Storytelling as a Strategic Development Tactic

Article 28 min
As communicators, you are asked to develop strategies all the time. Strategic development can be time-consuming work, and once you're done gathering buy-in from executives and stakeholders, it can be difficult if they don't have a communication background. Watch and learn how to build a successful strategy using storytelling as a tactic to break down and overcome challenges.

Mr. Franklin Parrish, Senior Director of Brand Marketing and Creative Services at Kaiser Permanente, Mid-Atlantic, leads teams for consumer marketing, brand advertising and content for healthcare systems with over 700,000 members. Additionally, Mr. Parrish teaches the Content Strategy course for Integrated Marketing Communications at Georgetown University.

In this video, Parrish guides communication professionals through ways to develop strategies that are easy to communicate and follow and receive buy-in from leadership and stakeholders.

What Is Strategy?

The basic definition of strategy is a plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achieving a goal or solving a problem. It is the art and science of planning and marshaling resources for their most efficient and effective use. Your strategy must define your goal and the means to get there.

Realizing a Successful Strategy

It's relatively straightforward to define strategy in a vacuum, but nobody operates in a vacuum. You might be responsible for developing a strategy, but you might not have control over or visibility into how that strategy is implemented. Large organizations have specialized departments, so not having in-depth knowledge about how that department operates could be a barrier to providing any sort of meaningful tactical direction.

While the DoD is a large organization, they do not communicate for profit; they communicate to advocate for additional resources, funding and transparency to the American public.

On top of your own personal knowledge, you also have to depend on the understanding and buy-in of independent actors to realize a successful strategy. Each business unit within an organization (e.g., marketing, sales, product development, fulfillment) must understand its individual part to pull off a good strategy in the most efficient way possible. Some questions you can ask yourself about your strategy to tell if it can be successful:

Is it scalable, relatable, realistic, focused, flexible?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you're well on your way to having a sound strategy that can be efficiently and effectively acted upon.

Why Do Strategies Fail?

There are a number of reasons why strategies fail, but here are three key causes.

  1. Planning: The strategy isn't based on correctly interpreting available data and information. Wrong assumptions will destroy even the most well-crafted strategy, as will not clearly defining ways to measure success. It's important during the planning phase to know what success looks like, because often strategics fail when there is no clear goal or ways to measure success.
  2. Understanding: The strategy isn't understood or internalized by all those involved in the strategy.
  3. Flexibility: The strategy isn't changed or adapted when the operational environment changes.

Let's look at two examples of strategies that have failed because of a lack of understanding and flexibility.

It is more efficient for business units, especially large organizations, to act independently, to achieve specific shared goals. There are instances where strategies fail because one business unit did something that ran counter to the collective strategy and then damaged the entire organization.

An example of one of these situations is DiGiorno. In 2014, the #WhyIStayed became popular as a show of support and means of storytelling for victims of domestic abuse.

Unfortunately, the social media team at DiGiorno didn't get the memo and tweeted, "#WhyIStayed You had pizza." Though arguably an innocent mistake, the remark came across as ignorant and insensitive and landed the company in hot water on social media.

This mistake also significantly damaged the company's positioning and brand strategy as a family-friendly, non-controversial brand that everyone likes.

Sometimes you can spend a great deal of time developing a strategy, and then through no fault of your own, the market shifts. If you haven't built the mechanisms to adapt quickly enough, you must abandon the strategy. In the case of Kodak, the strategy was not abandoned soon enough.

Kodak developed the digital camera long before any of its competitors. Still, it failed to recognize that this represented a paradigm shift in the way that photos were going to be taken. Kodak did recognize the importance of the digital camera, but they were too fearful that digital cameras would cannibalize their current business, which was aligned with film production. So, to avoid what they saw as shooting themselves in the foot, they failed to make the shift and killed the idea. By the time the company leadership realized that the strategy of continuing to rely on film was failing, it was too late to save the company.

The Power of Storytelling

So how can we ensure that our strategies are understood, internalized, flexible and actionable? The answer is simple. Tell a good story. There's a reason great leaders and teachers in human history have been good storytellers. Stories capture the imagination, help build alliances and spur people to action.

The reason storytelling is so powerful is that it's grounded in science. The human brain is biologically hard-wired to use storytelling to process and internalize critical information and to bond with other humans. That's why it makes all the sense in the world for marketers to harness the power of storytelling and articulate a strategy that will guide decision-making, align stakeholders internally and motivate customers to act.

