Businesses worldwide are exploring the growing potential of storytelling to engage their audiences with complex social and environmental issues, inspire behaviour change and enhance brand reputation. Here we consider five compelling examples of storytelling success, spanning ethical fashion, renewable energy, food waste, climate change and sustainable development, highlighting what they have in common and what makes them successful.
Unilever: Food waste challenge inspires and informs
Consumer goods giant Unilever put consumers at the heart of its new food waste initiative by asking 12 UK families reduce their household waste by 25% while saving 15% on food bills. The average family in the UK wastes £680 of food each year, according to WRAP.
The company is allowing consumers to ‘become heroes of the story’ by actively playing a role in making positive changes and narrating their experiences via video diaries. Interestingly, it will use the results to inform future brand marketing and behaviour change campaigns.
The campaign — entitled the ‘Sustain Ability Challenge’ — is the latest activity from Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to halve the firm’s environmental footprint by 2020 and boost its positive social impact.
Vestergaard Frandsen: Smart business can change the world
The film Carbon for Water (2012) communicates the life-changing effect of disease control specialist Vestergaard Frandsen’s water filters in rural Western Kenya. The firm’s Carbon for Water project, which is funded by carbon credits, delivers safe water to 4.5m people in the region, improving the health and well-being of 900,000 families, slowing deforestation and cutting 2.4m tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.
The film opens with the heart-wrenching story of nine-year-old Anzelma, who collects wood from Kenya’s dwindling forests and carries it long distances on her head each day so that her family can boil dirty water over a fire. It combines startling scenes of a region struggling with climate change and poor water quality with the powerful story of hope brought by the company’s journey to help communities adopt the new filters.
Importantly, it highlights the growing potential of smart business approaches to sustainable development.
Veja: Ethical storytelling beats advertising
Ethical footwear brand Veja operates a ‘no advertising’ policy, preferring to communicate the environmental and social benefits of its products through a mix of PR, social media and events. The French brand increased its sales dramatically from €313,000 in 2005 to €5m in 2012, and attributes part of this success to sharing its story widely via fashion, business and sustainability press, as well as starting conversations with consumers online and being quick to respond to questions.
Veja ensures that its fashion and sustainability stories reinforce and enhance each other, infusing a sustainability event with glamour or a fashion event with a strong sense of ethical values.
The brand rewards workers fairly for their work, employs Amazonian rubber tappers to source rubber using sustainable methods, and sources natural dyes and organically farmed cotton. Goods are shipped to France by boat and socially disadvantaged people are offered work packing products in Paris.
Ecotricity: Bidding an emotional farewell to fossil fuels
Renewable energy pioneer Ecotricity has clocked up more than 2.6 million views of its animated video #DumptheBigSix, the centrepiece of a communications campaign designed to raise awareness of the pressing need to replace traditional power stations with green technology.
Ecotricity combined humour and emotion to foretell the demise of the fossil fuel-burning era associated with the ‘Big Six’ — the UK’s largest energy companies. The video features cooling towers bidding each other a fond farewell before crumbling to the ground, as Mozart’s ‘Porgi Amor’ plays in the background. Wind turbines then rise from their ashes to signal a brighter future.
The story acknowledges our emotional attachment to a long-established industry while bringing an unexpected element of humour to the energy debate and illustrating the hope embodied by renewable energy.
Chasing Ice: Mesmerising scenes of climate change chaos
Audiences across the world are responding emotionally to Jeff Orlowski’s multi-award-winning film Chasing Ice (2012), with its scenes of Arctic ice mountainscrashing into the sea and ancient glaciers receding at the rate of knots. The film features advanced time-lapse photography, using images taken by 28 cameras installed in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska.
Against a backdrop of more frequent extreme weather patterns and savage debate over climate change, the film captures photographer James Balog’s journey to prove that climate change is real and taking place at an ever-increasing pace. It intertwines the moving human story of Balog’s commitment to finishing his Extreme Ice Survey — complete with commentary from family, friends and fellow adventurers — with graphic footage of our changing world, including the biggest ice break-up ever filmed.
So what’s the key to storytelling success?
These five stories all feature a strong visual element, whether it’s crumbling power stations, a community’s struggle for safe water or the dramatic recession of ancient glaciers. In every case, powerful imagery brings the stories to life.
Telling a human story is a vital component of sustainability storytelling. These stories focus on a ‘hero’ or central character and take the audience on a journey through trials and tribulations to a new destination. In the Unilever food waste example, the audience even becomes the hero!
The two films in particular share viewpoints from different voices, giving the viewer an all-round perspective on the stories at hand.
Finally, the value of emotion cannot be overstated. Chasing Ice, Carbon for Water and #DumptheBigSix all demonstrate that the best stories have an emotional appeal, connecting the storyteller with the audience and inspiring them to think, laugh or cry, and ultimately to act.