Storytelling Wows, Sustainable Business Reports Bore

international development, NGOs, online technology, social media
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2nd June, 2017

Storytelling Wows, Sustainable Business Reports Bore

It’s 2018. Today’s customers are connected. They have information bombarding them through their various devices all day, every day. Consumers are more socially, ethically and environmentally conscious than ever before. Many businesses are rising to the demands of their clients by sourcing responsibly, paying fair wages, shrinking their footprints on the planet and trying to produce sustainably. This should be an important part of their brand stories, but how well is it really being communicated to the public?

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Art shows off the fruit that thrives in his urban garden in Makati City. This image is part of a story we told on efforts to ensure that communities in the Philippines and beyond are as climate-resilient and prepared for extreme weather as possible.
Annual sustainability reports are often readily available on corporate websites. All it takes is finding the right menu and sub-menu, a bit of scrolling, downloading the file, opening it… and reading through a report that runs to tens or even hundreds of pages. In this age of fast information flows and short attention spans, today’s customer is very unlikely to bother to read all that. And yet, when your business is making real strides in corporate responsibility and sustainability, it’s surely worth shouting about! So how can you get your message to stand out?

The answer is storytelling, specifically visual storytelling. Stories communicate values and real impact in a way that is digestible, memorable and relevant to your customers. Here are our top tips to help you utilise storytelling effectively.
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Your potential customers are constantly being bombarded by information from myriad sources across multiple devices. Most are sadly unlikely to have the time, or the inclination, to delve far into a 50-page sustainability report, especially if it’s densely packed with text.

Using storytelling: do’s and don’ts



1) Do find a single uniting story

One mistake companies regularly make with their sustainable business plans is that they don’t have a unifying narrative about their programmes. They may engage with various charities and have several sustainability projects, but they lack a common thread. To customers, this comes across as disingenuous.

Creating sustainable business programmes that incorporate your company's values will ring true as authentic to your customers. Having a united purpose makes it easier to weave a clear story surrounding your sustainable business practices. For smaller companies, this can be as simple as choosing one relevant and effective initiative. The Drop for Drop initiative of cause-based business People Water’s is authentic, elegant and directly related to its product. The company uses some of its profits to work with partner organisations to provide clean water and wells in parts of the world where there is a need for safer water.

2) Do stay relevant to your industry

Consumers want to see that your business cares about the problems unique to your industry. Luckily, this is a great opportunity to enter the world of storytelling and tell a story about your industry, your employees or your supply chain. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the brilliant Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign by Intermarché. It identified the problem that supplying fruits and vegetables to supermarkets creates a lot of waste, as the so-called ‘ugly’ products were being thrown out in favour of more aesthetically pleasing vegetables.
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Intermarché’s posters advertising its ‘ugly’ produce are clean, clever, eye-catching and – best of all – funny.
Intermarché’s answer was to remarket the ‘ugly’ products at discounted prices, and it campaigned to raise awareness about the implications of being wasteful. The company not only generated more income for itself and its suppliers but it received serious media attention, increased its social media presence and gained more sales, all while reducing food waste. It was a simple, yet catchy and inspiring story that really caught people’s eyes and inspired them. Intermarché was also able to tell stories of its farmers, its stores and those now infamous fruits and vegetables, bringing more attention to its entire process.

3) Don’t overdo jargon and statistics

The average consumer doesn’t know what LEEDS Certificates, GRI or SRIs are. When you inject too many technical terms, your customers will become frustrated. People tend to feel that statistics are boring, impersonal and sometimes even hard to understand. Instead of using raw numbers and jargon, use storytelling.
This stunt not only impressed upon participants the importance of women’s access to toilets, but those viewing the video also feel the gravity of the issue.

Storytelling can cut through ‘greenwash’ and sustainability cynicism, and helps build credibility. Unilever’s toilet hygiene brand Domestos wanted to help people understand its efforts to improve people’s access to toilets in parts of the world where open defecation is common. In order to show the power of the project, it installed a see-through lavatory at a beach in Australia, and filmed people’s reactions to using the toilet. Instead of bombarding consumers with a barrage of statistics about toilets and open defecation, it focused on one: that one in three women globally don’t have access to a toilet. Using a single statistic and creating a storyline to involve consumers has more impact than a list of numbers can ever hope to.

4) Do appeal to emotions

Emotions evoke responses, so giving your sustainable business stories an emotional component helps brings them to life. There is no need for melodrama, but emotions do hook us into content. At Communication for Development, we know how to appeal to viewers’ emotions, engage their attention and sway their opinions through positive visual storytelling. We leverage the power of digital media to showcase hopeful, inspiring, even heroic stories of transformation.

We do this in part because such storytelling has been proven to prompt giving, as it puts a human face to the numbers and creates recognisable characters, provoking empathetic reactions. We really admire the way Accenture leverages the power of positive visual storytelling on the corporate citizenship pages of its website, which includes a celebration of the work of its employees through the use of moving videos. This illustrates how, through touching stories, your sustainable business practices can become more than just numbers on a webpage for your customers: they can encourage empathy in your consumers, and the formation of a strong and positive association with your brand in people’s minds.
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Capturing real emotional moments, like this one between an Amazonian Indian man and his young son being reunited post-surgery, helps us put faces to datasets, and encourages us to care more deeply about causes.

5) Don’t be clichéd

Lego uses its brand image to inform its sustainable business imagery across its different activities, and eschews the typical ethics-inspired images and themes. Hands, water droplets, the earth and seedlings, accompanied by a green font, are not innovative or interesting. Ditch the clichés and look to your brand’s story, heritage and existing imagery to inspire a unique and relevant design.

Levi Strauss is well-known for utilising its heritage and history in the denim industry to inform its sustainable business stories, product lines and even its social activism. It leans on its history of being an industry leader to inspire a story of pushing for progress. Its designs are clean, simple, denim-themed and easily recognisable as Levi’s. The company uses its brand story and a sense of nostalgia to cut through the noise and stand out in the industry.

When clichéd designs are used, your brand loses recognition; when your sustainable business logos and designs are related to your brand’s overall image, you retain that recognition.

6) Do make it shareable

Your consumers are reading, tweeting, ‘gramming’, snapping and sharing in all sorts of other ways on social media. This includes sharing their experiences with your company. Unfortunately, people tend to share negative experiences more often than positive ones. One effective way to combat negative views about your company floating around in cyberspace is to create positive and shareable sustainable business stories. If they are genuine and show a real commitment to shared values, consumers will be interested in reading, watching and sharing this information. It’s great PR for you, and it will make consumers feel good about choosing your organisation.
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Positive stories of change for the better can help improve your brand’s image, an effect that’s multiplied when customers can easily share them far and wide on social media.

Go forth and find a story!

Your sustainable business efforts are important to your consumers, so it's time to showcase them in an engaging and informative way. Creating a unified sustainable business theme that’s genuine in nature and demonstrates your company’s commitment to improving things for the community and environment in which it operates will naturally enable you to craft compelling stories that draw in and inform consumers. You can highlight your sustainable business programmes effectively by telling stories about your supply chain, employees, customers and the charities you support.

So whatever your company’s values and sustainable business agenda look like, make sure you engage your customers using storytelling: make it unified, relevant, simple, emotional, unique and shareable. Need help? Just reach out!