Author: Sana Iqbal

Consumers are demanding action, so why are organisations only talking?

No longer are consumers and employees waiting for businesses to embrace ethical priorities. Instead they are now holding them accountable for their inaction. Recently, it was reported that 53 per cent of consumers have switched to lesser-known brands because they were sustainable, while 47 per cent have walked away from brands that disappoint on social issues. These values are shaping the workplace, with over 73 per cent of employees wanting their CEO to speak out on social and environmental issues. The Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have amplified the pressure on businesses to take action as more people become mindful of their consumption and social responsibility.

Take Oatly, a beloved milk alternative brand which prides itself on its sustainability. The brand is famed for its bold campaigns which puts its purpose at the heart of them. In 2019 they unveiled their ‘Ditch Milk’ campaign. Oatly’s Creative Director Michael Lee said, “Our message to the London Coffee Festival crowd and anyone else who might be interested in the future, is pretty simple — swap cow’s milk for oat drink and save the planet 73 per cent in CO2e.” Recently Oatly came under fire for selling shares to an association with purported links to deforestation. The business purpose and actions were at odds, and Oatly received a fierce social media backlash with some consumers boycotting the brand. Oatly is open and proud of its environmental record, so keeping this controversial decision quiet created a vacuum for consumers to believe they had broken their sustainability promise. Oatly responded by releasing a statement to explain the decision and time will tell if trust will be recovered. 

The risk of disengaging employees and customers who increasingly value companies’ contributions to society over profit is a large one. In 2016 NFL player Colin Kapernick was exiled by the league after taking the knee in protest of police brutality. Nike supported his protest against racial injustice by featuring him in bold advertising campaigns. Nike was met with customer support shown through a jump in sales. Nike has continued to feature Colin Kapernick with him becoming one of the faces for its 30th anniversary campaign. Public solidarity was soon met with criticism when Nike’s 2019 diversity record came into the spotlight, with less than 10 per cent of its vice presidents being Black. Nike’s genuine commitment for racial equality was questioned when its own internal structures didn’t match. This criticism was heightened when past and present Black Nike employees anonymously took to social media to share their experiences of racism.

Nike went from being seen as a genuine supporter to a performative ally. Nike’s CEO John Donahoe released a statement saying “We’ve stepped up our own efforts and measures of accountability in the areas of diversity, inclusion and belonging to foster an inclusive environment and attract a more diverse workforce.” He went on to pledge $40 million to “support the Black community in the US”.

A organisation’s disconnect between its purpose, messaging and actions is increasingly being scrutinised by a society which wants and expects better. One client we recently worked with placed its purpose at the heart of its narrative. The narrative echoed words of belonging and opportunities for all, yet the visuals told a very different story – not a single image of their teams included an employee from an ethnic minority background. The CEO felt the images had to remain, so the truth of its poor diversity record would awaken leadership to address the problem. The visual depicting the business’s future was replaced from a homogenous group of white males to a range of ages, gender and ethnicities. The CEO hoped the story visuals would hold the leadership team accountable, so they would feel compelled to take action and enact the narrative’s goals of building a business where everyone belonged. 

The pandemic, Climate Emergency and Black Lives Matter have put the spotlight on businesses who fail to live up to consumer values which now focus around care, equality and safety. Leaders have to accept they have a responsibility to engage with these issues to better society and protect the environment. Indeed, 64 per cent of consumers are ‘belief-driven buyers,’ meaning they will switch or boycott a brand based on its stance on these issues. The next generation is especially concerned, so in order to attract and retain talent it should be a priority. Having a story which connects and voices both ethical and strategic priorities will bring everyone on the business journey. It will ensure every decision made within the organisation is in service of keeping these urgent priorities, making the organisation relevant, respected and believed in. 

To find out more about the power of storytelling to inspire and fuel change, read and download our ebook: ‘Storytelling: how to reset an organisation’s narrative to inspire change’.

All visuals, no substance

Campaigns – whether political, commercial or societal – are only ever about one thing: action. Millions are spent every year on the art of getting people to do things. Age-old wisdom and a hefty supply of modern research tells us that the right messaging, wrapped in the right creative treatment, is a quick win to mass mobilisation, from purchasing new products to saving for retirement. So why are we still so bad at it? A recent report found that the UK government’s £46 million ‘Get ready for Brexit’ ad campaign only influenced 34% of citizens to look for preparation information about Brexit. With a staggering budget and mass advertising campaign you’d expect dramatically better results. The campaign was dubbed “mystifying in its utter uselessness” by the Guardian’s columnist Suzanne Moore and received over 200 complaints (Guardian, October 2019). The National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that the ineffectiveness of the campaign was down to the public’s awareness that the October 31st deadline was unlikely to be kept to (Business Insider, Jan 2020). The campaign’s major shortfall was that its core message had no clear narrative: people didn’t believe in the story behind it. Without the sense of an onwards journey, the slogans felt empty and meaningless. 