In his book "Branding Through Storytelling," Klaus Fog teaches how to use a story structure to articulate strategies that can be grasped and internalized. This is why CEOs like to tell stories about the future of their businesses, so their business units can retell that story or articulate the strategy through the lens of their areas of responsibility and bring the strategy closer to those who need to execute it. Using the story framework is a tactic that can get people to relate to and see themselves as part of a successful strategic framework.

Review the following example of how something that seemed so unattainable was achieved with storytelling:

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite into Earth's orbit. This shocked the West out of a sense of technological superiority. It was followed by a number of achievements from the Eastern bloc that caused panic in Western capitals. Winning the space race would make the Soviets more influential with not-aligned nations whose loyalty the U.S. was in fierce competition for. Enter a brash, young president who proposed the impossible in the following speech:

We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket, more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses, several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that on the temperature of the sun, almost as hot as it is here today, and do all this, and do all this and do it right. And do it first. Before this decade is out. Then we must be bold.President John F. Kennedy

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and his speech still stirs. Kennedy mentioned the following, "A 300-foot-tall rocket made of alloys that had yet to be invented on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body equipped with everything we need to take a person to the moon and back safely."

The scale of what Kennedy was asking sounded like an unattainable dream, but it wasn't because we did it. As a matter of fact, over the next 10 years, the U.S. spent about 2.5% of the total GDP on the Apollo program or $25 billion in 1960 dollars. That translates to about $150 billion today. And incidentally, it's more money than we spent on the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam combined. The program enjoyed near-universal public support. Ask anyone of a certain age where they were when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon – they'll be able to tell you.

So why did it work? Kennedy told a story that fits a formula.

The Pillars of Good Storytelling

So let's begin with the pillars of a good story. One, you need characters. They are the elements of the story that drive the action. Two, you need conflict. This is where tension stems from, as the characters struggle to resolve their differences, and three, the plot. This is the progression of story events, which is vital to the audience's engagement.

So who or what are the characters? You can use Klaus Fog's fairy tale model framework to figure that out.

Klaus Fog's fairy tale model is a framework that can be used to identify the characters in your story. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A diagram composed of six blocks representing the following: benefactor, goal, beneficiary, support, hero and adversary.
Klaus Fog's fairy tale model is a framework that can be used to identify the characters in your story.
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The hero; every story needs one. The hero is driven by a passion to achieve a goal and possesses traits that are aligned with a set of values.
Ask yourself: Who is the hero? What are their strengths? Beliefs? Special attributes?


The goal sets up a contrast between the current world and the desired future, framing the conflict.
Ask yourself: What does the hero want to win?


The adversary represents the obstacle between the hero and victory.
Ask yourself: What is the hero trying to avoid or overcome?


The beneficiary benefits from the hero achieving their goal. Often the beneficiary and the hero are one and the same.
Ask yourself: Who benefits if the hero wins?


The support helps the hero to reach the goal. These tools can be physical or conceptual, like a hammer or the ability to speak French.
Ask yourself: How does the benefactor help the hero win?


The benefactor is invested in and willing to support the hero in fulfilling the goal.
Ask yourself: Who helps the hero win?

Let's apply this framework to identify the characters of the Apollo program example:

Klaus Fog's fairy tale model can be used to identify the characters of the Apollo program story. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A diagram composed of six blocks representing the following: the benefactor is the U.S. taxpayer, the goal is to beat the Russians to the moon, the beneficiaries are democracy, the West and U.S. leadership, support is funding and popular support, the hero is NASA and the adversary is the USSR and communism.
Klaus Fog's fairy tale model can be used to identify the characters of the Apollo program story.
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The beneficiary is the West, led by the U.S., who had reaped the scientific and economic rewards and bragging rights for being the first to land on the moon. NASA is the hero of this story, including the brains of the engineers and the courage of the brave astronauts. The adversary is the USSR dominating space and the world, as a result. The goal is to beat the Russians in being the first to land on the moon. Who's the benefactor? The U.S. taxpayer and the American people at large. Lastly, funding and positive public opinion are the support.

Once the characters have been identified, the next component of a successful story is the conflict that will make the story compelling and cause the listener to care. If there's no conflict, there's no story. To quote Fog,

The answer lies in human nature. As humans, we instinctively look for balance and harmony in our life. We simply don't like being out of tune with our surroundings in ourselves. So as soon as harmony is disrupted, we do whatever we can to restore it. When faced with a problem—a conflict—we instinctively seek to find a solution. Conflict forces us to act.Klaus Fog

So conflict is not necessarily a negative. It's just an imbalance. The level of conflict needs to be proportionate to the level of effort required to restore harmony. Look at this conflict barometer from Klaus Fog's book.

