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Marketing and Comms
Brand Storytelling:
A Mechanism for Building a Regenerative Future

On the final day of SB’21 San Diego, a diverse array of keynote speakers explored some of the many ways in which storytelling can be a powerful tool for manifesting the future we need.

This is one of a series of posts filled with insights gained from dozens of industry leaders, practitioners and innovators on a variety of themes at SB’21 San Diego. Read more insights on product and business model innovation, supply chain optimization, stakeholder engagement, regenerative leadership, regeneration and social impact metrics and more …

Bruce Reynolds

On Thursday morning, the final day of SB’21 San Diego, emcee Bruce Reynolds — Social Impact and Brand Marketing Specialist at Be the Change Associates — introduced stories as a potentially powerful mechanism for creating our preferred future.

Reynolds invited the audience to turn to their neighbor and ask why they are here at SB’21 San Diego. “In being here, our lives are telling the story that we are here for sustainability,” he explained. What story is your life telling for future generations? What stories are being told by your companies’ action?

Looking at the three-pillar model of sustainability, Reynolds focused on the social pillar, which he said requires unity, equity, inclusion and harmony. “We need to usher in something new, with 100 percent positivity and full throttle to increase unity and understanding.”

An example of something new is International Black Heritage Month, which Reynolds launched in June. This year, the focus was on Africa, with carefully curated stories — including using fashion to tell the story of the African Diaspora.

Reynolds stressed the importance of understanding the cultural groups that make up a business. Otherwise, how can there be true diversity and acceptance if they are not understood?

Embracing our human complexity for greater impact

Lisa Kenney

Exploring the social constructs around gender and identity can be a minefield. While gender and identity can be life affirming, even lifesaving for some, it also comes with potential perils such as community exclusion or polarization. Learning to understand this complexity and the role it plays in our lives is becoming an imperative for inclusive company cultures.

And if storytellers can embrace this human complexity, they can heighten their impacts. “We can use storytelling as an act of love and regeneration,” noted Lisa Kenney, CEO of Reimagine Gender.

She said that this requires “telling the story of who we are, not only what we are” — in other words, moving from types and categories to essence, and from issues and problems to potential.

Kenney pointed out that gender identity and social constructions have been created for a reason, with minority communities forced to spend a lot of their time justifying why they exist. “What has been constructed can be recreated or dismantled,” she told delegates. “We need to generate hope.”

Radically better future: The next-generation reckoning for brands

Fridays for Future's Joe Hobbs, XR Youth LA's Dilan Gohill, International Indigenous Youth Council's Alexis Saenz, XR Youth LA's Aidan Liss and BBMG's Raphael Bemporad

As the next generation beckons for brands, Raphael Bemporad, founding partner of BBMG, spoke of the need for radical renewal. He highlighted research that showed 60 percent of young people under 30 want the post-COVID recovery to prioritize restructuring the economy to deal with inequality and climate change.

With young people feeling the intensity of discrimination, unemployment, mental health and human rights abuses to name but a few, Bemporad said that society was living in the space between stories. “What got us here simply isn’t what we need to get us where we need to go.”

Inviting a group of youth leaders and climate activists to the stage, Bemporad asked them what they thought brand leadership means, and what expectations they had. The main calls to action that emerged were for companies to listen and learn more — particularly from young people — rather than just lead; and to recognize that greenwashing ultimately doesn’t wash, particularly when marketing budgets outspend the actual project.

Amplifying good work to educate and engage customers

Stephanie Perdue

Stephanie Perdue, VP for brand marketing at Chipotle Mexican Grill, then spoke of how her company is helping the next generation of farmers thrive by supporting them in building careers in agriculture.

“The average age of a US farmer is 59 years old,” she told delegates. “Young farmers trying to get into the US agriculture sector have a ton of barriers, such as lack of access to land.”

Not only is the company offering employees the chance to get free degrees in agriculture, Chipotle has committed $5 million for young farmers over a five-year period, to help support their transition to organic farming. “We look to see if we can establish long-term contracts with the next generation of farmers coming through,” Perdue said, adding that the company pays a premium to source new ingredients that have been produced to higher standards.

Carbon clarity: Understanding carbon impact and communicating through carbon labeling

Prakash Arunkundrum

Prakash Arunkundrum, head of global operations and sustainability at Logitech, ended the first plenary session with a talk on how his company is designing out carbon, in a way that is very consumer-facing. Logitech claims to be the first consumer electronics company to commit to providing detailed carbon impact labeling on its product packaging. By thinking of carbon as a calorie, Arunkundrum said, such messaging becomes easier to convey to people.

Logitech has also created an online platform to help consumers understand the carbon impacts behind the products they buy, at each stage of the product journey from sourcing and manufacturing through transportation to use and end-of-life.

“If we can measure it, we can improve it. We wanted to be held accountable to our carbon footprint, and also empower consumers with this information,” Arunkundrum said.

Giving sustainability the storytelling it deserves

After a break, Etienne White — VP of Sustainable BrandsBrands for Good initiative — reminded us that a narrative arc needs a beginning, middle and end. With sustainability storytelling, we know the beginning — but we need to find out what the middle and the end is.

White shared new research, in which ads were tested on the Ads Sustainability Awareness Platform (ASAP), co-created by leading brands including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, VISA and Nestlé Waters. The research showed that solutions-oriented ads (for example, P&G’s “It’s Our Home,” with examples of small actions that can be taken to protect the planet) performed better than ads that reiterate the problem — such as the Ad Council’s “By the time,” which forewarns the damage to the planet by the time a child leaves college.

White shared Top 10 tips to give sustainability the storytelling it deserves:

  1. Don’t fall in love with the problem: Environmental ads that speak to solutions perform better than ads that dwell on the problem.

  2. Ads with an environmental focus are easier for consumers to understand (outperforming those with a social focus).

  3. Don’t make it all about you: Ads that are about company progress and encourage consumer action perform better.

  4. Beware of green hush: Doing something amazing and then not talking about it or rewarding consumers for supporting it. Consumers value progress over perfection.

  5. Move from “advocacy to action.” Ads with a call to action outperform ads without one.

  6. Tell and sell: Don’t be afraid to sell your product at the same time you are telling your sustainability stories.

  7. Invest the time to get the brief right. What is the outcome you are trying to drive?

  8. Treat messaging for societal challenges differently from environmental ones.

  9. Don’t run into places you don’t belong. What can your brand uniquely offer?

  10. Build credibility so you can meet the moment.

Making people care: Sustainability storytelling at National Geographic

Susan Goldberg

Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief at National Geographic, said she is taking Nat Geo on a journey from reverence to relevance, to become part of the conversation by telling stories that get noticed.

Goldberg admitted the toughest challenge is to reach audiences when talking about sustainability.

“We need to tell stories about saving the planet from pollution and the crisis of extinction of species. You can’t just show off your problems,” she said, recommending the four principles of sustainable storytelling.

  1. Act urgently

  2. Do what others can’t

  3. Be part of the conversation

  4. Make a difference

As well as highlighting the ocean plastic problem through the imagery and stories in Nat Geo’s Plastic or Planet initiative, Goldberg wanted to give people steps of how to use less single use plastic. ‘You’ve got to walk the talk,” Goldberg stresses. For example, with the Plastic or Planet issue, National Geographic switched from a plastic mailer to paper.

With more and more people viewing digital content, National Geographic is seeding stories first on online platforms, and then in the magazine. A campaign on TikTok gave viewers an action to help stop the practice of keeping cheetahs as pets. These cheetah owners post images on social media for ‘likes’ — the campaign asked viewers to ‘Think before you like,’ showing them how to use their influence to enact change.