To successfully build your social impact brand, storytelling needs to be your top priority.
Why? Stories influence consumer purchasing decisions. They connect your audience to you and what you do.
According to brand storytelling coach Celinne Da Costa, Brand storytelling is a “need to have,” and will ultimately maximize your business’s visibility, profit, and impact. She suggests treating brand storytelling as a “compass for marketing strategy.”
Consumer insights point in the same direction. A report by marketing agency Headstream (now FivebyFive) says 80% of people want brands to tell stories and 55% who love a brand story are more likely to buy the product.
In short, it pays to be a good storyteller. But there’s more to brand storytelling than profits and a catchy storyline.
Drawing on insights from Acumen Academy’s BUILD 2021 Conference, this guide will walk you through the intersection of branding and storytelling.
Six steps to define the core elements of your brand
Six story formats to tell your brand story
William Charnock, Acumen’s Chief Marketing Officer, says there’s been a powerful paradigm shift in the world of branding. Thirty years ago, consumers believed a “hot brand” symbolized power, authority, and prestige. Today, consumer interests have shifted from social status to social good. They want brands to serve a purpose beyond financial returns.
Ultimately, our future as a human race depends on all of us subscribing to a revolution of morals in which we commit ourselves to something beyond ourselves.
— Jacqueline Novogratz, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution
Social innovators have an upper hand. While large corporations like MasterCard scramble to find ingredients that make their corporate strategy more “purposeful,” social enterprises already have social good woven into their business.
“But social innovators lose this playing advantage when they attempt to market their product through commercial branding tactics,” said William.
Unlike traditional corporations, social enterprises rarely offer a simple product that someone might mindlessly order online. Social enterprises are more complex, often weaving together a collection of ideas and providing meaningful solutions that solve global challenges.
“You've got a very complex problem to communicate. You've got different parts, different products or services to help people. How do you brand that complexity?” said William.
Let’s discover how.
The speed of digital communication means that companies are no longer in full control of brand perception. Other forms of communications, such as third party reviews and tweets ranging from critics, employees, and top CEOs, have a role to play in forming the company image.
Unlike the days before social media, companies are judged not just by the perception they try to create, but also by the realities of what they say and do.
“I think we are in an era where the actions of a brand are far more important than the communications of a brand,” said William.
Your brand is defined as the intangible value of your product. It needs to answer the question: What are you trying to create above and beyond the utility of what you’re offering? It can be any intangible value, such as how much good you do in the world, how well you follow through on your promises, or how far you’re pushing boundaries. The additional value beyond a product or service is paramount.
Brand storytelling is how you communicate that value: how you show the world what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how.
According to Anne Miltenburg of The Branding — an education company focused on brands for social and environmental change — branding is “the act of directing how people think and feel about you. This is accomplished by a combination of factors…everything from the visual look and feel of your company materials, the experience people have when using your product or engaging with your service, to the words you use to communicate – your stories. Each one of these decisions adds up to create a picture in people’s mind about your organization, what it stands for, and what it can do for them and for the world.”
Before you can translate what your organization does into your brand story, you have to be clear about the small pieces that make up the whole part. What are all the parts that can bring your brand to life?
Here are six steps to define the core elements of your brand:
1. DEFINE YOUR BELIEF SYSTEM
Your belief system is the heart of your social enterprise. It’s not about the products you're making or the services you’re distributing — it’s the motivational force that drives you to solve the problem you’re tackling.
To determine your belief system, William recommends answering this question: What is the human truth you serve and what will you always serve, not just now, but forever and in the future?
For example, Acumen’s belief system is that every person deserves to live with dignity. This belief is what drives Acumen to solve the problem of poverty that neither the markets nor aid have been able to do alone.
Acumen bridges the gap between market-based approaches and pure philanthropy with “Patient Capital,” offering investors a new way to invest in global social innovators who are tackling the challenges of global poverty.
“I use those beliefs to define the intentions of the organization, which in turn define the initiatives and campaigns we’re going to do. I then use those initiatives to define specific actions we’re going to take. This is how Acumen’s belief system — the core of the organization — becomes the essence of our branding and communications,” William explained.
If it’s tricky to narrow down your belief system, a great place to start is by defining a clear impact model.
2. CLARIFY YOUR IMPACT MODEL
During Acumen Academy’s BUILD 2021 Conference, Co-Founder and CEO of Mighty Ally Kevin Brown hosted a learning lab where he explained how your impact model defines your brand.
“An impact model is an organization’s plans for achieving impact. According to Alnoor Ebrahim, [Professor of Management at Tufts University] ‘Impact is the significant or lasting changes in people’s lives brought about by a given action or series of actions,’” said Kevin.