A conflict barometer from Klaus Fog's book, Storytelling: Branding in Practice, can be used as a guide to determine the level of conflict used within a story. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A gauge showing chaos at the top and harmony at the bottom. Between chaos and harmony are five levels: 1. The end of the world! 2. Our hero will need superhuman powers to overcome this challenge. 3. Our hero is faced with a dilemma with no obvious solution. 4. Our hero can tackle this problem easy-peasy. 5. Everything is going as planned.
A conflict barometer from Klaus Fog's book, Storytelling: Branding in Practice, can be used as a guide to determine the level of conflict used within a story.
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It can represent a hopeless situation where the hero is faced with a dilemma with no other choice but destruction. This is to be avoided. It may be a problem that the hero can easily solve. This is also to be avoided. In either extreme — chaos or business as usual — the conflict level is such that the audience either loses hope or loses interest. Neither of these options will make a compelling story that spurs the audience to action.

Let's apply this to identify the conflict of the Apollo program example:

For Kennedy, the conflict was existential. If we didn't get to the moon first, the USSR and its allies would overwhelm us in both technology and prestige. This, needless to say, was pretty high on the conflict barometer. Nothing less than a full-tilt national response was necessary to counter this threat, but you'll notice, he didn't present the conflict as hopeless, as far-fetched as it sounded at the time, Kennedy provided us with a way to win.

The final element is the plot, which is needed to drive understanding. Every good story and strategy needs a beginning, middle and end. An invaluable tool in defining a plot is the message map/business story.

This model helps to give your story a sequential framework that makes it easier to understand and internalize. Look at this step-by-step illustration of how a plot unfolds using the business story and how it aligns with the fairy tale model:

This message map or business story model, by Kaiser Permanente, can guide you in developing a plot using four steps that align with the fairy tale model. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A diagram to develop a plot using the following steps: 1. Engagement message, 2. Solution message, 3. Reinforcement message and 4. value message. These steps are centered around the target audience or persona.
This message map or business story model, by Kaiser Permanente, can guide you in developing a plot using four steps that align with the fairy tale model.
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  • The middle section describes the audience you're referring or speaking to.
  • The engagement message, step 1, helps to set up the goal of the hero or the adversary that needs to be beaten. Defining the problem the hero needs to solve is a great way to bring in your audience.
  • The solution message, step 2, tells the audience how balance will be restored. At this stage, the goal is acknowledged, and the benefactor and beneficiary are introduced.
  • The reinforcement message, step 3, proves we can win through these specific elements of support. Your audience can get hung up here, so make sure that you're providing as much detail as is appropriate for whomever you're speaking to.
  • The value message, step 4, is how you describe what the world looks like after the hero has prevailed and why that's a desirable future.

Let's apply this to the Apollo program:

The Russians have beat us to space. We're at a disadvantage and the optics don't look good for the West. We're in danger of losing influence in the rest of the world. We have to do something bold to right the situation. A bold move – one that has never been attempted before – is what's needed to leapfrog the Soviets in both technology and influence. We need to go to the moon and not just land a craft. We have to send Americans to the moon and bring them back safely to demonstrably put the West ahead in the space race.

We have the minds, the will and the money to make this happen. A charismatic president will make this the mission of the entire nation, and we will devote whatever we have to win. The section of the speech that we viewed spells out that support very well.

This achievement will be a lasting symbol of a Western bloc on the ascendancy, putting the Soviets and their allies on the defensive. We'll enjoy increased influence over nations that aren't aligned and forge stronger relationships to contain communism's reach.

At the beginning of the space race, in 1961 and through 1969, America had a very clear story that drove the effort to reach the moon. This powerful story captured the nation's imagination. The structure is easy to understand once learned. There was no need to go back and study it. It was easy to memorize. The story propelled NASA's efforts for nearly 10 years, and the goal of landing on the moon was achieved.

But what happened after that? When we landed on the moon, the fundamentals of NASA's story changed, and the story fell apart. When we landed on the moon, the job was done in the public's minds, and people lost interest in the program moving forward. The final missions weren't even covered live. What the Apollo program could have used to maintain public interest and funding after the first moon landing was a new vision of the future. And that would have required a shift in strategy.

What Is the Strategic Formula?

A good strategy needs to be flexible and change when the characters in the story change. A story and a strategy is a formula, and when applied correctly, you have a stable story that compels and instructs the listener to act. If you change even one of the variables, you must examine the rest of the formula to ensure alignment.

