A medieval countryside scene of fox, deer and horse

Is your business an epic fairy tale or a modern fantasy?

growth management strategy Feb 01, 2022

Time is a funny thing. It is an omnipotent force of nature beyond our control. And yet it is also a man made concept. While nature follows the same temporal patterns, it has no clocks, timetables or deadlines. Despite our attempts to control time, we are all at is mercy. Our sleep is dictated by circadian rhythms. Our energies conform to a chronotype: we are either larks or night owls, bears or wolves, peaking at a particular phase of the day. The differences between these patterns and behaviours can be instructive.

For example, what is the difference between a fairy tale and fantasy? They are both ‘fantastic’ stories that share common elements, such as characters, magic and antagonists that necessitate a temporary suspension of disbelief. According to the scholar Maria Nikolajeva, what differentiates them is their chronotope. Chronotopes are unique combinations of time and place, the temporal and geographical setting of the story. Fairy tales, like epic and classical literature, have only one chronotope. The characters and stories occur in a single setting, that mythical place of ‘once upon a time’. Little Red Riding Hood lives by a dark wood and continues to do so after the demise of the Big Bad Wolf. Fairy tale worlds are self-contained and immutable: both the characters and the reader accept them for what they are.

In contrast, fantasy stories, like much of modern literature, have multiple chronotopes. They begin in one and transition to another. A great example is Harry Potter, who begins his story and maintains a presence in our contemporary world, but whose destiny plays out in a magical world of wizards and muggles. Each world may be as well defined as that of the fairy tale, but since there is movement between them, the overall effect for the characters and reader is one of ambiguity. We are invited to participate rather than to accept, and imagine the possibilities as these worlds overlap and collide.

Businesses also conform to chronotypes. Some businesses are clearly fairy tales. Slack, sector specialists like Farewill, and, arguably, most social media platforms exist in just a single chronotope. You can’t imagine using Slack outside a team-based working environment. Instead, its product, like that of Facebook, ebay or Clubhouse, cleverly creates its own world that attracts diverse audiences. Those audiences must learn and follow the established rules of the game.  

Other businesses have multiple chronotopes. Ecosystem-based players with diverse offerings like Apple and Amazon, seek to be relevant in different combinations of time and space. But even products and services with only a single use case can have multiple chronotopes. Take for instance Evernote, Spotify, Docusign or Figma. They have a core service aimed at a core audience, but they also have developed wider relevance to multiple audiences and contexts. They are fantasy companies, operating with more nuance and ambiguity.

What is your business’s chronotope? There is no right or wrong answer. Every company mentioned here is big and successful. Clearly both fairy tale and fantasy chronotopes can succeed. But it helps to understand which your business is for two reasons.

Firstly, it will determine your proposition development and marketing. The long standing aim of marketing has been to identify and own a single core audience, specifically a use case for that segment. If your product or service also exists in a single chronotope, it makes the task of positioning and communicating that much easier. ‘We do THIS, and whenever you need THIS, we are the best’. There is no point in chasing other potential audiences governed by different chronotopes. Any ambiguity will not help you.

If your business exists in multiple chronotopes, then the marketing challenge is slightly harder. You need to appeal to the core segment, use case and chronotope, but also test your appeal with other combinations. Here not enough ambiguity will damage your efforts. You must appeal to shared needs and desires that are common across different segments and chronotypes. The way to do this is to develop and own a big, motivating idea that serves as your purpose, giving you clear focus and creating desire across a wide customer spectrum.

The second reason is that chronotopes could also unlock opportunities for growth. Most businesses start as fairy tales, with a clear focus. Adjusting your chronotope is one way of finding your product market fit. If you are struggling with one configuration, you can always try a completely different one. If B2C isn’t working, why not try B2B? If small customers aren’t delivering the right margin levels, try big ones. If you developed your proposition for one setting, try it in another. That’s how the world discovered Viagra.

And if you have a product or service that can support multiple chronotopes, then transitioning from one to many needs to be part of your roadmap. Not every business can transition or indeed has to, but if you can, then managing these multiple chronotopes is fundamental to reaching mass markets and realising your potential.

So ultimately it doesn’t matter if you are Little Red Riding Hood or Harry Potter. What does matter is that you know which you are, and act accordingly. There’s a reason why shape shifting Voldemort is not the villain in Cinderella, and why Harry Potter doesn’t just need to axe the Big Bad Wolf.


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