In other words, to clarify your impact model, ask yourself: what change do you bring to the world and how are you doing it?
“Defining the change you wish to see and how you affect that change is going to be the centerpiece of your narrative and your marketing communications,” said Kevin.
Kevin offers four ways your impact model should influence your brand:
Brand Personality: Your brand personality, such as the way you present yourself on social media or in marketing campaigns, should align with your impact model. Think of your brand as a person: if your organization focuses on activism and has an impact model around staging rallies and overturning policies, you might say your brand has a rebellious personality.
Tone and Voice: As a rebellious brand, you’ll want to focus your terminology and style around that personality trait. If your brand was a person, how would you talk? Would you be gentle and sweet, or firm and demanding?
Visuals: As an activist brand, your logo, colors, and fonts should likely be bold to illustrate your impact model.
Website Strategy: To communicate the impact your organization does, the homepage of your site should tell the story of someone whose life was changed as a result of your advocacy. It should describe the problem they faced and how they overcame it, bringing your impact model to life through brand storytelling.
“Your impact model sits at the center of your brand and will affect your downstream marketing communications. If you feel like your brand is rubbish, take a step back and review your impact model. You can’t have a solid brand without a sound impact model,” said Kevin.
3. DETERMINE YOUR VISION OF THE FUTURE
“Your brand is an icon for change. It’s your vision of the future.The best brands are symbols of change in their own right. They represent a change people want to get behind,” said William.
Your vision of the future explains why your brand is relevant and why it matters today. You can then use marketing and other communication tools to inspire others to join your movement.
Here are two ideas to help you nail that vision:
1. Understand the System Within Which You Operate
Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) is an independent think-and-do tank started by a group of Colombian entrepreneurs with an unwavering yet complex vision for the future: building a peaceful and secure Colombia.
“We face the most complex realities, realities that are hard to explain, that don’t have a clear causality, that don’t have an easy explanation,” said María Lucía Méndez, Business and Peacebuilding Director at FIP.
Struggling to convey their vision to a broader audience, the team enrolled in Acumen Academy’s course on Systems Practice where they designed “The Peace Meta-Map” to better understand and communicate their ideas for peace building. They used the map to answer, ‘What can peace in Colombia actually look like?’
“Once we had a version of the map, it helped us to open up new channels of communication and relationships with other organizations and other actors, to generate new dialogues, and energize conversations and reflections around peace in Colombia,” said María Lucía.
Adopting a systems practice approach is one good way to help narrow in on your vision of the future because it builds a shared understanding of a system or process that others can get behind.
2. Craft Your Brand Vision Statement
Another way to define your vision of the future is with a brand vision statement. In their blog How visionary is your vision statement? Mighty Ally says a vision statement should be one part strategy, one part narrative.
Here are three examples of brand vision statements to get you started:
If you need a push of creative inspiration, consider enrolling in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creativity Workshop or Debbie Millman’s Branding for Social Change to learn everyday practices to spark creative branding.
4. AVOID THE CONFORMITY TRAP
Organizations frequently fall into the trap of using jargon because they think it’s what their audience expects to hear. Phrases like "Now more than ever" or “Building brighter futures” fall flat because they’re common, ineffective, and cliché.
“Funders and customers can smell right through inauthenticity. Find the messaging and model that's unique to you, and double down on it. Confidence wins, not conformity,” said Kevin.
One way to avoid conformity in branding is to pulse-check your integrity. Are you backing what you say with actions, and are those actions demonstrated in your communications?
A great way to both demonstrate your actions and also avoid conformity is to be intentional with the human stories you tell. William recently led a partnership between Acumen and consulting firm Ernst & Young to create The Inclusive Business Playbook: A Practical Playbook for Business Leaders to help businesses balance profitability with equity.
“Our goal was to share the challenges businesses face with inclusivity and feature the social enterprises we work with. But one of the biggest pushes we had to make was to practice what we preached. We had to make sure the playbook wasn’t just talking about “inclusion” by adding stories of wealthy people from diverse backgrounds,” said William.
“We pushed right to the front lines to include the poor and marginalized so that the playbook truly showed corporations how to include those people in their workforce and supply chain strategies. We wanted to force readers to not just create an illusion of inclusivity, but to actually change the systems that exclude people,” said William.
Avoiding conformity in business is simply a hard-edged skill all social enterprise builders should practice, and helps you build authentic relationships with your customers.
5. EMPOWER CONSUMERS AS BRAND STORYTELLERS
Your community, or your strongest brand advocates, play two important roles in guiding your brand story.
