The power of an authentic narrator in CSR storytelling

It’s been twenty years since CSR entered the common day-to-day language of business as a modern practice. It’s no surprise that by now many companies feel that they have a good story to tell.

But it’s a stark fact that very few are successfully telling that story.

Some of this comes down to the CSR or sustainability report being used as the principal vehicle for communication. Such reports are designed for accountability, not for engaging a wider audience.

But it’s not just that.

It also comes down to the fact that it’s just not very engaging when a company tries to tell its own story for several reasons:

·         People don’t relate to a corporate entity, they relate to people. All good stories focus on people that the audience can relate to. But when companies try to tell stories about themselves, they talk about what the company did.

·         Companies instinctively use corporate language, and examine every phrase with a risk-averse mindset. That’s usually sufficient to pummel the interest out of any story, even when it’s actually there in abundance.

·         People don’t trust companies to tell their own story, because they assume they’ll gloss over any imperfections and only show the positive stuff. Which of course is usually EXACTLY what happens. And that’s also why the stories don’t work. No imperfections and no failures means no tension, no uncertainty. Boring story.

One way of breaking through this trap is the use of a distinctive narrative voice – someone who is not representing the company.

I’ve seen three types of narrator in effective storytelling.

·         The stakeholder who’s telling their own story, or the story of someone pivotal in their orbit.

·         The explainer – someone with their own voice and audience, who experiences an issue / activity and interprets what they see.

·         The expert witness, someone who knows the background and is able to tell the story in an effective, detached way.

Stakeholder voices are the most powerful vehicle if they exist, since they often have a direct and emotionally powerful story.

Examples of this in practice recently includes the Starbucks series of ‘Upstanders’. Each of the Upstanders videos are well crafted to engage the viewer from the beginning and to leave them feeling uplifted and inspired. In that case, Starbucks chose to stay out of the story altogether, simply providing the vehicle, but in other cases companies can appear in a mentor or facilitator role.

The other two types are both detached narrators. Their power comes from their connection to an existing audience, or their trusted voice that comes from their authority.

When Heineken wanted to reach out to a younger audience to raise awareness of their work on climate change, they brought in YouTuber Ben Brown, who has 600,000 subscribers to his channel, to visit their carbon neutral brewery in Austria.

Brown produces a daily video log (vlog) for his audience, tracking his experiences as he travels to different parts of the world. So it fitted into his narrative style perfectly well for him to learn about the carbon impact of brewing beer and to explain this to his audience.

He wasn’t told what to say (although obviously it was rather expected he wouldn’t go on the attack). He made a couple of light jokes at his hosts’ expense. But it was exactly what they would have hoped for.

In this case, the story was the ongoing story of the narrator’s life. The company’s work simply formed a temporary backdrop. It was the company hitching a ride on a story, if you like, rather than needing to be centre stage.

Other examples include vlogger Louis Cole, whose ‘Fun for Louis’ channel has 1.8m subscribers, who has visited a school in Guatemala in partnership with Microsoft as well as a Fairtrade cocoa farm with Nestlé (that last one was somewhat controversial with some of Cole’s audience).

The last group, expert narrators, have yet to really make a mark on CSR storytelling.

Partly because they don’t have the ready audience of experts in other fields (such as people like David Attenborough or Bill Nye) or mainstream figures such as the vloggers.

However, although they may not be a route to the larger audience, they may still have a part to play in making stories engaging for the knowledgeable CSR audience.

Getting in an outside figure is a risk, naturally. If they are independent and allowed to tell the story as they experience it, not everything may follow the script the company would wish in every detail.

But that’s precisely why it becomes a more trusted communication.

It may not be for everyone.

We’re experimenting with an evolving new form, particularly as communication is expressed via social media. And some of those experiments will fail.

But for companies that are confident in their values and their actions it’s a fantastic opportunity.

Ps. If you have a great story to tell, and would like an exploratory chat about how this approach might work for you, get in touch with me at:


Starbucks Upstanders

Ben Brown

Fun for Louis