In 1887, John W. Nordstrom, at 16 years old, left Sweden for the United States. He arrived in New York with $5 in his pocket, unable to speak a word of English.
The young immigrant labored in mines and logging camps as he crossed the country to California and Washington. In 1897, he headed north to Alaska and the Klondike in search of gold. Two years later, he returned to Seattle with a $13,000 stake, ready to settle down.
Carl F. Wallin, a Seattle shoemaker Nordstrom had met in Alaska, offered him a partnership in a shoe store. In 1901, they opened their first store, Wallin & Nordstrom, on Fourth and Pike in Seattle.
This story from the Nordstrom Company History website page is a great example of how narratives work and what they can do.
Stories back narratives
The narrative of the Klondike Gold Rush was, “You can go North and get reach fast. Others have done it. Will you dare take your chance and join the gold rush?”.
It was strong enough to make over 100,000 prospectors migrate to the Klondike region of the Yukon, in north-western Canada, because they had heard stories like John Nordstrom’s that supported the narrative. It made them believe that a better life was possible.
A narrative is a call to action
People from around the world were drawn to Seattle, believing that they would find wealth and adventure.
When a narrative is powerful, people take extraordinary measures. The emotional resonance of the belief system it creates will ignite passion. A narrative calls people to action.
This call to action exists through four dimensions. In the case of the Klondike Gold Rush, this is what it looked like:
- Inside each person: deep inside, people felt excited enough to envision a new future for themselves. It spoke to their hearts and minds and changed their own personal narrative.
- Outside each person: people took crazy risks, for better or for worse. The narrative was also reinforced by the media, sometimes inspiring crazy schemes.
- Inside the community: for prospectors and merchants, the narrative took the form of new cultural norms and values, changing the rules of the game by which people collaborated.
- Outside the community: for the rest of the world, the narrative had a big impact, positive and negative. The Klondike Gold Rush is credited for helping the United States out of a depression. Still, it had a horrific impact on the local environment, causing massive soil erosion and water contamination.
A narrative impacts the whole ecosystem
The Klondike Gold Rush was a regional narrative, but it also applied to the businesses that benefited from helping the prospectors on their mission: transportation companies, general stores, outfitters, etc.
The narrative made a few prospectors rich, but many more people made their fortunes thanks to those taking the risk to go prospect in the North.
When people get excited about an opportunity that is bigger than everyone, they will sacrifice a lot to belong to the movement.
When you say that your company needs a better story, are you sure you wouldn’t be better off with a better narrative?