How to tell your purpose story

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Every business has a story, and finding your corporate purpose – your audacious and inspired reason to exist – may well be a defining moment in yours. Purpose has been the catalyst for the rags-to-riches or rebirth stories of many progressive businesses: a turning point where a vision of the impact they want to create, beyond making money, sparks the energy for change. Purpose is a powerful motivator, confidence-booster and driver of growth, capable of triggering a rapid rise to fame or a reversal of bad fortune. The success of Natural Balance Foods and the sustainability-driven transformation of Nike are just two examples.

That aha moment of finding your purpose is only the start. For when you embrace a mission that speaks to the heart, and align it with all aspects of your business, culture and brand, you’re beginning to create a much bigger story – one where the value ripples out to society, the economy and even our shared planet.

How to tell your story – and why

If purpose is shaping your business story for the better, then it’s a story you need to tell. Effective storytelling helps to perpetuate the ‘virtuous circle’ of a purpose-driven business, where the social and economic value you create drives greater success, leading in turn to more opportunities to create social and economic value. By helping your customers and investors understand the positive impact of your purpose, you’ll be giving them that genuine ‘reason to believe’ that encourages deeper engagement, and keeps the circle turning.

A word of caution: the way you tell your story matters. To make sure it comes across with power and positivity, you need to tell it in a way that’s in keeping with the spirit of purpose itself. That is, clearly, credibly and in collaboration with others.

To understand how this works, let’s look at a couple of examples of purpose storytelling – one done well, and another that’s been severely criticised.

BT delivers on purpose

For your story to be well received, it first has to be believed. Modern consumers have their radars out for greenwash and superficial CSR, so it’s vital that you tell your purpose story in a way that showcases its true depth – both the genuine intentions that lie behind it, and its impact.

BT’s 2015/16 ‘Delivering our Purpose’ report is a fine example of a story well told. A detailed and credible document packed with stats, clear performance indicators and examples, it highlights the great strides BT has taken towards its purpose-inspired goals for 2020. Europe’s largest telecoms services wholesaler by revenue has notched up a number of successes, aligned with its purpose to ‘use the power of communications to create a better world’. These include:

  • Helping customers avoid 7.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, while generating £3.6 billion revenue from the emissions-reducing products and services
  • Helping 2.6 million people overcome social disadvantage via its products and services, in the first year of its journey towards a 10 million target
  • Helping 344,000 children receive better training in computing and tech skills in the 2014-15 school year – the first step towards reaching a target of 5 million

So apart from the statistics, what is it that makes this report so impressive? BT’s story has a clear ring of truth, but it also reveals a real ability to connect with wider movements – those centred around pressing issues that customers and investors can genuinely care about.

  • It’s grounded in the real political, economic and social context that BT operates in. For example, it sets out global challenges in the context of the UN Global Goals and links these to BT’s future aims and current achievements.
  • It explains how BT is listening and responding to stakeholders in prioritising the issues to be tackled.
  • It demonstrates how BT is connecting to broader movements, e.g. by detailing how the company was involved in the Paris climate change talks, and how it’s partnering with Unicef UK to teach parents, teachers and children online safety skills.
  • It uses third-party protocols and reputable stamps of approval to give credibility to its story. BT is a signatory to the UN Global Compact principles, is rated gold for sustainability by EcoVadis, and has had its Purpose report externally assured by LRQA.

The controversy of Chipotle

Like BT, Chipotle Mexican Grill also has a purpose story to tell – that of ‘food with integrity’. Since around 2001, the fast food chain has taken action to source its ingredients more sustainably, including meat produced without antibiotics or synthetic hormones, from animals with freedom to roam. By some measures, Chipotle’s communications around its purpose have met with wild success: its spectacularly animated and innovative marketing video The Scarecrow received gushing praise for its ability to pull the heartstrings and has had over 15 million views on YouTube alone. Yet the three-minute anti-factory farming film has also come in for a barrage of criticism.

It’s a beautifully animated tale that vividly brings the issues of modern industrial farming to life. So what’s not to like? The answer, in short, is that Chipotle has compromised its own purpose story through a persistent lack of transparency. Unlike BT, the burrito chain does not produce an annual sustainability report, and has a history of avoiding third-party verified standards. This lack of openness has created a credibility gap, leading many journalists, critics and consumers to suspect the company of misrepresenting its sustainability credentials in an attempt to boost profits.

Telling the story of your business’ aims and impact is essential to unlocking the true power of corporate purpose. However, to keep that virtuous circle turning, you need to tell a story that’s honest, credible and verified by others.

About Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller is Creative Head of The House, a purpose-driven business, culture and brand consultancy. To find out more, please visit www.thehouse.co.uk.

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