Tell ‘true’ stories

Illustration for the true story article which has the wording based on a true story over the top
Storytelling for brands is nothing new – it’s been a theme in corporate comms for 15 years. For sustainability, we’re just waking up to its potential.

Research tells us people watch longer, remember more, and engage more deeply when facts are wrapped in stories. Stories are hardwired into our brains; they’re an essential part of how humans forge social bonds and relay vital information among community members. And as our understanding of the brain evolves, there is all kinds of new evidence that we respond to them in uniquely powerful ways.



A ‘true’ story has:

  • People (who want something)
  • Conflict or resistance (inner, outer, or both)
  • Risk
  • Uncertain outcomes 
  • Change and character growth


Many of the best elements of storytelling don’t make it into brand communications. Especially around sustainability stories. (We suspect there a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that sustainability has been seen as extraneous to the main event – the real story of the company.) Sustainability needs deeper engagement now, so there’s a real need for that to change decisively.


Critically, people are vital. We need someone with whom to identify. When’s the last time you read a book or watched a movie with an abstraction, or a logo, as the hero?


The Sopranos isn’t about the mafia. It’s about a man for whom strength equals survival, dealing with panic attacks. Succession isn’t about Fox News, really. It’s about children living up to a titanic and terrifying father.


What this means: brand stories aren’t really about the brand. They’re about the people behind the company, or the people affected by it. To unleash the deeper power of story, we need to pull people into the narrative – even if that hero is your audience.


And always remember that risk, stakes, change, and uncertainty drive engagement – the story must be about change.

What to do:

Centre people in the story

Bring the people driving innovation, leading teams, and taking risks centre stage. Whenever you can, make the story about them. It’s by projecting ourselves into the minds and experience of protagonists that story derives its uncanny power.

Story is change

Stories are about what has changed, or could change, for the people with whom we’ve come to identify. We need to see that change happen, especially if there’s a bit of danger involved, to truly be gripped by a story.

Uncertainty = suspense

True sustainability is at a crossroads. It’s a work in progress. It’s almost all open questions. Use this uncertainty to your advantage – and hook the audience with it. Trust us: if you’re honest and disruptive, they’ll want to find out more.

Make it serial

Updates on how sustainable change has – or hasn’t – taken hold will build audience engagement and affinity. Build on their attention over time, and build their undying respect in the process.