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Why Brands Should Utilize Purposeful Storytelling

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“In our collaborative purpose-driven economy, day-to-day business practice must demonstrate that a brand cares as much about leaving the world a better place as it does about improving its own bottom-line,” (Billee Howard).


On Monday night, my school hosted Jim Olson, chief communications officer of Steward Health Care, as a visiting executive for the “Social Commerce Days” event series. Jim founded Hangar 6, a public relations firm that helps its clients effectively utilize strategic storytelling in their communications efforts. At Newhouse’s event, he shared what he believes to be the virtues of inspired storytelling and paired them with some examples of his career’s most rewarding projects.

With his visual presentation as a backdrop, Jim gave us insight into why purposeful storytelling is the most powerful content a brand can create to revitalize, restore or reinforce its reputation. He explained the principles of incorporating compelling stories into digital content and the benefits a company can gain by sticking to them. While each feature of Jim’s lecture bettered my understanding of why storytelling is so impactful, he highlighted two ways of achieving this impact that I want to explore further.

On the projector screen there appeared large white text with which Jim introduced storytelling’s first virtue. The virtue was, “People buy our products. They buy into our purpose.” These words explain the sacred connection between a brand and its consumers. People don’t want to spend money supporting aimless brands. They want to buy products from a brand that shares their values and inspires them. The most successful companies create digital content that both evokes an emotional response from their audiences and humanizes them in their competitive, often ruthless industries.

One company with which Jim has worked on perfecting this type of content is Starbucks Corp. Starbucks is a global brand that prides itself on its philanthropic and compassionate persona. Starbucks is open about developments in policy, new products and significant actions it takes in different communities. The brand shares this information through different channels, but its carefully crafted YouTube videos are its main method of seducing its customers. For example, Starbucks regularly produces short videos describing the communities of hardworking people that grow and harvest the brand’s coveted coffee beans. By choosing to spend time and money on telling the stories of employees, Starbucks shows its consumers that it values more than just its bottom-line. Because the company makes a consistent effort to put a face on its employees, customers and leaders, we are more likely to trust Starbucks's actions when a crisis occurs.

After the incident in a Starbucks location sparked a widespread conversation about bias, racism, and bystanders, the company was praised for its transparency. Howard Shultz, former CEO of the Starbucks Corporation, held not just the employees of that Philadelphia location accountable, but also the company's leaders. If Shultz had limited the company's response to his immediate and articulate disapproval of what occurred, that probably would have been enough to calm the public frenzy. But as a brand that puts long-term goals and ethical operations at the front of its stories, the decision to enforce company-wide implicit bias training went above its supporters' expectations. This is a company that inspires through storytelling and sets an example other companies should follow.

Brands tell stories through their content for different purposes. Some brands choose to share the story of their histories in order to make audiences feel as if they have gone on the same journey. Others bring attention to significant individuals or organizations whose experiences and achievements emphasize the companies’ missions. In my opinion, the best virtue of inspired storytelling is reflected when a brand gives a voice and a platform for recognition to those whom are not in a position to speak up for themselves. I am often skeptical about brands’ altruistic motives; however, a company that stays committed to positively impacting communities, businesses, and even national issues is a company that I can trust.

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