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Beyond Storytelling: Now is the Time for Story Proving

Marie de Foucaud

Sep 3, 2021

Brands are increasingly responding to consumer demands around Environment, Society and Governance. The trend is not new, but it has grown in recent years, with 85% of Americans wanting companies to do right by their employees and communities, according to data from Morning Consult.

Alongside recognition of this evolving social license to operate, brands are also responding to an ever more sophisticated audience who want to understand impact. It is no longer enough to claim support for an issue, companies must live up to the trust placed in them and credibly demonstrate outcomes. To provide the accountability that today’s consumer demands, brands must go beyond storytelling and commit to story proving.

On its face, this concept is not earth shattering: companies that put forth annual sustainability reports often pair metrics with representative stories to demonstrate the results of their ESG efforts. What is novel is the growing opportunity for stakeholder engagement and creating ways for key audiences to participate in a brand’s value creation. The natural affinity for shared principles has grown beyond families, communities and cultures to encompass the products and services we interact with on a daily basis, essentially turning our consumer behaviors into another avenue to improve society.

The savviest brands are utilizing marketing and communications strategies to highlight this avenue. To build loyalty, inform and inspire, they are layering storytelling with data-driven evidence, focusing their efforts on key audience segments who want to “trust but verify.”

First among these is talent. Both existing and potential hires want to know their employers are doing good, and the internal pressure has grown exponentially over the last year for brands to show impact. For example, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a chief concern for employees, which means it is a crucial area for companies to story prove. Luxury fashion group Kering does this by combining the unique experiences of its increasingly representative workforce with the growing expectations around data transparency.

In addition to internal audiences, policymakers are important targets, especially as recent crises have shown that the private sector must supplement the public one. With broad constituencies representing a range of needs and concerns, legislators depend on impact-focused messaging when it comes to building relationships with corporate stakeholders. Layering anecdotes over data imbues quantitative measures with the qualitative impact that make efforts memorable. Brands like Patagonia successfully combine impact marketing, activism and the metrics related to their sustainability work to demonstrate their effectiveness at meeting aggressive targets. Sharing these stories- and the data that backs them- is incredibly powerful to gain allies on Capitol Hill and in the White House, particularly as policymakers prioritize environmental action and ask companies to do their part.

Finally, the traditional audience for brand building efforts around ESG also still expects companies to do their part. Consumers have awakened to the impact their money can have and their choices have become a way to express beliefs. Not all companies need to save the planet, but they should all drive initiatives that are relevant, distinctive, credible and long-term. They must strive to naturally integrate material causes into their business model and show the effectiveness of their efforts.

While different audiences require distinctive marketing approaches, they increasingly share an interest in a positive contribution to society. By thinking through how these audiences want to engage with data-driven stories that showcase their contributions, the smartest companies will not only capture the zeitgeist but capture the hearts and minds of the most important stakeholders for years to come.

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