Knowledge Bank Blog, Category Strategy

Building Your Category Narrative

Do you have a clear category growth story?

Is there anything Amazon doesn’t do these days?

The company that started by just selling books online now sells pretty much everything.  From books to video streaming to cloud computing services.  But there is one thing Amazon doesn’t do.  PowerPoint.

In his 2018 annual letter, Jeff Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings.  According to Bezos, instead of sitting listening to someone reading bullet points from a slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read “a six page memo that is narratively structured with real sentences, verbs and nouns”.

Just imagine that.  Sitting in a high level meeting.  No talking.  Just reading.

After everyone has finished reading they discuss the topic.  Bezos thinks that it is so much better this way.  Why?

Firstly, our brains are wired for narrative.  Since there were campfires, people sat around them sharing stories.  These stories served as instruction, warning and inspiration.

Secondly, stories are persuasive.  Yes, you need to have logic (often driven by data) that appeals to reason.  But, it is often emotion that drives action.  Some of the most famous movements in history were triggered by speakers who made rational and emotional appeals – e.g. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln.

For Bezos, narrative is king.  And things have worked out pretty well for him, right?

Why are we talking about this? Well over the last 2 weeks we have talked about developing a category first mindset and identifying the defining moves for your category.  In order to do this, you need to have a clear category strategy.  To have a clear category strategy you need to have a clear category narrative.

However, the modus operandi for many category strategies is… Set out everything you know about the category.  Then set out a whole bunch of opportunities the category can go after.  Then offer up all the activities you could do, to deliver those opportunities.  A hundred slides later, people have heard a lot.  But remembered very little.

Winning in a category is often less about who has the most information or the most new products or the most money.  Winning is often more about who has the simplest, most compelling narrative of how the category can grow.

So what are some of the steps you can take to build a simple, compelling category narrative?

Lead with the story.  Support with the data.  Let’s be clear, data and evidence is important.  But too often people get lost in it.  They get so focused on trying to explain what all the data is, that they forget to explain what the data is saying.  Great narratives focus on what is important.  The few big things that you really need to know about the category.  Then the few big things you need to do as a result.  Supported by the most relevant data.  The narrative brings the emotional power.  The data reassures that you are saying the right things.

Focus on Words.  Worry about visuals later.  Often when we show people a draft presentation, we say “The visuals are there as placeholders.  Don’t get distracted by them, focus on the content.”  What do you think happens?  Everybody is distracted by the visuals.  Of course, the right visuals are really important in bringing a narrative to life.  But, only once you’ve figured out what to say.  That’s why we build a lot of narratives in a Word document.  It allows you to explain more.  It allows you to build a narrative structure.  It allows people to focus on the words.  People don’t get distracted by the images – there aren’t any.

Be comfortable with iteration.  The first draft isn’t the final draft.  A lot of strategies are based on getting a group of people together for a couple of days in a workshop.  All the thinking is supposed to be developed there and then.  In our experience great thinking rarely comes from a spark of inspiration in a workshop.  Great thinking comes from people being able to respond to ideas and build on them.  Developing a great narrative is about evolving the story.  Changing things.  Being prepared to leave things out.  A great narrative is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say.

Structure is key. Prioritise the line of sight.  Narratives are about connection – joining the dots to create a powerful story.  Many strategies don’t do this.  They tell you a bunch of issues and opportunities.  Then a bunch of disconnected actions.  Essentially, everything you wanted to do in the first place, hidden in a cloak of data.  A compelling category narrative sets out what you are trying to do (shopper behaviour change).  Then what is getting in the way (key issues).  Then what you need to do to address these issues.  Then how you will do those things.  Things should flow so clearly that the audience should almost know what comes next.  They will be telling you what should be done before you are telling them.

So, take a look at your category strategy.  Is it a long set of slides or is it a compelling category narrative?

Would it pass the Jeff Bezos test?

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.