First, as your audience: by designing a product or service with their needs at the center, they’re more likely to listen and try your offering, hopefully becoming loyal customers if it continues meeting their needs.
Second, as your storytellers: Your consumers can be the most authentic communicators of your work if you empower them with resources to tell their own story of how your brand has improved their lives.
“The most selfless people in the world don't care about when you were founded or how many awards you've won. At least not at the beginning. Save all that information about you and your organization until you've hooked them,” said Kevin.
Start by speaking to their pains and gains. Weave in your value proposition and explain how your product or service improves their lives. Then design your communication so they can truly connect with your work.
Some ideas include engaging with them on social media, inviting them to share their story on your website, or featuring them in a video to illustrate how your product makes their lives better, making sure it’s easy for them to share, too.
6. USE VISUAL DESIGN
Incorporating visual design into your branding strategy can feel daunting, but you don’t have to be an expert to build a brand that aligns with your vision.
Think of visual design as the visual expression of your brand. It defines what your brand looks and feels like.
In her Acumen Academy Branding for Social Change Master Class, Debbie Millman interviewed Bobby Martin and Jennifer Kinon, Co-Founders of the branding consultancy The Original Champions of Design, who lead the iconic rebranding of the Girl Scouts.
Following their conversation, here are two simple steps you can take to visualize your brand:
1. Build your brand architecture: Like an org chart, your brand architecture maps out how the different elements of your organization fit together. It helps you decide the hierarchy of your products and how they visually relate to each other.
Imagine that your organization helps rural youth gain employment in the energy sector. You offer a career coaching program but require students to complete a technical training program first. You’ll want to design your visuals to indicate technical training is the first step, and career coaching is the second. Visually, you can show this relationship on your website landing page by placing the first step above the second.
2. Define your brand characteristics: Find a few words, symbols, colors, and feelings that describe your brand.
As a career coaching and employment organization, the word that describes your brand might be “achievement.” Positive colors like green and symbols like stars or check marks might translate that word into a brand visual.
Acumen Academy’s Graphic Designer Santiago Rodríguez says “Don’t think too much about the do’s or don’ts of what you have to do, but rather focus on what makes sense for the brand.”
He recommends thinking about visuals like a language:
“For visual storytelling, you can use every color, photo, and shape there is, but they all have to be arranged in a way that relates to the work you do and the values you’re trying to convey.”
Enlight Institute is a good example of simple and effective visual design. As a social enterprise led by East Africa Acumen Fellows Jay Patel and Abu Musuuza, Enlight Institute trains rural youth for employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in Uganda's solar energy sector. Their brand is a small yellow star above Enlight that symbolizes both solar energy and education.
CASE STUDY: HOW VISUAL STORYTELLING CAN HELP YOUR BUSINESS COMMUNICATE
Visual storytelling is an underutilized tool for social innovators seeking to communicate the value of their business, product, or impact to a wider audience.
Jordan Bresler Muething and Sky White are part of the team at Argodesign, a product design consultancy. They work with clients around the world to design, develop, and communicate bold and innovative ideas through strategic design and visual storytelling. Jordan and Sky believe design is a key tool that helps mission-driven businesses showcase their stories authentically and resonate with their audience.
At Argodesign, their visual storytelling is shared through “interactive stories” that communicate the problem their client faced, the process designed to solve that problem, and the solution Argodesign developed to meet that challenge.
“Words are the basis for any good story, but incorporating all of these different layers can completely change how someone receives or interprets that story… the possibilities are endless.” - Jordan Bresler Muething
Prior to Argodesign, Sky worked at littleBits, a company that designs electronic modules that snap together with magnets and other STEAM-based educational tools for kids. The founder, Ayah Bdeir, is a Lebanese Canadian woman who wanted to make inventing just as cool and normalized for girls as it is often perceived for boys. Looking at the marketplace for engineering toys, the team realized the products in this space were perpetuating the narrative that engineering is a boy’s domain – the colors, the packaging, the fonts were all branded for boys.
LittleBits decided to be part of changing that narrative. Leveraging visual storytelling techniques, they created a gender-neutral brand story, making the act of invention accessible for everyone. They crafted the story to feature a young female inventor and geared their brand colors, fonts and packages to resonate with young girls and boys equally. Decisions like choosing colors that were bright, vibrant, and inviting for all genders paid off, and soon they saw more girls taking an interest in their products.
Once you know the story you want to tell, how do you make sure it breaks through the clutter and reaches your audience?