Bad campaigns matter because inaction is a death knell in these fast-moving times. Brexit has laid bare the national pain of delay and dither, but this is even more critical for businesses’ cutting speeds that far outstrip government through increasingly murky waters. Because we’re visual creatures, campaigns remain the highest-impact tool at our disposal for mass communication and collective gearshifts. People process visual information thousands of times faster than text, and retain 80% of what they see (CMS, 2019). But we’re also at saturation point. 

So what does a campaign have to do to get a little traction these days? 

The answer is not a question of catchier slogans or glossier design. We know that humans only act when they’re emotionally engaged, not rationally informed. The shortcut between rational information and emotional connection is storytelling – and this is what campaigns too often forget, at their peril. 

Image: Campaign Live

Pen your story

When building an effective campaign, the narrative should be clearly defined from the outset. To inspire people to join the journey you are setting out on, a solid place to start is by drawing out the map. Because people are neurologically hardwired to learn from the emotional impact of stories, a clear and defined narrative draws people in. And when your story is consistent and coherent, it can then be visually brought to life by the creative campaign.

Connect to the wider narrative

One of the most powerful political posters of all time was created by the Conservatives in 1978; it simply depicted a snaking queue of people outside an unemployment office. Visually, it couldn’t have been simpler or more understated. But when paired with its now-iconic ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ slogan, it tapped into the powerful wider narrative of the campaign and the zeitgeist. It wasn’t just clear, coherent, punchy nor bold. It was a work of visual storytelling: a body blow in the Winter of Discontent that immediately connected on an emotional and rational level and drove a landslide Tory victory.

Image: Campaign Live

At The Storytellers, we have found that businesses encounter similar problems when they need to communicate complex information. The wider narrative that the campaign is reinforcing needs to be reflected throughout its creative work. As with the ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster, it’s the symbiosis between the visuals and the narrative that communicates something powerful. When we combine rational and emotional language, then we achieve intellectual understanding and emotional connection, galvanising us to drive coherent action forwards. 

Build your insights

To build an effective creative campaign you need to start from a point of genuine audience insight. We often find that focus groups are a treasure trove of information: they hold the answers to building an effective creative campaign by revealing what makes employees tick or fall asleep. In 1997, Labour created the memorable ‘New Labour’ campaign that culminated in Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the election. This savvy political project used focus groups to guide the process, with the party conducting a staggering six-a-week before the election. New Labour took on a targeted approach that effectively communicated its optimistic and hopeful offer to voters.

 Cross-organisational steering teams, boards and champions are able to continuously test insights. Technology can also be harnessed to provide quantitative insights through simple measures such as surveys. These responses bring the sentiment to life with real, detailed human insight. Last year, we worked with an insurance company to help it dramatically improve its customer satisfaction scores. The creative work began not with the visuals, but in their offices, understanding employees and their workplace culture. This insight was pivotal: we discovered why employees didn’t engage with past campaigns and why communication channels weren’t effective. We used this research to create a vibrant visual identity and used playful techniques, such as energetic animations and branded merchandise. The visual identity has been fully embraced by the organisation and is now integral to their working environment and internal brand. 

Test it out 

We also know that an effective visual campaign needs to be tested out before it is implemented. The Director of Analytics for the 2008 Obama campaign has reported that the campaign was able to raise $60 million by simply testing out the sign-up page on the website (Optimizely). They tested out six different design variations of media on the website to convert page views into sign-ups. The success of this vigorous experimentation just highlights how an effective visual campaign works better with a strategy behind it. 

Bring your campaign to life 

The NAO concluded the Brexit campaign money would have been better spent on a ‘ground campaign’ as roadshows and stakeholder events might have increased the likelihood of getting people to act. When an organisation’s people first hear a strategic narrative, it needs to be memorable – and it’s only memorable when it’s moving. Opening films, events and roadshows all help an organisation make their campaign visible and deliver engaging storytelling experiences. We worked with a leading investment management firm on a major event that used visual storytelling to engage and equip all 7,000 of the business’s people. At the event, the slogan ‘Be the Change’ was visualised alongside spoken stories of powerful leadership, so that attendees were able to connect to the journey their organisation was on. 

Brexit was a complex and divisive topic, which needed more than face-value advertising to encourage people to prepare for it. If you want your creative campaign to drive action you need more than a flashy logo and illustrations. You need to understand your audience, learn from past campaigns, engage people through unforgettable moments and connect them to the narrative. 

You need an internal brand, and here’s why

In the last year we’ve seen major investment by organisations in their external branding efforts. A robust external brand identity provides ample opportunity for businesses from better reflecting our diverse society, creating a renewed sense of purpose to celebrating heritage in an uncertain world. 

