In the 1990s, the Finnish technology company Nokia revolutionised the mobile phone market. Twenty years later, the story of the company is still repeated in different contexts. Only the perspective has changed.
In the late 1990s, Nokia’s story was the success story of how Finland became prosperous and recovered from a historical economic recession, of how the country attained the top of technology development and joined the ranks of those nations that benefitted from globalisation. The heroes were not just the company and its management, but also the Finnish educational system, which produced talent and innovations to meet the needs of the tech industry.
Starting in 2008, Nokia’s triumph turned sour and the story turned upside down. All of a sudden, the Nokia giant became a failing protagonist: it was unable to react to the changing world and respond to intensifying competition. The company's management were no longer hailed as heroes. Instead, management mistakes were subjected to speculation and analysis that has continued to this day.
At the same time, a new economic recession hit, making Nokia a cautionary tale of how the entire nation of Finland had been living beyond its means, lulled in false optimism. The result was a severe moral and political hangover. The story taught the lesson that one should always be prepared for bad economic times. This story has been repeated, for example, when justifications were needed for political decisions to cut costs or to issue austerity measures.
Story telling as a business communication tool began to flourish at the same time as Nokia rose to prominence. A strong consultant culture, which encouraged various parties to tell their stories, also became prevalent at the same time. Corporate marketing departments, journalistic feature stories and scientific publishing were also included in the boom.
The arrival of the internet and especially social media gave more power to stories. In the message flow of social media, stories that appeal to emotions spike the audiences’ attention, so that became what people also wanted to produce.
“The narrative form is human-sized and it lingers in people’s minds. It is an effective way of getting attention, and it can often be done quite economically, if one already has the material. For example, a company's CEO may be introduced as a heroic character, who has made the impossible happen. Or, you can tell a heroic story about the company’s employees who have participated in a triathlon,” says Maria Mäkelä, Director of the Narrare Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies at Tampere University.
There is nothing wrong with telling stories as such. However, stories should be produced with great care.
“For big companies, the challenge is that the stories should be spontaneous – or at least they should seem spontaneous – but at the same time spontaneity is feared. That is why the stories are planned strategically and often top-down. I argue that in nine out of ten cases, critical audiences can see through these stories,” says researcher Mikko Poutanen from Tampere University.
Back in Nokia’s hayday, for example, the rules for employees to engage with the media were strictly defined. This strategy did not always enhance the company’s reputation.
“When journalists tried to interview dozens of employees returning from an internal press conference, one after the other they all said ‘I have no comments’ to the journalists’ questions. That naturally piqued the interest of the viewers and increased speculation,” Poutanen says.
When the story is designed so that the company management can control it, and so that it cannot possibly hurt the company brand, no one believes in the story. This, of course, is bad news for the company. Things turn even worse if even people within the company fail to recognise the company’s story also as their own.
Especially if the people involved are highly educated, such reports may be received as patronising or even infantilising
“It can provoke the employees’ resistance and also create counter-arguments. People start to criticise the story in coffee rooms,” says Paula Rossi, a university instructor who studies organisational conflicts.
Eventually, these counterstories will also come out. If the management then tries to silence the stories, it just gets the alarm bells ringing within the work community and the larger audience.
Such moments may also cause collateral damage.
“If there is a conflict between the story told and the experiences of the employees, it can also cause ill feelings. In this case, the story is used to force experiences on people. The worst thing one can say to an individual is that ‘your experience is not right’. That is likely to ignite conflicts,” Rossi says.
According to the researchers, it is advisable not to declare “universal truths” based on the experiences of just one or two individuals.
“Especially if the people involved are highly educated, such reports may be received as patronising or even infantilising,” Poutanen points out.
Stories should generally speaking be given the opportunity to rise from the bottom up. Space should also be given to counterstories and to the diversity that is everyday life, especially in big companies.
“Stories often simplify the complex reality and the conflicts that businesses also have. To prevent it, more people should be given a voice,” Rossi says.
One must be aware that counterstories can expand and resonate in the surrounding reality.
It is also worth noting that the stories where not everything goes according to plan are the most interesting ones for the recipients.
“The most influential stories arise from the buzz and mistakes in communication. At the same time, there is far too much concern over damage to reputation. Often the most enduring brands are those that do not hide problems but also make their internal conflicts visible. Such companies give the impression of openness and honesty, of being able to air out their dirty laundry,” Mäkelä says.
“In general, the trend, especially internationally, is that companies are becoming more democratic, open and self-directed. They are no longer strictly organised top-down and controlled. An open and vibrant working culture is often the best brand tool,” Mäkelä explains.
The smartest companies are also learning from their internal counterstories.
“Counterstories send important signals, for example, for the company’s human resources management. It is worth thinking how beneficial counterstories could be,” Poutanen says.
“One must be aware that counterstories can expand and resonate in the surrounding reality. An organisation must have the courage to listen to them, as they are early indicators of how the whole organisation’s story may turn on its head,” Poutanen adds.
What, then, is a good story? At least it brings out different voices and viewpoints. It recognises that there is no single true experience.
In addition, it should correspond with reality as closely as possible. Thirdly, it is produced as organically as possible from the bottom up.
It should ultimately be something fresh and new. Especially the most critical audience members suffer from too many stories and the syndrome of being fed up with stories is likely to spread. Narratives easily become genre-repeating and jaded. The saturation point of stories is approaching fast. When everyone boasts their own unique novelty but use the same means to do so, communication threatens to become homogeneous – a uniformity of claimed novelty. Uniqueness becomes meaningless.
This is already reflected in the marketing of some companies. Instead of scintillating stories, the pioneers may advertise their product as it is, without a specific or convoluted story to tell. Is not this refreshing?