You can use the fairy tale model to look ahead and create a new strategy by telling a new story. In order to shift strategy, you need to devise a new vision of the future based on a new hero, beneficiary, adversary and/or goal and re-establish the relationships between them. They don't all have to change; it's likely that your hero won't, and sometimes the only character that needs to change is the goal.

Remember the Rule: If you do make any changes to your story, examine and ensure the relationships are still valid.

Communicate Your Strategy

When you're communicating strategy using story as your tactic, you know all the characters. When you're building a strategy, you don't. So the construct goes as follows:

A hero has a goal that will benefit someone or something by overcoming an adversary.

We need to know who has to do what in order to make the story true. When we know what the desired state is — the promised land — we can reverse engineer the other characters in this story, in this case, benefactor and support, to make the new story true and compelling.

The fairy tale model can be reverse-engineered to determine the unknown characters of your story when you know what your desired state, or the promised land, looks like. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A diagram composed of six blocks representing the following: benefactor, goal, beneficiaries, support, the hero and adversary but the benefactor and support are unknown.
The fairy tale model can be reverse-engineered to determine the unknown characters of your story when you know what your desired state, or the promised land, looks like.
VIRIN: 230306-D-ZW071-1004

The promised land is the world we want to make real. Recall the original definition of strategy: a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as an achievement of a goal or a solution to a problem. The combination of and the relationships between the hero, the goal, the beneficiary and the adversary represent the promised land.

Promised Land = What is the world going to look like if the strategy is successful?

  • The hero defeated the adversary and accomplished the goal and brought about a better world.
  • For the story to be true, we need to:
    • Identify a benefactor
    • Establish the conflict
    • Define the plot that the hero has to take to reach the goal

Applying the Process

There are many applications for the fairy tale model and the business story, referred to as the story and strategy process. You can use it for value proposition development, content or creative strategy, customer strategy, brand positioning strategy, business strategy, team strategy, career strategy or personal strategy.

To apply this model, follow these steps:

  • Identify the hero. Is it your team, business, consumer or customers?
  • Establish the goal. What is it that the hero wants to achieve? It can be specific or broad. Examples include improving productivity, increasing customer loyalty, boosting close rates and enhancing the feeling of control.
  • Identify the adversary. For example, complacency, losing market share or failing to meet sales goals. This can be nearly anything, but it shouldn't be your competition. The best strategies are proactive, even when reacting to a specific event.
  • Identify the beneficiary. This is usually the same entity as the hero, but make sure that is the case. For example, a woman hero might purchase an insurance plan support to benefit her family, the beneficiary.

This method is a great way to get the people that will help shape, execute or enforce the strategy to buy-in and take ownership. Think about what's needed to allow the hero to overcome the adversary and achieve the goal for the beneficiary. The beauty here is that changing the benefactor only changes the support that the benefactor brings. The promised land doesn't change.

This is particularly helpful when you're creating a business strategy with different business units contributing to it with the individual tools that they have to offer. For example, marketing will have different tools from supply chain management, but they can both substantially contribute to the overall business strategy.

Sometimes a larger strategy needs smaller strategies to support it. So you'll need to identify scalable support points and repeat until you have specific tasks to perform.

For example, you have a marketing plan that seeks to grow your company's share of the market.

  • The hero is your business.
  • The goal is to grow market share by X percent.
  • Your adversary is stagnation.
  • Your beneficiary is your business.
  • The benefactor is your marketing division.
  • The support is the marketing division bringing the marketing plan and public relations (PR) campaign.

Each of these support points can be a strategy in and of itself. What is the strategy for the marketing plan? The product positioning? The PR campaign? You'll need to drill down to create new strategies to make these support points true. Drill down to the specifics of your strategies until all you're left with are tactics.

For example, the marketing plan will be supported by a digital media buy. That's a tactic that probably doesn't need further exploration. Someone just goes and buys the media based on the media plan, which itself is a strategy or story.

Perhaps you're leading a struggling sales team. Your job is to turn them into a team of winners. The support points that you could bring to the strategy are changing culture, improving the environment, enhancing support, providing tools, etc. But you can't just say, "I'll change the culture," as if it's a single task or tactic. That takes a strategy and a good story that has its own support points and tactics.

A good rule to remember is that if it takes more than one tactic or action to make something happen, your best bet is to make them align with a strategy.

Evaluate the support points for return on investment (ROI), level of effort and impact. Evaluate new information for strategic value and alignment. As you inevitably face new demands or changes in direction, use the framework to take a look at the scope and ask yourself if the new activity will support the story.

