Imagine you are interviewing for a new position and the applicant says, “Don’t worry about what I did before. Let’s just talk about what I can do for you now.” You would be a little suspicious.
It turns out that humans use the same part of our brains to evaluate brands as we do people. So as a company, you have to act like a person. It’s hard to trust someone if you don’t think they want what’s best for you. It’s the reason shared purpose is so important.
It’s also hard to trust someone if you don’t understand where they came from and what they will do next. This is why a good narrative has a through line that connects the past with the future.
The element of Strategic Narrative that defines this thread is Company or Brand DNA. It is the source of your authenticity as it comes from who you are rather than what you say. Since no one else has your DNA, it is a sustainable source of differentiation.
Like human DNA, your company DNA was formed at conception and does not change over its lifetime. But it's not completely fixed. Like human DNA, it can be expressed in different ways.
As an example, consider the story of Satoshi Tajiri, a boy growing up outside Tokyo. He loved collecting insects so much the other children called him “Dr. Bug.” But as urban expansion replaced the fields and forests, Satoshi’s insects disappeared.
Satoshi grew up and developed an interest in games. He saw a way to recreate his childhood experience of collecting magical, elusive creatures. He did this with trading cards and video games. Eventually his vision came to smartphones in the game Pokemon Go.
Pokemon Go became the most popular mobile game in history. In 2016, millions of people gathered in public spaces trying to “catch” Pokemon characters with their phones. The Pokemon DNA of “collecting creatures” had come to life in the outdoor environments where it was first conceived.
Meanwhile, a comparison of IBM and HP reveals what happens when a company abandons its DNA and how Brand DNA applies to B2B companies.
Tom Watson was the founder of IBM. On his desk was a sign that said THINK. It reflected his belief that IBM should make machines that helped people think, and should use thinking to build better machines. This DNA of “thinking machines” has expressed itself in many ways over the years, from the ThinkPad laptop to the Smarter Planet initiative to today’s artificial intelligence engine of Watson.
In contrast, the founder of HP, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, founded the company in a one-car garage in Palo Alto in 1939. As they grew, the founders sought to maintain the spirit of entrepreneurship on a larger scale. This became the “HP Way,” one of the first examples of empowering employees, decentralizing the organization, and tying pay to performance. But in the 1990s, HP repudiated the HP Way, even as the rest of Silicon Valley embraced these same principles. Today, HP has been split into three separate companies without a clear identity or purpose.
We can see this same through line in other companies. Kaiser Permanente was founded in the Great Depression to serve thousands of workers building the Colorado River Aqueduct Project. The managers wanted to keep workers healthy, not just treat them when they got sick. Today Kaiser is the market leader in accountable care because their DNA is about good health through prevention rather than treatment of disease.
Exercise: Company DNA
To find your company or brand DNA, start in the archive. Go back to your company history and look at what problems your founders were initially out to solve. Don't get hung up on the product or business model they used. Look at the fundamental need, activity or desire they were addressing.
Second, look into your company culture. What are the stories that people tell each other about the origins of the company? Pay particular attention to what you tell new employees. For example, at Staples every employee hears about how founder Tom Stemberg ran out of a typewriter ribbon on a July 4 holiday weekend, couldn't find an open stationery store, and came up with the idea for the company. This story reveals a key element of Staples DNA: keeping people in the flow of work.
Third, look at the most successful products and businesses you've had across the history of the company. What's the common thread that connects them together? What problem were they solving? What capability or expertise did they employ? What objective were they trying to achieve?
In the next chapter we’ll connect your company DNA to your shared purpose as we explore the next narrative element: Path to Purpose. This combines the vision of your purpose with the authenticity of your DNA to create a unique source of differentiation.
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