However, consumer trust in external brands is falling. According to a recent study by HubSpot, 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase online if the product or service comes recommended by others. For businesses, this means that employees are now their most valuable brand advocates: they are the embodiment of the organisation, and they make the brand come alive for customers. Yet at the same time, investment in the internal brand that plays such a crucial role in creating this advocacy remains low: all this against the wider backdrop of a battle to retain talent and motivate employees during testing times.

“Success in business is all about people, people, people. Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage.” – Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin

The external brand cannot work visually for both internal and external purposes because they have two different audiences, messages and goals. Internally the goal is to encourage ownership and self possibility, yet a brand’s external identity is not sufficient to motivate employees. One size doesn’t fit all: what works for the customer, doesn’t always work for employees.


As with all great movements of change, a core part of any strong internal brand is its visual identity, which stimulates and sustains the change. Extinction Rebellion’s logo reflects the movement’s core message for people to take immediate action to halt mass extinction and climate change. The circled hourglass represents a warning that time is running out to take effective action to save life on earth. Bold typographic statements and colourful palette make their graphics clear and engaging. The visual identity carefully balances the movement’s message of urgency and peaceful protest. It’s easy to recognise and replicate, raising public awareness inviting participation. Two-thirds of people in the UK recognise there is a climate emergency partly due to Extinction Rebellion’s campaign. Like famous movements, a strong internal visual identity and rallying cry will give employees something to hold onto, create unity on all levels, and increase recognition of the campaign. 

“Design adds value faster than it adds costs.” – Joel Spolsky, creator of Trello


A recent client of The Storytellers invested in a visual identity and creative campaign alongside a narrative, which was rolled out across the business. The effect was an 80% increase of service scores within a two year period. We combined the feedback from focus groups and programme objectives to create a vibrant, fun visual identity, and creative campaign. The identity reached a range of touchpoints including leadership events, induction programmes, recognition campaigns, and environmental office graphics. The effect has been momentous, with employees feeling a sense of belonging to the business journey and motivated to play their part, all of which are essential to any brand advocate to change behaviours to benefit wider business goals.

Storytelling: to provide all people

To celebrate the 70th birthday of the National Health Service (NHS), BBC Wales produced an emotional film named ‘To provide all people’. The poetic script weaves together real-life stories of staff and patients punctuated by the historical birth of the NHS. The film is a perfect example of the power of visual storytelling. It turns the organisation’s birthday celebration into something more meaningful.

Writer, and acclaimed poet, Owen Sheers masterfully interwove over 70 hours worth of interviews to create the script. The stories include a father nearly losing his wife and child during a difficult pregnancy to a nurse going above and beyond to fulfil the final wish of a patient to die back home. The film doesn’t shy away from the challenges faced by the NHS, a subject always on the agenda of the national news and politicians. Combining stories of celebration with the current reality stop cynical viewers from seeing the film as propaganda. The choice to develop the script into a poem adds another layer of emotion. It adds musical quality to the script making the words memorable and amplifies deep feelings.

Here’s the thing. How exactly… does an idea begin? Where does it all start? In one woman’s brain, in one man’s heart? It doesn’t seem likely… all of us are fuelled by the thoughts of others, by what we’ve read, gleaned or seen.

The medium of film brings the poem alive. The cinematography is gritty and authentic with scenes filmed in Neville Hall Hospital. The direct dialogue to camera and intimate framing strengthens the connection with the viewer. The diverse cast reflect the NHS core purpose: to provide free healthcare for all.

At The Storytellers we shape our creative campaigns around employee stories of success and best practise to inspire people to learn from their peers and make connections to their own role, giving them the means to challenge their mindsets, shift their behaviours, and generate their own stories of success. We have seen that our clients make greater impact when producing a film as part of their campaign collateral. For example, we created an epic film for a large supermarket chain to galvanise the organisation’s employees and achieve service excellence. By conducting focus groups and interviews, building trust came out as the core message of the strategic narrative. The ambassador network, who’d champion the Story, were filmed collaborating to literally build the word ‘trust’ across the Peak District. The exercise not only established trust within the ambassador network during the film’s production but meant the rest of the organisation’s people were inspired by the amazing results which can be achieved through building trust with their teams and customers.

‘To provide all people’ is a powerful example of visual storytelling. The musical language, beautiful visuals and emotive acting make for a memorable television experience. Each creative element is carefully designed to amplify the strong emotions of the narrative, touching the heart of the viewer. The power of seeing every day people with their different backgrounds and dialects celebrating the NHS is a powerful way to reconnect the public with the organisation. It reminds us that in challenging times the organisation is still a national success.

‘To provide all people’ is a must-watch and is currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer. You can watch it here.

Sana Iqbal
Creative Consultant