Once you have your specific support points identified and the method mentioned earlier, then you've defined the scope of your strategy. Of course, time and situations change, and the story must change and evolve with them. The good news is that using the story tactic as a strategic framework can help you facilitate that evolution.

The story tactic as a strategic framework can be used as an effective diagnostic and decision-making tool as well. It will help you define what you will and won't do when new requests come in. An article from the Columbia Business School, entitled, Strategy is an Art of Sacrifice, goes into a little more detail.

Effective decision making is fraught with difficulties. The world is changing and the future is uncertain. We will never have perfect information and we are all prone to all manner of biases that can trip us up. But one crucial requirement of decisiveness is frequently overlooked, deciding what not to do. A decision is a choice between alternatives and service of a desired outcome. And the reality of limited resources, make this a zero-sum game. Every additional thing we do subtracts attention and energy from everything else we do. Choosing a series of actions without any subtraction, is just piling it on, which eventually will stifle an organization, blurring its focus and sapping its resources.Strategy is an Art of Sacrifice, Columbia Business School

So we've all been there. We've developed a strategy and work diligently to get buy-in, and you're ready to execute. An email comes in from a higher-up and it starts something like this. What if we...?

Your defense is to evaluate the request as follows:

  1. Does this propel the story? If so, do it and provide the rationale as to why. If it doesn't, push back and provide a solid justification. No one gets in trouble for evaluating a request through a strategic lens.
  2. Similarly, you can use this tool to decide priorities, such as which support point will help make the story true faster. That can be your first priority. Let's say resources are limited and you have support points that will cost more than you have to make them happen. Then, align the support points you tackle to your resource level.

Review this example of how Kaiser Permanente applies the story and strategy process to one of its projects.

Kaiser Permanente had a member testimonial project that was designed to change the market's perception of them being a healthcare organization more concerned about numbers than personalized care. The marketing goal was to turn that perception on its head, using glowing patient testimonials as support. They received written reviews all the time, but they were usually pretty generic. To support their strategy, they needed reviews that focused on how much patients like their individual doctors.

Klaus Fog's fairy tale model can be used to identify the elements in the Kaiser Permanente example. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A diagram composed of six blocks representing the following: benefactor, which are Kaiser Permanente Members; the goal, which is to reposition Kaiser Permanente as a health care system that goes beyond the standard definition of care; the beneficiary, which is the Kaiser Permanente brand; the support, which are member testimonials; the hero, which are the doctors; and the adversary, which are the negative impressions of Kaiser Permanente.
Klaus Fog's fairy tale model can be used to identify the elements in the Kaiser Permanente example.
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They started using the story and strategy process by first identifying the story elements:

  • Hero: Permanente doctor
  • Goal: Reposition Kaiser Permanente as a healthcare system that goes above and beyond the standard definition of care
  • Adversary: The negative impressions of Kaiser Permanente as a cookie-cutter healthcare provider
  • Beneficiary: Kaiser Permanente brand
  • Support: Member testimonials provided by their benefactors
  • Benefactors: Kaiser Permanente members

The next step was to develop a story arc for these elements. So they created the following business story:

HMO's aren't known for delivering personalized care. Patients are just a number to them, instead of an individual with unique needs. The only physician who will take the time and consideration to provide that kind of customized care you deserve is your family doctor. Kaiser Permanente prides itself on having over 1,600 doctors across the Mid-Atlantic States, who are dedicated to delivering the kind of compassionate care that makes their members not only feel better, but feel special. Every doctor says that they will care. Our members will testify that they love their Permanente doctors for the personalized care they provide, just as much as you love yours. Great care starts with a great relationship. And at Kaiser Permanente, you'll have not only a doctor, but a hero, a friend and a guide, on the road to better health.

Video testimonials are the most powerful, but they were faced with the decision that their story framework helped to make. Their project had certain budgetary and time parameters for doing the testimonials as videos. They decided that since some testimonials didn't deliver strongly enough on the individual doctor satisfaction support point, they were not going to spend the time and money to film them. They could use another method to collect the members' thoughts.

The story and strategy process has helped Kaiser Permanente focus on what was most important. They have been using these tools for a number of years for almost every instance that requires a strategic approach, such as deciding on how to bring their digital production capabilities in-house, staffing and organizational structures or marketing creative or brand strategies.

As you can see, developing strategy as a storytelling framework can be a helpful and useful tactic when tasked with developing strategies. By breaking down your marketing challenges into relatable characters who face and overcome them with the support of your products and services, you can be the hero to both your company and your customers.

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