’s impact. Its mission has long been to support lasting and equitable solutions to make California the healthiest state and end domestic violence. Its differentiator from other health equity organizations is in its belief that social determinants—like race, gender, and economic inequities—are shared root causes of both domestic violence and health inequity. Through our conversation, I found three lessons applicable to any organization thinking through its core narrative.

Developing a core narrative is so fundamental to an organization that it should feel like it belongs to everyone who works there.

1. It’s not a one-way roll-out or an unveiling, it’s a two-way dialogue. Invite your team to poke holes and ask questions.

Developing a core narrative is so fundamental to an organization that it should feel like it belongs to everyone who works there. Creating it in a walled off group and unveiling it to everyone else does not work. As Kagan put it, “Silos are endemic. And so even in a process like this, you have to work hard to avoid it becoming like a boutique project of just the communications team.” If people don’t feel any ownership or attachment to the narrative, it risks never really being adopted or embraced. Kagan recognizes this, and encourages openness to feedback and two-way dialogue and input from a group wider than her communications team. “If we produce products and say, tada, if it has nothing to do with anyone else’s day or work, it won’t be used. And so continuing to have that reality check, continuing to have input, and it’s really a balance.”

2. A brand book or document is likely to sit on a shelf. Find ways to make it part of an ongoing conversation.

Even with two-way dialogue and input, and a well-thought out and loved core narrative, its many detailed elements run the risk of sitting in a beautifully designed PDF deck, buried in your organization’s shared drive where no one opens it or refers to it. Kagan anticipated this, and in partnership with Long Dash, planned for hands-on training sessions and scenario planning that allowed staff at the Foundation to use the messaging materials–a handbook–in practice. “What we learned in doing the trainings and also just kind of in the ongoing use of the handbook is that people really appreciate interactive training and scenarios and examples.”

Those trainings included many scenarios of potential questions staff members may get about the Foundation and its work. “Having scenarios was really helpful, and actually once we did scenarios in the training, we [decided] to add scenarios into the updated hand book.” The trainings also revealed to Kagan and her team that this was going to be a living document, updated frequently. “We…realized that the handbook has to have a regular process of being updated as things arise and as we learn which parts of the handbook didn’t really get traction.”

3. Ensure your organization is structured to support the full expression of your core narrative.

At Long Dash we believe that communications teams are a core strategic resource at any organization–they build an audience for its work and therefore strengthen it. They aren’t there to just talk about the work the rest of the company has done, and neither is the rest of the company separate from talking about the work. Kagan believes this deeply too, and the Foundation has worked to integrate her communications team (called public affairs at the Foundation) more closely with the Foundation’s three subject matter-focused program and grantmaking teams. “We actually changed our workflows. We have three approach teams, and those are now interdisciplinary teams. And on those teams is a communications person, an evaluation and data strategy person, a policy person, the program officer leader, and a program manager.”

With this interdisciplinary, matrixed approach, each team is able to holistically communicate the Foundation’s core narrative, and specifically how it applies to that team’s area of expertise. In turn, the communications team members are also closer to the work and can adapt the narrative as work develops.

These lessons from Kagan and Blue Shield of California Foundation are applicable to a wide variety of brands outside of the Foundation space. Together, they embody an inclusive and exciting process, and serve as critical pillars upon which successful brand narratives are built.

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