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TCO London Blog featuring our latest news across Huck magazine and Little White Lies magazine, as well as our branded content campaigns for the likes of Nike, Google, Finlandia Vodka, Vans Skateboarding, Facebook, Adidas and Accenture.

Progressive storytelling: why brands should use marketing messages to positively influence society

ARTWORK:  Eve Izaak

ARTWORK: Eve Izaak

Throughout September and October, TCO London are running a series of workshops for brands, exploring how they can use their storytelling and campaigning to influence society. Josie Parmee, TCO's Head of Impact Partnerships, talks about why now is the right time for brands to consider the power of their storytelling.

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

With Unilever’s announcement that their brands with a purpose grew 69% faster than other brands and delivered 75% of Unilever's overall growth in 2018, we’re all pretty sold on the case for brand purpose from a business perspective. We’re also increasingly seeing interest in brand activism and advocacy campaigns. But going from having a brand purpose to executing an advocacy strategy can be quite a step, and not something that all brands are in a position to do. However, there is a middle ground; a real opportunity to challenge harmful social norms and contribute to societal change through storytelling and other forms of content. 

There’s currently a lot of activity focusing on doing-no-harm with your messaging. The recent ASA ban and guidelines on gender stereotyping, and the launch of the Conscious Advertising Network, are great examples of initiatives aimed at preventing the spread of harmful communications. Kantar recently shared the business case for it, too. They found that unstereotypical advertising creates 37% more brand impact, 28% uplift in purchase intent, and increases enjoyment of ads by 35%. 

But I’d argue that doing-no-harm is not enough. Instead, we should be striving to make our marketing a positive disruptor for societal change. On average, we consume up to 10,000 marketing messages in any given day. With every story we share, every message we push, we can challenge harmful social norms in society. Imagine if our stories inspired people to think differently, fostered conversations which wouldn’t usually arise in an individual’s social circle, prompting people to make simple changes in their behaviour that benefits them, those around them, as well as the planet? 

What are social norms? Social norms are the unwritten rules that govern behaviour; the deeply held shared beliefs about what is considered normal, acceptable and appropriate ways of thinking and behaving that often drive behaviour (Oxfam, 2019). Recommended ways to overcome harmful social norms:

  • Prove the norm is not the only option

  • Show examples of those going against the norms with an aim to inspire others that they don’t have to conform

  • Encourage and facilitate conversation and debate 

What’s been done? Here are a few examples of progressive storytelling: 

  • Huck recently launched a European-wide partnership with Levi’s, which strives to debunk traditional ideas of masculinity. The inspiring real life stories follow young male creatives in the UK, Russia and Germany as they pursue new paths unburdened by inherited values. 

  • Billie razors hit the market with a splash by creating content which shows women shaving actual hair. The content helps to normalise women’s natural body hair, from hairy toes to stomach hair. Billie also celebrate body hair, encouraging women to to do whatever they want with it - “grow it, get rid of it, comb it”.

  • IKEA’s “Last Straw” installation at London’s Design Museum was a great way to tell the story of their commitment to ending the use of plastic straws in the UK and Ireland.

  • Persil’s Dirt is Good content aims to raise awareness of the little time that children are spending playing outside nowadays. 

Feeling inspired? Be brave, understand what matters to your brand, your people and your consumers. Appreciate where you have an impact and tell varied and progressive stories that contribute to society moving forward. Also, your progressive storytelling doesn’t need to be something you only focus on externally. Think about the power of internal storytelling, too. You may have a huge internal audience that’s capable of driving cultural change not only within your company but also across society. 

Some may say that brands and advertisers do not have the right to decide the direction of the change that needs to happen in society. But I hope we can all agree that promoting attitudes and behaviours that foster a more equal society and react to the climate crisis are not so much a responsibility but also a moral imperative – for us as individuals, but also for brands.

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Through storytelling, TCO London raises awareness of the alternative ways to think and do to those presented in the mainstream. We document real stories, about real people, doing real things. Each story aims to inspire the audience to explore this alternative narrative in their own way. 

If you are interested in how to use your storytelling to influence positive change, we are offering introductory workshops to help you explore opportunities, from progressive storytelling to campaigning for change. Contact Josie Parmee to arrange a session.

Bindi Kaufmann