Narrative Violation

A narrative violation is a term often used in the context of startup investing and venture capitalism, but in this post, I will discuss a simple step by step framework on how to use narrative violation to your advantage.

What is a narrative violation and why it matters?

In simple terms, it refers to a situation where a person or a company defies common expectations or established beliefs, thus “violating” the standard or typical narrative.

For example, in the startup world, a narrative violation could occur when a company achieves great success in an industry or market that was generally perceived as unattractive or non-viable.

Many successful startups, in fact, can be considered narrative violations because they often challenge conventional wisdom and succeed despite skepticism or disbelief from others.

Narrative violations are interesting because they can lead to significant opportunities.

They’re often the result of novel thinking, innovation, or unique approaches to problem-solving, which can result in outsized rewards for those who are willing to back these “violators” early on.

That said, they can also be risky.

Since these scenarios defy expectations, they may not align with established strategies or models for success. It takes a certain level of insight, boldness, and, sometimes, a tolerance for failure to embrace and capitalize on narrative violations.

Narrative violations can take many forms across different industries, fields, and cultures.

Here are some examples that may give you a clearer idea:

Tesla: When Tesla first started, it violated the narrative that electric cars could never be as powerful, efficient, or desirable as gasoline-powered cars. The company faced a lot of skepticism early on, with many believing that electric vehicles would always be a niche market at best. However, Tesla’s success has helped redefine the narrative around electric vehicles.

Netflix: In the early 2000s, the prevailing narrative was that people would always want to rent physical DVDs and that streaming movies and TV shows over the internet would never catch on due to quality and bandwidth issues. Netflix violated this narrative by transitioning to a streaming model and later creating their own content, changing the landscape of home entertainment forever.

Cryptocurrencies: When Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies first emerged, they violated the narrative that “real” money was something issued and controlled by governments or central banks. The rise of digital currencies has forced a re-evaluation of what money can be.

Remote work illustration. (Knut/Adobe Stock) 23remotework

Remote Work: The COVID-19 pandemic forced a narrative violation with respect to working from home. The prevailing narrative was that productivity would suffer if employees were allowed to work from home. However, during the pandemic, many businesses were forced to shift to remote work and found that productivity remained stable or even increased. This has forced many companies to reevaluate their stance on remote work.

Plant-based Meats: Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods violated the narrative that plant-based meats could never taste like real meat and would never appeal to mainstream consumers. Despite this, they have seen significant success in the market.

Using Narrative Violation in Your Life

Implementing narrative violation as a strategy in your business or your personal life involves challenging the established norms and expectations in your industry.

This approach can be high risk but also high reward.

Here is a basic framework to consider:

  1. Identify the Current Narrative: To violate a narrative, you first need to understand it. Look at the assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that are currently held in your industry. These might be about how products are developed, how services are delivered, who the customers are, how they behave, etc.
  2. Question the Status Quo: Once you’ve identified the prevailing narrative, start questioning it. Are things done a certain way just because that’s how they’ve always been done? What if you approached it from a different angle? Use creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and deep market understanding to challenge these notions.
  3. Develop an Alternate Narrative: Create a compelling alternative to the current narrative. This is your vision for how things could be. It should be innovative, feasible, and most importantly, it should offer substantial benefits over the status quo to justify the change.
  4. Test Your Narrative: Before fully launching your alternative narrative, test it. This could be done through market research, prototyping, or small-scale launches. Gather feedback and make necessary adjustments.
  5. Communicate Your Narrative: When you’re ready to launch, it’s vital to effectively communicate your new narrative to your target audience. You need to convince them that this new narrative is not only viable, but also beneficial. This can be done through marketing, advertising, public relations, social media, etc.
  6. Persevere and Adapt: Violating a narrative often meets resistance at first. Be prepared for setbacks and criticism. However, stick to your vision while also being flexible and adaptable. As the market evolves, so should your narrative.
  7. Measure and Refine: Keep track of how your new narrative is being received and what impact it’s having on your business. Use this data to refine and improve your narrative as needed.

Here is a hypothetical example of my own business, a marketing agency that serves eCommerce brands with email marketing

Some of the current narratives along with possible narrative violations:

  1. Current Narrative: Email marketing is primarily about promoting products and deals.
    • Narrative Violation: Email marketing is about building a long-term relationship with customers. Instead of just promoting products, use email to share stories, offer advice, solicit feedback, and make customers feel valued.
  2. Current Narrative: A higher frequency of emails leads to more sales.
    • Narrative Violation: Less is more. Fewer, but higher quality, personalized, and engaging emails lead to stronger customer relationships and ultimately more sales.
  3. Current Narrative: The success of email marketing is measured in click-through rates and conversions.
    • Narrative Violation: The success of email marketing is measured in the depth of engagement and long-term customer loyalty. Look at metrics like customer lifetime value, churn rate, and the level of interaction with your brand across multiple channels.
  4. Current Narrative: The best time to send emails is based on general studies about when people tend to check their email.
    • Narrative Violation: The best time to send emails is personalized for each customer based on their own habits and preferences.
  5. Current Narrative: Emails need to be professional and formal to reflect the seriousness of the brand.
    • Narrative Violation: Emails can be informal, fun, and reflect the personality of the brand. This can make them more relatable and engaging.
  6. Current Narrative: A/B testing is done primarily on subject lines and call to actions.
    • Narrative Violation: A/B testing can be used to explore deeper aspects of customer behavior and preferences, like the type of content they prefer (e.g., stories vs. product information), the tone of language, and even more personalized experiences.
  7. Current Narrative: Marketing agencies and eCommerce brands are separate entities with a client-service provider relationship.
    • Narrative Violation: The agency forms strategic partnerships with the brands they serve, potentially taking a small equity stake in the brand. This deepens the relationship between the agency and the brand, and ensures that both are working towards the same goal of long-term growth.
  8. Current Narrative: Marketing agencies only provide marketing services.
    • Narrative Violation: The agency offers integrated business consulting alongside marketing services. They help brands with business strategy, pricing, customer experience, and more. The agency’s role becomes that of a comprehensive business partner rather than just a marketing service provider.
  9. Current Narrative: Agencies work in isolation, delivering a service to the brand.
    • Narrative Violation: The agency creates a cooperative, community-based approach where multiple brands can learn from each other’s successes and failures. This could take the form of mastermind groups, collaborative workshops, or shared learning resources. This not only adds value to the brands but also helps build a loyal client base for the agency.
  10. Current Narrative: Proposals and pitches are usually delivered through formal meetings and written documents.
    • Narrative Violation: The agency could leverage virtual reality or augmented reality technologies to deliver interactive and immersive pitches. This would enable potential clients to experience their strategy and ideas in a more engaging and memorable way.


Narrative violation can help you question the status quo, find better ways to do something, and create new product and market opportunities where none existed.

What is one common narrative that you think you can violate?

What’s the one thing you know to be true, and yet the world thinks otherwise?

Tell me in the comments below

Published by

Sandeep Bansal

Markteing Strategist

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