Gather Around: It’s Storytime for the Boardroom!

How archetypal stories can increase the return on your investments

By Emerson Human Capital

“Oh, grandmother, what a horribly big mouth you have!” cried Little Red Riding Hood.

“All the better to eat you with!” And with that the wolf jumped out of bed, jumped on top of poor Little Red, and ate her up. As soon as the wolf had finished this tasty bite, he climbed back into bed, fell asleep, and began to snore very loudly.

It’s a familiar tale: an innocent in the woods, a scheming predator, and, so that all of our endings can be happy ones, a hero huntsman who saves the day. Particulars of the folktale may differ in its retelling, but the essence of the story remains the same. There is a core meaning that resonates through time, crossing boundaries of language and culture. And therein lies our interest!

This article is less about the stories we tell ourselves at bedtime, and more about those we tell throughout our workday – stories we tell through our product marketing, our mission statements, and our advertising strategies. The power of any of these stories is their ability to capture, sometimes unconsciously, a deeper meaning. Defined as “archetypal stories,” they engage us at a deeper level of collective understanding and tap into an energy that will sustain and propel the story from boardroom to marketplace. These are the stories that are central to our brands and are central to our corporate cultures.

Take a moment and ask yourself: What is the story I would tell to describe the prevailing culture of my organization?

Kill the wolves and save the day!

Maybe it is the culture of the hero, with an emphasis on the values of courage, discipline, energy and teamwork. The Hero Organization tends to pattern itself on a winning team in competitive sports, or even on the military. This type of organization generally adopts a hierarchical, team-oriented structure where teams are expected to be disciplined and goal-oriented.

Don a cape and bring goodies to grannies!

Or maybe it is the culture of the innocent, with more of an emphasis on the values of loyalty, optimism, and wholesomeness. The Innocent Organization tends to pattern itself on the image of a happy family, with managers in parental roles and employees in the role of dependent children. This type of organization generally places a premium on friendly customer service and ensuring that the customer receives a completely predictable, safe experience.

This is all very interesting perhaps, but you may be wondering whether there is anything more to this than fairytales for the workplace. Actually, there is much more! Archetypal stories can be central to the brand identity of our products and can have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line. And our organization’s culture, best understood through these stories, can determine the success of any change initiative we undertake. More than pleasant pastimes, these are stories that we cannot afford to ignore. Let’s take a look at what some of the research tells us.

A study by Young & Rubicam advertising company of the 50 most successful brands in the world found that they were all associated with an archetypal story. The more fidelity these brands had to that story, the greater their profitability and the higher their stock prices. The analysis looked at the Market Value Added (MVA) of brands strongly aligned with a single archetype. MVA measures how much value a company has added to, or subtracted from, its shareholder investment. Brands in alignment with a single archetype rose by a whopping 97% more than the MVA of confused brands. (Source: The Hero and The Outlaw by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, 2001) If that doesn’t appeal to the executive rulers, corporate warriors or accounting sages, nothing will.

There are other reasons to consider the value of archetypal branding: - Customers will pay more for a product associated with an archetypal story (witness the success of Starbucks). - When a company is associated with an archetypal story rather than just it’s function, that identity can persist even when product lines shift. - The very definition of an archetype is that it transcends culture, appearing in all cultures at all times. Archetypal stories make possible the development of a consistent and global brand identity.

Some caution is needed before we embrace this idea of branding through archetypes. Our clients and consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and even somewhat cynical in their perceptions of advertising. Gone are the days of customers willing to overlook obviously outsized eyes, hands, and teeth and to jump quickly into bed with the first company to don grandmother’s ill-fitting nightgown!

To counter consumer skepticism you need to create a brand identity that is so seamless that it stands up to public scrutiny – i.e., a brand identity that can convince not only red-caped girls but hatchet-wielding huntsmen as well. For this to work, brands must be associated with an archetypal story that connects with the company’s present values and strengths—a story which the company is willing to embody in the long run.

So let us listen more carefully then to the stories we are telling ourselves everyday in our workplace. These are the stories that capture the essence of our organization’s culture. Whether the story is that of the hero or the innocent (as described above) – or any number of other archetypes – corporate culture can wield enormous power by the common thread it weaves through organizational structures, values, practices, and even business decisions.

Even more than its potential impact on brand identity, your organization’s culture will affect every initiative you undertake. Whether it is a new software implementation, a merger and acquisition, or even an internal reorganization, culture will be a key factor in determining the success of your efforts. Again, let us take a look at what the research tells us.

According a study conducted by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, 70% of all change initiatives fail. From our own experience, we have found that a common factor in these types of failures is management’s inability to align a perfectly well articulated strategy for change with the prevailing culture of their organization. Culture can be a positive force that when rightly harnessed can accelerate your change initiative, but it can also be a destructive force, a predator clad in familiar clothing just waiting for you to misstep. Perhaps this is best summed up by quoting a top executive from Ford Motor Company: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And from our own observations, it often does so as voraciously as granny-gobbling wolves.

Careful attention to stakeholder management and strategic communication will improve the chances that your change initiative will succeed, but a prerequisite for these activities is an appreciation of the power of organizational culture. This is the core of EHC’s approach to change management.

The power of culture, then, can be revealed in different ways. But perhaps none is better than the archetypal story that communicates the very values and strengths that are the keys to your success.

A final note: the wolves are still out there, but huntsmen, are not as plentiful as they once were. As you begin your next trek through the woods – whether it is a new product launch or a major change initiative – go armed with an appreciation of the archetypal story and the culture it reveals.

This article was expanded and adapted from the original authored by Dr. Carol Pearson, the Director of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. EHC’s partnership with Dr. Pearson provides our clients with access to her groundbreaking work in the area of organizational culture. Dr.Pearson and her team have devised a new and innovative tool called the Organizational and Team Culture Indicator (OTCI). This tool enables leaders, consultants and coaches to measure and assess organizational culture. The application has already proven effective in helping companies and organizations, whether by attracting and retaining loyal customers, or by succeeding in the implementation of major change initiatives. For more information, visit