No Story, No Glory

How storytelling can add value to the image of a sustainable company
Vivid stories create interest. They entertain, inform, engender agreement and provoke emotions. They stay in the memory, motivate us to act and make us allies to the cause. “Linguistic and cognitive scientific research shows that storytelling speaks to certain areas of the brain. When we hear an activity in story form, it speaks to the same areas of the brain as if we were to do this action ourselves. Story-based communication results in a high level of recall, engendering emotional involvement and impact”, explains Prof Annika Schach, professor for applied public relations at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts and author of the book ‘Storytelling – stories in text, image and film’, the way narrative mode works’. It is no surprise, therefore, that in a world of superabundance companies use stories strategically to highlight their uniqueness, to communicate their values, traditions and corporate culture and so, as a result, generate sales. Storytelling writes its own heroic tale.

From plastic waste, which is collected from the seas and processed into new innovative materials, to partnerships with artisanal craftspeople, supporting the local economy in countries with developing and emerging economies and preserving the long tradition of craftsmanship – sustainable companies already have exciting stories to tell, which with an intelligent narrative can become a significant factor in their marketing. It is not window dressing or pulling the wool over customers’ eyes. It means showing what the company stands for, what its visions are – based on data and facts.

One company that uses this potential in a skilful way is Patagonia. This California based manufacturer of outdoor clothing bases its corporate philosophy on environmental protection; the company even states that this is the central purpose of its entrepreneurial activity.

The latest marketing campaign in the USA, Patagonia’s first ever TV commercial, is not really about the brand promoting its products. Instead it features the company’s founder Yvon Chouinard, campaigning to keep areas of the countryside open to the public. This is clever because it is much more exciting to share of a story with the public of common values and desires than it would be to tell the history of the company. “Good company and brand stories […] put the customer centre stage with the company in a supporting role as an enabler. This is how green producers and brands can profit”, explains Schach.

Toms, a company founded in 2006, shows how this works in practice. The Toms story is: on a trip to Argentina the American Blake Mycoskie got to know children in a village who did not have any shoes. Wishing to help them, he founded the company Toms and developed the ‘One for One’ business concept. For every pair of shoes sold, another pair is given free to needy children – to date, according to the company’s own figures, over 60 million pairs have been given away in over 70 countries, distributed locally by partner organisations. To enable the customer share in this experience as intently as possible, the American company uses virtual reality: a ‘virtual giving trip’ takes anyone interested on a trip to Peru. The viewers can see for themselves how the shoes are given out to school children and get to know children like Julio who lives in the mountains and every day walks several kilometres to school and back. The content of the Toms’ story gives it impact and so is an intelligent way of establishing a link with and involving the end consumer, who is even held up as a hero.

Another interesting facet of storytelling in PR and content marketing is originating stories about individual products. As part of the Patagonia’s ‘Worn Wear’ programme, for example, in which the company campaigns for clothing to be repaired, outdoor sportsmen and women talk in videos about the experiences that connect them with a particular article of clothing. All the activities relating to this programme are brought together on social media channels under #wornwear. Nudie does the same kind of thing with Jeans. It enables Patagonia and Nudie to reach people interested on a cross media basis on different channels and at the same time involve them interactively.

Telling stories about products and distributing them on high-reach social media channels is also the realm of the influencer. A successful example is the blogger Madeleine Alizadeh from ‘Dariadaria’. She is one of the best-known influencers, campaigning for the cause of sustainable fashion in cooperation with outdoor clothing brand Tatonka, an owner-run family company from Dasing in Bavaria. Walking along the Way of St.James in Austria Madeleine, who was born in Vienna, takes with her a Tatonka rucksack. She first documents this journey with a number of photos on her Instagram channel. Then she also devotes three blog entries to the subject, providing lots of high-quality content and cleverly generating a story about a product, which she can spread across high-reach media consistent with the target group.

Today such cross-media publicity, especially on social media channels is imperative. Whilst this may be obvious for influencers, it also applies equally to companies. This is the finding of the study ‘Total Retail 2017 – six trends that have permanently changed the way we do business’, by the management consultancy firm PWC. The study provides information about current trends in consumer behaviour and indicates what consumers expect from business: “The results show that for companies, whether a start-up business or a large corporate group, you can no longer ignore social media channels, especially if you want to reach younger consumers [..]. Businesses can also use storytelling on social media channels to get the attention of the consumers and inspire them to buy. Storytelling does not just present [..] facts about the product. The idea is to use videos and images to build an attractive story around the product and to fix this story in the minds of consumers. The company’s website also needs to be consistent with its social media presence and interlinked to further elaborate on product/band story and create a coherent buying experience.”

Alongside the core story, the basic company history and accompanying product stories, another theme is pertinent especially for companies producing socially sustainable products: showing production facilities and the people behind the products. In this context the Swiss organic cotton specialist, Remei AG uses an interactive map, which allows you to trace the whole textile chain. Mey, the Swabian underwear manufacturer, has a video to provide insights into the production in its own factory in Germany. Young sustainable fashion companies such as Studio Jux, Folkdays or Jan ’n June also use identification and authenticity to present their products and bring customer and products closer together. It is also clear: whether video, blog or social media programme – the classic dramaturgical rules of the game apply to different media tools, even if not every story is suitable for every channel. Current practice is defined by the sophisticated cross-media narration of a story via a range of formats. Trends like virtual reality, interactivity and live-streaming form the new coordinates of modern storytelling.

For green companies in particular narrative communication makes sense, because “Sustainability is an abstract concept, that must be brought to life. Stories are especially good at doing this”, concludes Schach. The term ‘sustainability’ can be understood in many quite different ways. Stories help to make it concrete and put emotion into it. However, there is yet another reason why the technique of storytelling is particularly interesting for socially and ecologically committed companies. Particularly in today’s world of permanent overabundance, it enables them offer something very valuable: real emotions.

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