Book Club: ‘Story Driven’ – Bernadette Jiwa

So we’re back with another book review and this time it’s a little book called ‘Story Driven‘ by Bernadette Jiwa.

I’m not sure how I came across this book. If I’m honest, I think it was probably just that it was reasonably cheap on Amazon and came with a recommendation from Seth Godin, so the thinking was: win, win! And, you may have seen that it’s provided the inspiration for a few blogs already and so for that, it’s been well worth the money.

In the book, Jiwa explains how so frequently we are conditioned to play to win, but that those businesses and individuals that we admire and respect play to a different set of rules. They are driven by a strong sense of identity, where rather than focusing on how to differentiate themselves from the competition or ‘obsess over telling the right story’, they focus solely on their truths. Telling the real story is what matters.

The book itself tells you most of what you need to know in the first couple of chapters, and there’s no denying the value in what Jiwa offers up. What follows though, is a vast number of short ‘case studies’ on what she calls ‘story-driven’ companies doing things the right way. In the interest of being completely transparent: it drags and contains far too many examples to leave a lasting impact and so I skipped about half of them… But, the real gem of the book is in the last chapter so make sure you persevere to the end.

Anyway, my takeaways:

Don’t be like VW

Almost the entire first part of the book revolves around the Volkswagen scandal of a few years back and how it was their drive simply to ‘win’ that led them there. I’ve written about this more extensively in my post ‘Pursue meaning not more‘. Instead, Jiwa suggests that those who are driven by a story and sticking to their truth, are less likely to create a culture where good people do bad things.

Don’t read this book if you think VW has nothing to be ashamed of. Or rather, do – you’ll soon change your mind.

Align story with strategy

This is something I’ve banged on about a couple of times already. So let’s be clear:

You. Have. To. Back. Up. What. You. Say. About. Yourself. With. Actions.

Jiwa does a great job of explaining that often brands start out with a grand vision for the future, but without a plan to make it a reality, it can be easy to focus on succeeding in the present and taking your eye off the long-term goal. Having a strategy that aligns to your backstory and the future you’re looking to build, is the way you’re going deliver. Your strategy is your ‘how’ – the stepping stones to achieving your vision. Make sure they are aligned or you risk failure.

(pp. 69-71)

Invest in yourself

This is the gem.

It has nothing really to do with branding, and everything to do with your own personal story. The whole chapter is excellent and beautifully-written. I can’t quote it all but it feels particularly relevant. I’m just going to quote part of it here, so if you take nothing else from ‘Story Driven‘, remember this:

“We spend a lot of time looking at our reflection […] to wonder how our appearance will be perceived and what we need to do to perfect it. Our days are consumed with measuring up in all kinds of arbitrary, superficial, ungrounded ways. What would happen if we spent as much time reflecting – wondering about and working on the inside, nurturing the things that make us who we are?”

And while we’re here, there’s also this zinger:

“Exceptional performance is not a result of expending the most effort. The secret to being exceptional is the small choices we make moment-to-moment.”

Sorry it’s a bit of a lengthy one!


Pursue meaning, not ‘more’.

Back in 2015, the story broke. For the last six years, the engineers at Volkswagen had manipulated the system, deliberately fudging the numbers on their diesel engines during emissions testing to comply with US standards. In reality, they were emitting up to 40x more air pollution when on the roads. The scandal ended up costing VW billions of dollar in fines, an immediate 10% drop in share prices, a knock on global sales, and almost irreparable damage to its reputation and credibility.


Over the last week or so I’ve been reading ‘Story Driven‘ by Bernadette Jiwa. She explains her ideas on what drove the engineers at VW to deception:

“The company’s goal was to beat the competition and be number one. […] Innovation, increased sales, increased pre-tax return on sales, and being a ‘top employer’ were listed as the means by which they would achieve this goal.”

According to Jiwa, VW was a prime example of a ‘competition-driven company’ – since 2011 their entire focus was on being a ‘market leader’ and everything they did was geared towards this. As a consequence, the company culture forced honest, smart, and dedicated people to hit their metrics. Meet your targets and you’ll be alright.

The problem with playing to win

When you’re sole aim is to win – to make money, or increase turnover – you’re shaping the culture of your organisation. If you’re not careful, you can create an environment where people start to believe the wrong thing is the right thing to do. The effects may not be immediately apparent, but over time these ‘wrong things’ stack up and the cracks in your identity and reputation begin to appear. And when you’re exposed, like VW, it will all be too late.

Don’t try to matter by winning. Win by mattering.

Meaning Economy

In the 50’s and 60’s, people created value by working with their hands – an Industrial Economy. We then moved into an era where our ‘heads’ or ideas produced value – an Information Economy. Then came the computer and all of a sudden we were designing, coding and connecting through technology. But today, we’re in the age of the Meaning Economy, where the brands that thrive allow their people to work with their hearts as well as their heads and hands.

The Meaning Economy has also produced a new kind of consumer – one who is drawn to the brand who shares their values and vision for the world. We are more likely to part with our money if we feel an emotional connection with the company we’re giving it to.

Pursue meaning, not ‘more’

More often than not business owners eyes light up at the numbers. The balance sheet rules all. Sales figures are King. And thou shalt all be judged by P&Ls.

That world has changed.

If you can take the time to sit down and figure out your company’s authentic vision for the future. A change you want to make in the world, underpinned by a clear set of values you’re willing to champion, that has the power to engage and motivate staff internally and connect emotionally with your customers, you will win. Your ‘why’ and reason for existing *is* your competitive advantage, not the unnecessary meddling of ‘marketing types’.

Don’t make a VW-sized mistake. Pursue meaning, not ‘more’.


You can a previous post I’ve done on ‘more more more’ culture here.

Pick me


It’s important for brands to differentiate themselves. We all know that. But why is it that ‘different’ often takes on the same form?

To my, albeit non-expert, eye it looks like almost everyone wants to be “more”. More funny. More on-trend. More innovative. More open. More consumer-focused. More trustworthy. More of an expert. More creative. More bespoke. More specialised.

But is that really the truth?

On the flipside, there are those who stand out by being “less”. Less corporate. Less stern. Less financially-driven. Less typical. Less ordinary. Less one-size-fits-all. Less secretive. Less stuffy.

But isĀ thatĀ the truth either?

Being distinct becomes a game of top trumps: pick me; we’re the ones for you; I’m your guy; we’re more this, or less that than the rest. But with all this focus on how you’re perceived vs. the competition, where is the time to discover what you actually are?

What’s wrong with “this is who we are and we’re an entirely credible solution to your problem”? It might not sound sexy, but ‘who you are’ is all that matters in this game.

Marketing and branding should magnify the truth, not manipulate the message. The aim isn’t to get people to believe us. It’s to give the right people something to believe in.


Thanks to Bernadette Jiwa and Rory Stewart for this inspiration on this.