Second symposium on storytelling in and for business

Treforest campus on sunny day

Telling the Story of Business 2021: Stories of Survival, held on Wednesday 13 January, focuses on storytelling in and for business. 

This web-based symposium will build on the success of last year’s event, attended by delegates from business and academic institutions from a wide geographical area. 

For 2021, the theme is Stories of Survival, which will allow delegates to present papers based upon problem-solving in difficult situations, where storytelling either forms part of the delivery of the presentation, or is part of the solution to the problem as a research method. 

If you are interested in attending the online event, please contact Dr Elizabeth Lloyd-Parkes.


Please click on the link in the title to watch the video

Umair Usman: Navigating the great Lockdown: Perspectives from the mind of a Pakistani Owner Manager

All businesses and entrepreneurs go through difficult trading periods such as market disruptions and recessions. There are certain psychological strengths expressed by owner managers of businesses that help them navigate these difficult times. This is an autoethnograhphic narrative enquiry to the identify the psychological strengths that helped my father, a Pakistani family business owner-manager, through the great lockdown of 2020. The inquiry is retrospective in nature where I recall what I observed, and experienced were psychological strengths that were inherent in my father and supported him, and the business, in navigating through this catastrophic event. 

The study highlights the importance of entrepreneurial psychological strengths in a Pakistani family business setting that is in the midst of a crisis, all through the perspective of a family business member rather than a removed researcher looking from outside. The findings can be of immense importance to entrepreneurs and family business owners that will be wanting to navigate the business cycle and other catastrophic events that inevitably all businesses face. It will also be of importance for entrepreneurial training to help ready aspiring business people for the real world. At the end, there is a call for further replicated studies around the world as well as longitudinal studies in various business settings to further the understanding of the psychology of a successful entrepreneur in today’s complex and uncertain business world.

Julie Kissick: Adapting and diversifying to keep a small business viable in the year of a global pandemic

Britain’s high streets are battling for survival as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many big-name brands under threat. The Centre for Retail Research (CRR), revealed that retailers from Laura Ashley to Debenhams, Bensons for Beds to DW Sports have all called in the administrators during the pandemic. Many well-known companies were negatively impacted by the lack of footfall due to lockdowns and consumers changing their shopping habits because of the virus. However, research from Barclays Corporate Banking reveals that 15% of UK companies have created roles specifically to cater to an increase in digital sales and boost online capacity. It also shows that retailers are looking to localise supply chains and increase support from communities.

It is within that context that I wish to share the story of the survival of a business which was forced to diversify and adapt as a result of the pandemic. The business is a gin company which launched in Swansea in 2018. The husband and wife team behind it have made significant changes to the production and distribution of their products in the last seven months. (Ansoff matrix). Alcohol retailer Threshers claimed that the alcohol industry had experienced a ‘ginnaissance’ in recent years, predicting an increase in gin sales of 37% by 2021, and the Swansea-based business was certainly reaping the benefits of the popularity of the drink.

The company has an eco-friendly ethos and at the start of the year its focus was on the launch in February of a ‘refill station’ at one of the local wine merchants, which if successful, would be rolled out across Wales. The plan was to extend this to having similar ‘refill stations’ available at similar outlets, offering an eco friendly way of buying their products while ‘saving money and raising awareness of the power of reusing and refilling’. However, within a month the plan had to be put on hold because of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns and the company owners were forced to rethink their business plan and priorities.

Following conversations with friends and family and with the desire to maintain the values of the company as family friendly and community focused, they took an entrepreneurial approach to the problem, looking closely at their products, the market, their premises and manufacturing capabilities as well as the sales platforms they were using. (Morrish, 2011). They diversified both via the launch of an online sales and distribution platform and in terms of the products they offered.

They wanted to support the efforts of the frontline workers as well as their local community by using their distillery to produce hand sanitiser. They then reduced the size of their gin bottles, which meant they were easier and cheaper to post and recently they launched a set of gift packaged bottles aimed at the Christmas market. They have also launched (October 2020), a ‘bespoke virtual gin garden events package’, which they hope will replace Christmas parties while allowing participants to gather ‘together’, while in their own homes.

This is an example of business diversification similar to thousands no doubt. Firms with an entrepreneurial mindset display commitment to innovation, risk-taking and pro-activity (Matsumo et al., 2002). It remains to be seen whether this approach will secure the future of this and other companies beyond the current crisis.

