Does competitive intelligence have to tell a story?

Forrester recently wrote an article, based on a talk by Brett Townsend of PepsiCo, about how good storytelling needs a conflict. That is a well-established idea. Virtually every film and novel includes some conflict that needs to be overcome. Joseph Campbell had already explored this structure in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, including the idea that:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Applying this to competitor analysis may sound like a good idea, but is it a gimmicky step too far? Is business just not that interesting, or does it take more skill than most of us have to make a story out of competitive intelligence findings? A good analyst knows that most presentations should do more than just provide facts: they should provide insights, make recommendations, be strategic and analytical. But can a business presentation tell a true story?

According to Brett Townsend, creating such a story means answering the following questions:

  • Who is the hero? (Forrester's response: the consumer)
  • Who is the villain? (Forrester's response: the economy, time, responsibilities, etc.)
  • What is the conflict? i.e. the tension between what the hero wants versus what others want
  • What are the hero’s tools? (Forrester's response: your brand)
  • What is the hero’s mission? 
  • What are the hero’s obstacles? 

In competitor analysis, the answers might be:

  • Hero: The company analysing its competitors
  • Villain: The competitors (other players such as regulators could be incidental players)
  • Conflict: The hero and the villain want the same thing, and only one of them can get it
  • Tools: Brand could indeed be a tool, as Forrester says, as could money, employees or products.
  • Mission: To win customers
  • Obstacles: Changing trends, regulation, limited budgets, etc.

Those are far from the only possible answers. It may be most important to determine the hero, as some of the other answers flow from there. Forrester's assumption that the hero has to be the consumer is a strong one; perhaps making your company the hero is too short-sighted and the story needs to be recast from the point of view of the consumer. If the hero is the consumer, the villain could be your own company. If the hero is your own company, the villain could be a competitor, or a government regulator. If the hero is a division of the company, the villain could be another part of your own company, as in this org chart diagram:

Some of the other elements of a true story may not fit so well. Campbell's hero is often given a tool by a mentor (Gandalf gives Frodo a sword, Lucius gives Batman his equipment, the Fairy Godmother gives Cinderella crystal slippers). These elements may have to be considered optional in a business context, or the storyteller can draw on other traditions (Luke made his own lightsabre).

Regardless of the answers chosen to these questions, the story format could work well in presenting competitive intelligence. It would need to be subtle. A structure that is blatantly story-like may be too novel for a business audience. Competitive intelligence presentations are subject to too much scrutiny of facts to allow novelty to get in the way. Greater skill is needed to create such a story than to present a more passive, traditional set of slides. But since well-told stories are so appealing and persuasive, the effort could result in more effective competitive intelligence.