Project Description

You’re Fighting an Invisible Battle: What Uber Revealed About Narrative Undercurrents All Companies Face

Identifying the places you can shift the conversation gives you power over it

Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash


July 23, 2017

By Doug Randall


How do Narratives affect and impact organizations? Let’s examine a high profile company in the news. Last month, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from his role as head of the company in the wake of a series of moral and legislative scandals that seemed to cascade upon the company one after another. The company lost favor with investors, current and potential employees, and even users. So how did things escalate to such a point? Is Uber an atrocious outlier, or was it just focusing in the wrong areas? Is it possible that any business could end up in a similar situation?


Every company– no matter how large, small, popular or controversial–is constantly engaging in Narrative Battles. There are dozens of Narratives that affect how a company is perceived by its customers, peers and the general public. Some Narratives exist about specific companies, some create a general lens that changes the way corporate messages resonate, and some create opportunities for businesses to grow their voice. Without understanding what the Narratives are and which ones are important, companies are powerless to influence them.


Uber’s Narrative Ambushes

For the past few years, the ever-popular Uber has been engaged in three major types of Narrative Battles: the battle to get customers to care about its product, the battle to gain investor confidence, and the battle to attract and retain the highest tier of talent (including drivers) into its workforce. These battles are not unique to Uber, nearly every company in the world faces similar challenges.


As an outside observer (Uber is not a customer) we know that Uber focused primarily on the first few Narratives Battles in its marketing, pushing messages of ease and efficiency for users and world domination for its business. However, as a result of some very public controversies, Uber’s own investors pushed for Kalanick’s resignation. Why? The corporation’s internal leaders failed to understand the impact that Narratives like a culture of sexism and disdain of local regulations would have on recruiting and investment. So, they stepped in to stop further degradation of the brand, loss of revenue and market share.


It is often difficult for organizations to understand the Narratives that will impact them and even harder to address them when damage is done. Social media offers immediate exposure, and often, swift calls for  justice. When this happens, organizations often become overwhelmed in dealing with immediate issues that impact business and are reactionary instead of proactive in monitoring ongoing sentiment and underlying narratives.


Discovering the Narrative Battles Around You

Not all relevant Narratives are obvious. While a toy company might be aware of the necessity of proving the appeal of their products, they might not anticipate criticisms of the means of production (like the carbon impact of manufacturing or unfair labor practices.) Overlooking these potential Narratives could be hugely problematic when they emerge unanticipated down the road, as happened with Uber.


If Kalanick and other Uber leaders had been monitoring the Narrative Landscape, they might have preempted some of their publicity challenges with new policies, refined messaging, or an appeal to a completely different Narrative, which would have strengthened the company’s image. Brands that appeal to Narratives consumers care about enjoy stronger customer loyalty and positive outlook, even during scandals.


There can be opportunities to build good will hidden in the Narrative Landscape that organizations don’t grasp intuitively, but offer major benefits in both crisis situations and in general. One large, established financial firm commissioned Narrative Analytics to help it maintain relevance against a sea of newer up-and-comers. The firm was looking for new angles to take and ways to stand out in its area of expertise, but Narrative Analytics exposed a different way for it to differentiate itself: by amplifying a conversation that was already happening. Rather than try to articulate a new stance on an old topic, the company launched a major campaign around diversity and equality — areas where they were more credible than their competitors and that audiences were already talking about. This positioned it as a forward-thinking organization and brought it to the forefront of the industry conversation, in spite of its longer tenure.


The steps to winning a Narrative Battle are: 1) understand your Narrative landscape; 2) identify the existing Narratives about your brand; 3) pick out which Narratives your brand can influence; and 4) create a proactive marketing strategy that addresses those Narratives. Narrative Analytics brings science to these steps, using machine learning, natural language processing and data science to quantify the impact of each Narrative and present recommended next steps.


Business today is incredibly fast-paced, and it can be easy to overlook Narratives like Uber’s diversity problem by focusing only on product  or growth. The most important thing your marketing and communications team should be doing is digging into the Narrative Battles already at play so you don’t end up in Kalanick’s (admittedly stylish) shoes.

Doug Randall, CEO