Megan Austin and Natalie Jones: A Story of Survival: How societal and environmental issues shape marketing segmentation strategies and how John Lewis overcomes the challenges they bring

Many businesses struggle in the face of societal change and must adapt swiftly to ensure that it can survive within turbulent and unpredictable circumstances. John Lewis’ infamous Christmas adverts have paved their way to successful brand recognition and customer anticipation. Over the last decade the company has grown substantially despite the many challenges presented by societal concerns and the surrounding environment. This paper looks at segmentation marketing strategies within John Lewis, particularly during the festive season and how the issues within society have impacted the outcome. From a storytelling viewpoint of the consumer we answer the question: How has John Lewis survived throughout unpredictable situations via its Christmas marketing segmentation strategies from the viewpoint of the consumer?

Market segmentation concept divides the complete market into subsets of consumers with a similar behaviour, demands and lifestyle. These individual concepts can radically change due to pressures and conflicts within society, environmental turbulence, and unexpected pandemics. By examining the annual televised advert, focusing on customer segmentation and societal events, we determine whether John Lewis deliberately alters their strategy solely for sales or to meet the demands of societal pressures and environmental challenges.

John Lewis’ segment strategy tailors to different requirements of the consumer. By using a more “heartfelt” approach to create awareness of societal concerns within their marketing campaigns, John Lewis have managed to capture the attention of consumers. From moving away from the cliché of stereotypes and centralising the true meaning of Christmas. They use a unique understanding of how the consumer thinks, feels and considers as entertainment value. John Lewis has shifted with the environmental turbulence but maintained the innate messages that come along with the Festive Season that consumers hold in high regard.

Bahar Ceyhan: A consumer’s autoethnographic account of changed behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic

This paper is about an international student’s shopping experience, where the research is evaluation of Covid-19 pandemic crisis and its effect on changing habits of the consumer in question. An attention is drawn to psychological reactance theory (Clee & Wicklund, 1980), which states that when the consumer perceives a risk to product availability the consumer feels a loss of control therefore the supposed need for the product increases. 

The paper will explore the personal narrative approach to autoethnographic methodology which will offer a view of the lived experience of the author focusing on her personal experience (Berry, 2007; Goodall, 2006; Tillmann, 2009) during the pandemic. It is the attempt of personal narratives to comprehend the self as it interacts and crosses into the culture and the society it belongs to. This is a methodology inviting readers to the world of the author so that the readers can understand and reflect on what they have read (Ellis, 2004, p.46).

Andre Clark: Telling the story of the firm: Ethical implications on both demand and supply sides

As an economist I like telling stories; it makes economic theory palatable to students who aren’t too keen on maths and models, and it works to convey complexity, nuance, and interconnectedness in a way that simple formal models can’t. However, as Chair of a company (BCW) I have argued against telling the story of the firm for reasons derived directly from economic theory, since -unlike other aspects of marketing- telling a story inevitably implies subjectivity. For example, while we could market candles (the firm’s main product line) in terms of value for money by reference to facts such as price and burn times, we can’t do the same reduction to a story without losing the very essence of what it means to tell a story. This matters since economic theory tells us that interpretations are distortions that reduce the common good. 

A firm can of course select facts to make other forms of marketing unethical too, but a story is intrinsically distorting in a way that other forms of marketing need not be since even the telling of a ‘warts and all’ story by virtue of its very honesty could make potential purchasers form some kind of emotional attachment to the firm and its story, and thereby undermine the primacy of product in the purchasing decision. This has a clear implication -there is an ethical dimension to the very act of telling the story of the firm regardless of how honestly it is done. Indeed, I would go further and argue that it can never be done objectively any more than any other interpretation of historical events and the very act of referring to the story of the firm rather than the history of the firm risks making a virtue out of a vice.

In practice what happened when we decided a couple of years ago to start telling the story of the firm (as a means of keeping up with this bandwagon), was that the biggest effect was on staff morale (supply rather than demand). Since many of the staff knew the story anyway it came as something of a surprise to find that staff were so positive and enthusiastic about telling the firm’s story (which we did in the press and on TV), and it seems to me that this pride effect is less of a distortion since workers are likely to know more about the truth of the story and the emotional response it warrants. With this in mind we decided to tell our Covid story, even though it includes the tragedy of losing a member of staff, since it also underlines our role as a part of our community’s struggle as it encompasses our giving away of free soap through our retail outlets and via local medical centres, as well as our provision of take-away food to isolating individuals on a non-profit basis (at the direction of the county council).

