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Marketing and Comms
From Messages to Painted Pictures:
How Storytelling Drives Social Purpose

Messaging is about telling an audience something; storytelling shows them something. Engaging social-purpose storytelling can shape the way people think and feel, and motivate them towards a desired action.

Storytelling is the timeless language of humanity and one of the salient factors defining our species. For businesses embedding social purpose, the message is clear: Relying on the old comms playbook and stating your social purpose endlessly won’t get you far. Instead, you can drive your message home by telling meaningful stories that show how your purpose is making a difference.

“For social purpose to really come to life, it has to live in the hearts of mind of the people responsible for it,” Bill Baker, founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling — a firm specializing in business storytelling — told Sustainable Brands®. “And there is no better way to connect with those people than through storytelling — using stories to shape the way they think, the way they feel, and motivate them towards a desired action.”

Social purpose aligns an organization with something deeper than the bottom line; it’s a social contract made with society. So, when an organization such as the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) articulates its social purpose, the public demands accountability. Going beyond the traditional mediums of reports and press releases, BCLC is working to incorporate authentic, tangible stories into its communication and engagement initiatives — to show how its social purpose is “generating win-wins for the greater good” instead of telling stakeholders that it is.

“Because BCLC is involved in lotteries, gaming and gambling, some might have a misperception about the organization and what drives and motivates it,” Baker said. “And in fairness, some of that misperception might be warranted based on the activities of private, for-profit gambling companies.”

BCLC, however, is different. It’s a Crown Corporation, which exists to serve the public. With a mandate to conduct and manage gambling responsibly, BCLC operates to give back to the citizens of British Columbia and help communities grow. Unlike the private companies that dominate the US gambling landscape, BCLC is committed to leveraging gambling and lottery to further the public good.

“There is a story around BCLC’s social purpose that needed to be told,” Baker said. “But first, it needed to be found.”

“Storyfinding” is the process of uncovering a story that’s always been there but hasn’t been fully explored, expanded or articulated; BCLC is a perfect example of storyfinding.

“This story didn’t come out of thin air; it wasn’t created from scratch,” Baker said. “It’s always been part of the organization, from its original mandate — but also its culture and the hearts and minds of its staff.”

In BCLC’s case, adopting social purpose meshed well with its public-good business model — something that probably wouldn’t be as natural a fit for a private, for-profit gambling company. That’s not to say that all for-profit companies have to trade in their LLCs for 501(c)(3)s. Still, many for-profit companies interested in social purpose will face a fork in the road. One path is unwavering commitment to that purpose; the other diverges toward the bottom line alone.

“If they’re not taking the former path, then they’re not truly a social-purpose organization,” Baker warned.

Bringing stories to life

Baker — who has been providing storytelling training for over 15 years — said “the work of storytelling isn't rocket science;” and he has trained rocket scientists. To start, get over the intimidation factor, realizing that “I don’t have to be the best, most dynamic, life-of-the-party storyteller to tell the right story and make it a good story.”

Next, strategize, craft content and deliver — that’s the difference between just telling any story to any audience at any time, and telling the right story to the right audience at the right time.

“Just because you have a story to tell doesn’t necessarily mean your audience wants or needs to hear it,” he explained. “Make sure it’s relatable, make sure it’s relevant; and to some degree, make sure it’s reflective of your audience. When an audience sees themselves in a story and can relate to a story in some way, they’ll connect with it in a more meaningful way and that story will have a more lasting impact.”

Baker thinks about storytelling as a pull strategy rather than a push strategy. Organizations such as BCLC will always have strategic messages to push into the marketplace. Stories, however, help show messaging in action, reifying it for an audience.

Messaging is about telling an audience something. Storytelling shows them something.

Is your company ready to tell the story of its social purpose?

Philanthropy; corporate social responsibility (CSR); and environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies do not constitute social purpose. ESG and CSR generally mean supporting an external cause, lessening or increasing certain impacts, etc. Social purpose is more encompassing: It must become part of the fabric of an organization, so much so that it drives and shapes the way it does business.

“Social purpose can’t be a bunch of words put up on a lobby wall or the end of an annual report,” Baker said. “It literally has to shape and drive the way that organization does business; and not every organization or company has the wherewithal or courage to take that on.”

A major requisite to becoming a social-purpose organization is that the people, culture and leadership must truly believe they exist to impact the world beyond revenue. The company also must believe it has the ability and responsibility to do more than sell goods or services, and must consciously make tough choices aligned with its defined social purpose.

Social-purpose storytelling engages team members, customers and other stakeholders mentally and emotionally. Having a social purpose reinforces customer commitment, increases social capital and drives innovation. What’s more, it invites new hires at all levels of tenure. In fact, new hires have cited BCLC’s social purpose as a significant influence on their decision to work for BCLC. Thus, social purpose is more than a communication tool — it’s essential to attracting, recruiting and retaining top-notch talent in the 21st century.

“When you have a strong social purpose and you’re bringing it to life through the stories that your employees themselves are telling, it creates wonderful alignment and engagement among staff,” Baker said.

By understanding how to approach the fundamentals of storytelling — through strategy, content and delivery — people realize it’s not an insurmountable feat gifted only to the eloquent of mouth, but that telling good stories is hardwired into everyone’s DNA. So, why not do it in business? With that realization, employees and organizations can put storytelling to work in their own communications for better people, better society and better business.