Companies Are Just Buildings Filled with People: How Employee Stories Bring Purpose to Brands

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on January 10
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Why Your Brand Must Must Focus On the Stories of People

What is the meaning of life?  A cliché question, sure—but an important one, nevertheless. Simon Sinek's well-known imperative to "start with why" has recently highlighted the importance of meaningfulness in effective business leadership.  For businesses, questions about the meaning of life express themselves in questions like, "What is the higher purpose of our work?"  "Who are we as a company?"  "What's our voice and why?"  At the end of the day, companies are just buildings filled with people.  And, like the people who work within in it's halls, a company's capacity to truly flourish depends on its capacity to work toward a sense of purpose. 

To find your purpose, your identity and voice, build your Brand on the stories--the narratives--of the employees who makeup the literal life of your organization. 

How do narratives capture purpose and identity ? Well, there’s a story there.  It's personal--but that's the whole point.  It's about who I am.  My story is part of my company's story.

In any event, the story began when I first started reading Aristotle. I was young—fresh out of kindergarten. Not really. I was 18, just a few weeks into my first stab at my first semester of college. Having only recently come upon the happy discovery that college professors didn’t take attendance, I quickly developed a habit for ditching class.

I didn’t necessarily dislike college. I just couldn’t shake my sense of feeling strangely uninspired by my general situation. I wasn’t rebellious in any resentful or angry way. More like passive—like a deflated balloon, just sort of floating through life. School had no sense of purpose--or rather, I had no sense of purpose, and I couldn't find one in school.  I needed the gravitas of something meaningful to pull me back into the flow of a life that otherwise tended to look like an absurdly obligatory parade of nonsensical routines.

 So I cracked a book--a used Penguin Classics’ paperback edition of Aristotle’s Ethics. I didn’t even bother with the introduction. (Who has time for introductions?) I just dove in—cold turkey.   I got through about 10 pages before losing steam. Aristotle was readable enough. But he didn’t seem to offer any direct answers. Aristotle just never seemed to get to the point. There was no punchline, no “The meaning of life is blah and blah.” He’d be a terrible blogger—no bullet points. 

I gave up on Aristotle for a while. As I said—I was pretty young. And I was not particularly patient either, certainly not patient enough to work my way through Aristotle for insight into questions he did not seem particularly concerned with answering.

It wasn’t until later that I realized Aristotle did in fact have many answers to my questions. Aristotle simply wasn’t interested—at least not directly interested—in something like the “meaning of life.” That is, he was not interested in pursuing some single “thing” that gives life purpose. Aristotle was more directly concerned with how to pursue a “good life.”  

(By the way, this all has relevance for the purpose and story of your brand--trust me, it all comes together in the end.)

Jump ahead 4 years—I had shaken my habit for ditching class, and returned to Aristotle in an undergraduate philosophy course at UCLA. (See the photo below... that's me on campus, climbing my way out of my 90s slacker phase.) The memories of my first encounter were still pretty fresh, and I was excited to see if reading Aristotle in a course would provide new answers. Actually, “excited” is a bit strong—let’s just say I had a vague curiosity about reading Aristotle again.

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Aristotle and "The Good Life": It took me a while to make some sense out of what Aristotle meant by a “good life.” I had an easier time figuring out what he did NOT mean—so I started, as is often necessary when learning new things, I began with what I understood and started chipping away from there. One thing became clear: Aristotle did not subscribe to what one might call the “destination” model of a good life.  In other words, for Aristotle, the good life does not take the form of some state, a place at which you arrive only after acquiring some form of preparation or education.  The destination model of the good life requires that one work toward a good life through some specialized form of instruction—like Luke Skywalker training to become a Jedi Master.

In contrast, Aristotle rejects the idea that we arrive at some ideally meaningful life: The purpose of life does not exist in some final goal or end result where one becomes something and then spends the rest of one’s life in the condition that one has worked to become.

Flourshing: For Aristotle, a good life lies in what he called “flourishing.” Actually, he used the term “Eudaimonia,” but most believe the term “flourishing” comes close to capturing the spirit of the original term.