Tina Thomas: Pain, suffering, triumph and disaster…storytelling and the consumer journey of an Ironman triathlete

Through the use of a critical autoethnography, this research explores the use of storytelling by ultra-endurance athletes throughout their consumer journey in the multimillion-pound world of the sport of Ironman triathlon. Storytelling is pertinent to Ironman from its inception to current day – where stories of epic beginnings, iconic moments and incredible achievements inspire and drive athletes across the word to believe ‘Anything is Possible’.

The consumer decision journey can be split into three distinct phases: pre-purchase; purchase and post-purchase and these distinct phases provide a framework for this research. Through autoethnography, the significant role storytelling plays throughout each phase of the consumer journey is highlighted - including during the pre-purchase phase (where triathletes are inspired to attempt the distance by listening to stories from Ironman triathletes regarding their struggles or accomplishments; both through personal social connections and online searches); during the purchase phase (once an event has been selected, reinforcing the feelings of pleasure through online searches for stories (race reports) of the purchased event); and finally, during the post purchase phase (looking for validation of the experience through the stories of others participating in the same event).

Autoethnography is an under-used research method within the business environment, and this research aims to illustrate how such a method can shed light on the importance of the individual’s consumer behaviour throughout the customer decision journey; specifically within the context of how storytelling can influence consumption of particular ultra-endurance sports events.

Findings also suggest there may be justification (in the case of new Ironman events) for investment in athletes swimming/biking/running a new event course in order to provide personal stories and insight to fill the void of those races without any stories; which might lead to an uptake in earlier registrations within the ever-increasing number of new events on the annual race calendar. The study provides implications for further research in the area by carrying out narrative interviews to explore other athlete experiences, in order to investigate the phenomenon on a wider scale.

Sarah Lees: The Little Chair

On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing and injuring factory workers. In the months and years that followed, this event focused the public lens on poor practice in the fashion industry’s manufacturing sites around the world. This tragic event seven years ago has since become the pivotal change maker across this decade to the education of fashion and sustainability urging many practitioners and academics into a call of action. (Gander. K Newsweek 2018).

In 2013 The researcher undertook a MRes study after a long career working in the Fashion Industry. A set of stories emerged to frame the researchers motivation to study and uses observational examples such as ‘ Was it just another day on the buying floor?-the day the Rana Plaza collapsed’, ‘The Little Chair’ and “Fashion Revolution Day” gained across a career as designer and buyer.

All of these stories talk of survival for either of the factory workers, factory owner, brand owner and the designer, what on one of these stories highlights is the long lasting effect of finding the little chair within a garment factory had on the designer in an eventual choice to be able to freely share this experience within an academic career many years later. The story highlights the directness of child labour being evident albeit almost hidden from a customer’s visit and the direct acknowledgement of such poor practice being conducted within the factory in the origin manufacturing sites based in Bangladesh used by the British fashion industry. Finding the little chair directly impacted the early career designer’s awareness to both the environment and social injustice of the industry’s undisclosed and ineffective monitoring.

Storytelling can frame larger pieces of work by using personal motivations for study. In this one story of the neglected little chair found under a giant industrial knitting machine on a factory tour uses the observations of an early career designer travelling to manufacturing sites around the world for fashion businesses and highlights the injustice and reality to children working in the garment industry. The set of storytelling aided further investigations into the elements of care which framed an eventual masters study methodology and evolved the concept of transferal of engagement to uncomfortable issues.

Morna Manson: Stories of deviant consumer tribes and their impact on SMEs

In today’s contemporary commercial environment, businesses are facing a conflict. For so long the customer has always been right – the customer is king (Keat and Abercrombie, 1991). Employees in service roles typically find themselves subservient to their customers (Daunt and Harris, 2013). An implicit understanding has developed over time of the expected roles of customer and employee, which, with the focus very much on pleasing the customer, has resulted in a confident customer believing that they can behave or misbehave as they choose (Fisk et al, 2010; Fullerton and Punj, 2004). Deviant consumer behaviour can take many forms, including verbal and physical abuse, theft, slander, fraud. Deviant consumers may be able to manipulate their consumer tribe, and thus the impact of such behaviours is magnified tenfold. Many SMEs are owner managed, and very often these owner-managers have neither the skills or additional emotional support to deal with an incident of deviant consumer tribal behaviour, which can be devastating, both financially and psychologically. 

