Storytelling school

How brands can make an impact with a new way of telling stories | WaterBear Network | Open mic

In a world full of uncertainties, one thing is clear: climate change is real and it is here to stay. Just four months after COP26, where world leaders pledged to act quickly on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released another report, which has been described as “the darkest warning yet”. Highlighting the “irreversible” impacts of global warming and noting that more than 40% of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the accelerated impacts of climate change, something has to change. And quick.

Change rarely happens overnight, but by being the voice of critically important stories, brands can help change the discourse around socio-environmental issues and spread the message that these are things we we need to care about and take steps to protect them. There is a need for a new way of storytelling for brands that is empowering and accessible, engages the masses, and begins to give people the tools they need to make a change.

Brands have a key role to play

According to a recent study by Avaaz, nearly 6 in 10 young people, aged 16 to 25, say they are very or extremely worried about climate change, which negatively affects their daily lives. As eco-anxiety rises rapidly, three-quarters of Gen Z consumers say sustainability is more important than brand name when making purchasing decisions. Not only do they buy from brands that truly care about the future of the planet, but they also encourage them to improve their environmental and social footprint. As a result, a growing number of brands are making purpose an integral part of their mission.

However, it can be easy to run out of tools and ways to communicate that goal. Companies must keep their moral compass in check and achieve these goals, but also tell stories that matter to raise awareness of the environmental and socio-economic impacts of climate change.

Cold facts don’t work – storytelling is the best tool for impact

Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests that we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it is part of a story. As well as being an essential learning tool, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools to inspire, motivate and catalyze change – yet few organizations use it, let alone fund it. Rather than scare, there is a need to create emotive and empathetic stories with a focus on individual characters that people can connect with. Small in scale but explosive in impact, these atomic stories activate the masses, shift perspectives while stimulating engagement, and allow us to imagine and construct a new reality.

“My Octopus Teacher,” a hit film about the relationship forged between a man at a turning point in his life and a wild octopus is a prime example. The film doesn’t address issues of social justice or politics (which many great documentaries of recent years have done), it captures a very different feeling. The pandemic has strengthened the relationship of humans with the environment, even as the climate crisis becomes more urgent.

The film highlights that relativity, humor, talent, emotion, well-developed story arcs and narrative resonate and inspire people. Not only did it receive rave reviews and 11 international film awards, including the Oscar for best documentary, but it had a big impact on audiences around the world, causing changes in viewer behavior with a large number of people claiming they will never eat octopus again after watching it.

Tell stories, not your story

A new way of telling stories that focuses on inclusivity and diversity of voices is needed. Brands need to take the spotlight away from their own story and become advocates for meaningful stories that drive direct action, education and impact in the areas that matter most to our planet and people.

Rather than creating a brand movie highlighting the absence of palm oil in their products, a cosmetics brand can have a much bigger impact by telling the story of an indigenous community in Indonesia who has been suffering since has lost its lush ancestral forests to palm oil plantations. A photography brand can shed light on a specific issue by following a photographer as they investigate a subject and take photos, highlighting the power of photography as a tool of impact. A fashion brand can tell the stories of innovators overturning the status quo that underpins an unsustainable fashion industry, and so on.

Turn intention into action

When discussing impact on environmental issues, raising awareness is an important first step, because the more people who are aware of a topic and emotionally engage with it through a film, the greater the support for crucial campaigns working on these issues is important. But how do you turn intention into action? It’s critical that brands start giving people the tools they need to change. By directing consumers to resources and active on-the-ground actions and campaigns, brands can drive awareness and impact both in their community and beyond. Including a clear call to action to support the narrative, such as encouraging viewers to donate to an NGO, volunteer, or sign a petition, is a great way to drive change.

One thing is perfectly clear. Brands cannot change mindsets on their own; collective action is needed to drive change. Like-minded organizations and individuals in the public and private sectors must engage in communication, because only by working collaboratively towards a common goal can we break the echo chamber and incite the general public to act.

Sam Sutaria is Vice President, Strategy and Development at WaterBear Network