Now, fully explaining this concept of “flourishing” would take some time. And, for me, the beauty of the term is how it tends to both provoke and elude full understanding. What stands out to me, however, is how flourishing presents a concept of the good life that involves a dimension of storytelling. But I’m getting ahead of myself—more about storytelling soon enough.

A flourishing life is developed and sustained through time. The flourishing person is not someone who happens to act well in one situation, and then in another one, and then again in a third, as though each act were unconnected from the others.  Instead, all humans must take the resources they are given, develop them into a flourishing life, and then sustain (or, in cases of great misfortune, restore) that flourishing over the course of their personal histories. A specific act of goodness is one of the ways a flourishing life expresses itself; it is not, however, the very substance of flourishing. Rather, it is simply one expression of flourishing.

Aristotle’s concern with human flourishing provides a new way to think about the meaningfulness of life. Aristotle was not interested in meaning in the terms I had once sought—as a kind of destination. Rather, conceived as flourishing, a meaningful life requires asking how one might go about making a life path meaningful. In other words, how does one give proper shape to the course of a life?

Meaningfulness and Storytelling: As a concept based in the unfolding of life over time, Aristotle’s notion of flourishing suggests that life’s potential for meaning lies in its narrativity— it’s ability to take the shape of a meaningful story. Lives can be conceived as stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. And like stories, lives can be seen as having plots, themes, major and minor characters, and perhaps even patterns or motifs.

As we reveal ourselves to others—and as we want others to get to know us—don’t we often do so by means of narratives of our own lives? In telling others who we are, don’t we usually tell stories about our lives? Of course, we certainly relate more than stories. We also share specific tastes and interests. We refer, for instance, to books or movies we like. We talk about how we react emotionally to one situation or another. And we talk about people whom we admire and those we don’t.

But even these isolated facts are themselves tied to stories. We understand the facts of our life in the context of events linked across time. Our preferences, our emotions, whom we respect: All of these have narratives behind them that tell explain how we came, for instance, to be someone who likes Westerns but does not like Horror films, or takes pleasure in backpacking but not long-distance running—or whatever details we consider important to our sense of ourselves.

Later, as I began teaching English, I returned to the idea of storytelling as a means of finding and giving shape to meaning in life. I started to have students develop memoirs that provided shape and insight into their experiences.

Memoir provided students more than practice in writing; it provided them an opportunity to employ writing as a tool and process for developing a narrative identity—a sense of meaning through story. Simply put, the concept of a narrative identity is the idea that who we are is largely a product of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. If our stories have themes of things never working out, we become people for whom things don’t work out. If our stories have themes of fear, we become fearful. In other words, our narratives about ourselves don’t merely reflect who we are. More importantly, our narratives about ourselves produce who we are. Stories don’t simply describe, they prescribe.

Presenting experience in narratives requires us to establish relations of cause and effect. Developed into stories, the memorable facts of experience do not simply emerge as an isolated series of events. Rather, events in stories emerge in causal chains as the root or result of other events. And by organizing experience into relationships of cause and effect, our stories take us from an account of what happened to how and why it happened. That is, from facts to insight, from knowledge to understanding.

Brand Stories and Purpose: Having entered the world of digital marketing, I return once again to the concept of identity based in narrative—this time within the context of brand development. And while, on the surface, the commercial context of brand marketing may seem less personal than the private realm of memoir, the process locates meaning in the production of stories by people. What I "call narrative marketing" involves engaging in the kinds of big-picture questions that can only be truly answered in the form of stories: How and why do people consider a company meaningful to them? Why does a company work in a particular way? What gives the work purpose? Presented effectively, the stories that merge from these questions produce brands that flourish in new, more meaningful directions, strengthening a company's collective sense of purpose, both for employee and for clients.  

For more on narrative marketing, and for more stories about our team--including profiles of our video genius, Patrick Lara, and our strategic superstar, Evan Bentley--at the MarketScale blog!  

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