Autoethnography is a particularly useful way to gather and explore this research because of the emotive nature of the data being documented. Capturing these stories provide a depth of data, rich in anecdotes and emotion. Critical autoethnography works particularly well within this research study because it allows each business to tell their own unique story, highlighting their differences rather than looking for similarities, which traditional interviewing techniques may do. It is often a cathartic process for the owner-manager, allowing them the time to process the situation and their emotions, and reflect on how things may have turned out differently. Through the use of autoethnography and the rich, insightful and vibrant data which results from this process, this study will help to identify ways in which the supplier can better manage these deviant tribal consumers, and attempt to establish management coping strategies.

John Barker: Tales of the Start-up: Entrepreneurial Narrative Journeys in the Pandemic

The aim of this research is to explore the emerging in-practice concept of COVID-proofing entrepreneurship (Fairlie, 2020; Bartik et. al., 2020) within the South Wales economy through a storytelling research approach (Rooney, Lawlor, & Rohan, 2016). This is through narratives of the entrepreneurial experience (Hopp & Sonderegger, 2015) and how the global pandemic has influenced start-up culture in the region. The research has involved 10 potential student entrepreneurs looking to launch an enterprise and how their initial ideas have evolved and been altered by the particular social and economic pressure of the global pandemic. The study employed a case study methodology (Swanborn, 2010) with an auto-ethnographic approach (Ellis, Adams, Bochner 2011) to capture perspectives on business creation and ideation in the current climate of COVID-19. This empirical evidence was supplemented and compared with the narrative views of established business owners in the SME community captured through for the purposes of comparison between the narratives of those starting a business and those maintaining a business.

The early findings of this autoethnographic research indicate that entrepreneurs are experiencing significant shifts and challenges with creating businesses due to the restrictions of COVID-19. Participants indicate changes in physical locations and business modelling of their potential business with lifestyle and retail start-ups indicating the greatest shifts. The impact of the pandemic has also seen observed fluctuations in entrepreneurial self-efficacy (Drnovšek, Wincent, Cardon, 2010) and entrepreneurial intent (Engle et al., 2010) in the narratives of these individuals hoping to start business. In comparison, established business owners describe similar changes aligned with incremental innovation (Westley and Antadze, 2010) and also highlight the speed (Afuah and Tucci, 2012) of digital innovation needed for their business sustainability.

In summary, this autoethnographic research process highlights the changes and adaptations that entrepreneurs will make during the pandemic and how the influence of national and local restrictions in society influence the start-up process on both a practical level through business modelling and activity, and on a human level with entrepreneurial self-efficacy and intent. 

The findings of this study allow us to understand through storytelling on a subjective level how entrepreneurship functions under these restrictions and offers learning for both the start-up community and enterprise educators. The implications for more established businesses include an understanding of the influence of incremental innovation and how further period of lockdowns and business restrictions can be counteracted through technological innovation. Options for future study include the opportunity to complete comparative case studies in other similar UK regions or in countries such as Denmark and Sweden where restrictions for entrepreneurs and wider society are less restrictive.

Ian Rodwell: ‘Without it I would go insane’: venting stories and smokers’ corner

In my early, small-scale PhD research on the places that attract organisational storytelling, participants in the two organisations studied have — through their photographs and interviews — identified liminal spaces (changing rooms, receptions, cafés, smoking areas, pubs, music rooms, kitchen areas and toilets) as the most fertile.

 In analysing the work stories perform in these spaces, an emerging theme is the use of stories to defuse tension, purge emotions and come to terms with troubling experiences. Storytelling is identified as a means of emotional and psychic survival. One interviewee, soon to retire, recounts how a colleague, learning of her departure, laments: ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do when you leave, who am I going to talk to.’ Without the opportunity to tell such stories, survival is compromised.

A thread of research recognises the release stories provide (Fletcher, 1996; Tangherlini, 2000; Watson and Watson, 2012). And such ‘release’ was mirrored in the participants’ language: stories were a way to ‘let it out’, ‘get things of my chest’ ‘blow off steam’ and ‘vent’. It is as if without stories, the self would either implode or explode from the pressure exerted within and without. Through venting such stories also help to make sense retrospectively of distressing or disturbing events. They impose coherence and structure (Weick, 2005). From my own practitioner perspective, that of knowledge management, the information provided can subsequently help the listener diagnose, then intervene and problem solve (Patriotta, 2003).

In my research, the cathartic power of stories was exemplified in ‘smokers’ corner’. On this ‘stinky’, ‘wet’, windy’, ‘uriny’ (sic) street corner people would gather and express their concerns during an organisational restructuring (see also, Courpasson, 2017). It was also where two participants would go to vent their own frustrations and take colleagues who were upset. One noted: ‘without it I would go insane’.

