Human beings are a social species. You’ve probably heard this often enough to be rolling your eyes right now, but that doesn’t make it any less true. From the prehistoric hearth to Twitter, humans have always been drawn to group communication.
Perhaps because of this, narratives matter. Objectively and provably.
But, specifically, which narratives matter?
I’d argue for the following three as being the most crucial to the messaging strategy of mission-based brands:
Narrative 1: Mission (“Only”)
Being mission-based necessarily means having a pretty solid understanding of your goals. That’s great! Clearly defining your mission—and communicating it well—can both galvanize stakeholders and engage external audiences. But what is the narrative function of communicating a clearly defined mission?
I like to think of an organization’s mission as serving an “only” narrative.
If a mission is clearly defined, specialized or localized enough to be clearly differentiated (i.e. “only”) from all other organizations or providers, then communication of that mission will engage niche audiences who “only” care about the specific goal.
Say you’re the “only” organization addressing the needs of a certain community, or the “only” group investigating and promoting awareness of a particular medical sub-specialty, or the “only” advocates for a specific issue. In such cases, by default, you’d also be the best organization among people who share a passion for your specific mission.
There are clear benefits to catering your messaging to such an audience. They require very little convincing about the necessity of supporting your organization, and probably not much education about the issues your organization addresses. Their support, in other words, comes at a relatively low cost, allowing for operational expenditures to be leveraged on projects other than marketing.
But the “Only” narrative also has its risks. Although plenty of vibrant mission-based organizations perform very well based almost entirely on the strength of their mission, drawing support exclusively from a dedicated core audience gives that group an outsized influence over the organization’s ability to sustain itself, potentially leading to mission creep or ossification.
Also, if such a community fractures or erodes for whatever reason, if you’re no longer (or never were) the only organization serving your mission, or if your organization wants to grow its visibility beyond niche audiences, the “only” narrative of your mission will no longer keep your organization running.
Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need more than “only.”
Narrative 2: Brand (“Most”)
While most mission-based organizations have a clear understanding of what we do, communicating who we are—your brand—with the same clarity can be a little trickier. There are some great models out there (ahem) that explore branding in depth, but let’s say for the sake of argument that your organization’s brand is clear and well articulated.
A solid brand fulfills a “most” narrative.
Much as the “only” narrative captures the attention of a niche group that only cares about your organization due to the exclusive mission it serves, the “most” narrative of brand speaks to an audience who cares most about your organization (among others serving a similar mission) due to its particular approach.
If your organization is—as communicated by clear brand messaging—the “most” egalitarian, or “most” prestigious or “most” hands-on entity to serve your broader mission, such a narrative may engage a wider audience than an “only” narrative. These are people with a more generalized interest in your mission than the “only” crowd, but who have a strong value affinity with your “most” proposition.
To illustrate this difference, imagine the relative size of groups who’d be likely to say, “I want to do something involving (broad mission), as long as it’s (brand value)” at a cocktail party, compared to those who’d say “I’m passionate about (specific mission).”
Some evidence suggests that engaging audiences in terms of their values is likely to work for the foreseeable future—Gen Z appears to be an especially values-driven group.
But there are some areas where a “most” narrative doesn’t succeed. For one, it relies on a basis of experience and knowledge of preferred approaches that may not exist among all audiences. Also, according to research on philanthropy, while personal values formed through experience and knowledge are a driver for engagement, they aren’t subject to manipulation. People either have them or don’t.
Since values are a binary system, reliance on the “most” narrative of your specific brand, no matter how clearly communicated, runs the risk of dividing the audiences you reach into distinct groups. One group is comprised of those who agree that your approach is the best, the other group those who don’t. This would be fine if not for the possibility that a lack of grey area may alienate those who are impartial, unsure, or merely curious.
If you want to convert those who are on the fence into advocates for your brand, you’ll have to go a step further with your messaging than “most.”
Narrative 3: Intent (“Best”)
Even organizations with a perfectly clear mission and brand can struggle to communicate intent clearly. That’s because those within the organization experience its ongoing process of evolution, while audiences interacting with it for the first time get a snapshot.
Intent is the piece of narrative that bridges this gap by explaining, essentially, why one would build your exact current organization from scratch if forced to choose only one solitary “best” approach to your mission. Where “only” and “most” narratives cater to audiences who self-select for shared passions and values, a “best” narrative can hold anybody’s interest.
- ONLY – “We make the only hand-stirred gelato in the tri-state area.”
- MOST – “We make the most authentic hand-stirred gelato, period.”
- BEST – “We make authentic hand-stirred gelato, because gelato is best when each spoonful is an experience unto itself.”
The third sample shares knowledge on the subject with everybody, without forcing those who don’t know about gelato to postulate as to why “hand-stirred” or “authentic” might be desirable qualities.
When intent is communicated, the knowledge has value whether or not the audience is even in the market for gelato. Even if somebody is lactose intolerant, they can still participate in social discussion and share a “best” narrative of hand-stirred as a preferred production method whenever the subject of gelato springs up. This social dispersal leads to curiosity, which becomes the knowledge and experience that forms values, and in some cases passions, thus widening the potential appeal of your brand and mission.
To be fair, there are a few drawbacks to communicating intent through a “best” narrative. Defining organizational intent requires a certain amount of effort over and above that which is necessary to clarify mission and brand. It also requires an even greater degree of unity among key stakeholders, supporters, or partners, who can each easily disagree with a too rigorously defined “best” proposition.
For these reasons, a “best” narrative might not be the most desirable pillar of your messaging strategy. But it’s advisable to communicate intent within the boundaries where it may be allowable. Every little bit of “best” can help broaden your appeal, even through a few scattered blog posts or stat pulls that share third-party research into the particular desirability of your defined brand’s approach.
Want to see an example of the “best” narrative in action? See how idfive leveraged organizational intent to engage the alumni and donor base at Goucher College.