Smokers’ corner also suggests the role of liminal space in affording such stories of survival, endurance and resistance. A space on the margins (of both the street and the organisation), it blurs work and non-work roles, carries no expectations of what should take place there (Iedema et al, 2010), is devoid of ownership (Dale and Burrell, 2008), supports no hierarchy (Arya, 2011) and, consequently, is ‘mostly hidden in plain sight’ (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, 2011:7). For one participant, going there was like ‘crossing a threshold so you can switch on a different part of yourself’. Seemingly, in this betwixt and between space, the corporate mask can slip. Liberated from the constraints of hierarchy and sanctioned behaviour (Turner, 1969), personal and sensitive stories are free to be told.

But a shadow falls over the research. With Covid-19, both organisations are mostly working from home. As my research continues, I now intend to explore if such stories continue to be told (to what extent have they survived?) and, if so, which spaces they have migrated to. Ironically, in these difficult times, such stories may never be so needed.

Samantha Butcher: Consumer Behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic: an autoethnographic study

Autoethnographies allow for qualitative research from a personal experience. In this case it can be used to help understand how consumer behaviour has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, from a 21-year-old’s perspective. It uses Kirk, Peck & Swain’s (2005) notion to discuss how competition between consumers can change the process of shopping in this unexpected new environment. Additionally, it draws upon Vartanian, Herman & Polivy’s (2007) theory of consumer awareness that may arise during this time where individuals may have to be cautious of their spending habits. 

The findings consist of consumer consumption changing due to various personal factors such as shops closing; competitive consumer behaviour due to stockpiling; awareness of consumption levels due to lack of income; online shopping; helping local businesses and brand awareness of companies who did not pay their staff during the pandemic. The provided information on this can lead to new understandings on this topic that may be useful for businesses

Lorraine Warren: Restorying rural small towns in New Zealand

Many people are surprised by the appearance of small towns in rural New Zealand, particularly off the beaten tourist track. Many were built rapidly in the latter part of the 19th century, and comprise mainly wooden buildings, with a few 'prestige' stone buildings for banks and civic buildings. First time visitors sometimes see them as having the appearance of 'pioneer' towns, reminiscent of films about the Wild West of America. Populations are often less than a 1000 and many are in decline, as people leave for larger settlements. They were often built to provide a workforce for a primary industries endeavour such as a logging mill, a flax mill, or a meat packing plant. As those industries have either died or consolidated, their host town can be left without its raison d'etre. 

Economic pressures are exacerbated by the need to upgrade buildings - particularly anything lardge or made out of stone - to meet current regulations, which demand strength to give protection in earthquakes. The costs of this can be prohibitive, and can affect a whole 'Main St', where large buildings tend to be clustered. Spoonley (2016) has written positively about the need to 'reboot' such regions, yet others, such as Equab (2014) have been more negative, coining the phrase 'Zombie Towns', suggesting that they are unworthy of further investment, and should therefore be abandoned. New Zealand small towns therefore, are far more fragile, and perhaps ephemeral, than is perhaps perceived by those who are more used to towns having older roots, such as in the UK for example. While governments create policy at the macro level, the towns, and the people in them, have responded in various ways to try and ensure the survival of their towns. In this piece, I discuss how storytelling, in different ways has become part of the struggle for survival.

Many towns have for example, playfully aligned themselves to a local icon of production, such as the Ohakune carrot, or the Taihape gumboot (Kearns and Lewis, 2019). Of course, carrots are grown in many places, and gumboots are made elsewhere too, but the adoption of such brands can place a town on the tourist map, hosting carnivals and suchlike in honour of their choden icon. The narrative identity work carried out to achieve such recognition can yield results, but Kearns and Lewis (2019) point out that such 'toponymic commodification' can displace other stories, and such placemaking can be another form of colonial displacement. Other towns have become associated with the identity of particular entrepreneurs, such as Shannon, with the Oosh! brand of women's clothing produced by Suzie Johnson, who came to Shannon with '$5 and a dream' more than a decade ago (Anderson, Warren and Bensemann, 2019), but has recently closed down, leaving empty shops and factories in her wake.

Summarising, the piece examines, with many images, how storytelling can be part of the placemaking struggle for survival - but it can also be a two-edged sword. The choice of story, who is included and who is not has serious implications in areas that are already struggling. Similarly, the alignment with one individual can in itself be ephemeral - and then what is left.