When the global pandemic hit, Argodesign recognized it was a pivotal time for brands to stay relevant, get creative, and survive the uncertainties. They also knew they had to break the mold, too. The team felt compelled to offer their bold perspective on the importance of innovation in the context of the pandemic.
They used visual design in the form of a creative newsletter to communicate their vision that “innovation is imperative.” Their July 2020 Newsletter featured images of airspace innovation throughout history and challenged readers to think about an innovative future despite the uncertain present. For Argodesign, this was their most authentic idea, delivered effectively using visual storytelling elements that were meaningful to their audience.
Jordan and Sky’s examples show how visual storytelling can bring a company’s vision for the future to life.
Translate Your Brand into Powerful Stories
Reflect on the six steps above and consider how the core elements of your brand shape the stories you tell about it:
Your Belief System: What does your brand believe in?
Your Impact Model: What does your brand do?
Your Vision of the Future: Why is your brand relevant? Why does it matter?
Avoiding Conformity: How does your brand stand out?
Your Community of Storytellers: Who is your brand for?
Your Visual Design: What does your brand look and feel like?
Powerful brand storytelling combines the elements that make your brand unique with creative stories that inspire customers to explore who you are, what you do, and why it matters.
Six Story Formats To Communicate Your Brand
Here are six story formats adapted from Acumen Academy’s Storytelling for Change course to get you started.
1. WHO WE ARE STORY
Who We Are stories tell the audience about your organization. What makes up the DNA of your community? Why does your brand exist and who is it for?
PichaEats is a food delivery service started when a group of university students volunteering in a refugee learning center asked themselves: “How can we help parents from the refugee community become financially stable so their children can receive an education?”
Sitting down at “a meal that sparked an idea,” the students decided to train the parents to become professional chefs. They created a delivery service around “ready-to-heat meals” that helped these families make a living. True to who they are, the students named the company after their first chef — Picha’s mother.
“We decided to name this business after Picha as a constant reminder that this business is started for the people, and will continue to grow to impact more families,” says their website.
Like the team behind PichaEats, think about your community. Who is your brand for? How does it help improve their lives? Consider how you can frame the story about your brand around your community.
2. WHO I AM STORY
Who I Am stories are about moments that lead you on a path to start your social venture.
Rebecca Kersh is the CEO and Founder of TANG, a fintech platform simplifying the way migrant workers send money and phone credit overseas. In an Acumen Academy panel discussion, Rebecca tells the story about how her Philipino origins influenced the creation of TANG.
“My Philipino aunty is a migrant worker who helped raise me and my siblings. I grew up seeing her sacrifice a lot for family and sending home almost everything she earned,” said Rebecca.
“The financial transaction platforms available kept about 8% of what my aunty sent home. This meant that for one full year of living and working abroad, one entire month’s pay went towards covering transaction fees alone. Meanwhile, family members in the Philippines were largely unbanked. This meant they couldn’t improve their household economics or build financial history despite the remittances they were receiving from family abroad,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca founded TANG as a solution to the broken financial system she witnessed growing up. Today, it’s the story she tells to brand herself as a founder, as an early stage innovator, and as an inspirational storyteller when pitching to investors.
3. CHANGE THE FRAME STORY
Change the Frame stories help your audience see a problem through a new perspective.
Evodius Gervas is an East Africa Acumen Fellow and the Co-Founder and Director of Hakizetu Tanzania, a nonprofit based in Mwanza, Tanzania. Hakizetu promotes the safety, health and social protection of young women and girls.They offer safe sexual and reproductive health services, legal aid and social counseling, and economic empowerment programs for young women to take control of their lives.
East Africa Fellow
Evodius GervasEvodius Gervas is feminist, gender activist, co-founder and Senior Program Manager of the Hakizetu Tanzania, a nonprofit organization based in Mwanza, Tanzania ...
Evodius says at first, people perceived his work in a negative way.
“I was arrested several times because of this. My activism was a threat to harmful gender norms that were disempowering young women and girls. There was a lot of pushback from the community because it went against our culture. They thought it would disintegrate families,” said Evodius.
Evodius and his team at Hakizetu decided one way to teach the community about their work was to let the young women tell their own stories.
In their Cure of Pain - Successful Stories report, Rosemary Bizmana’s story, “I Am No Longer A House Maid,” recounts the physical abuse she faced as a domestic worker, the legal struggles she overcame to free herself, and the success she found with support from Hakizetu.
Today, Rosemary owns her own garment shop, uses family planning methods, and participates in bank loan services to grow her business. She is also an activist and volunteer at Hakizetu.
“I assist women and girls to liberate themselves financially and socially from the claws of the monster ‘patriarchal system’ and urge them to stand up together as one and fight for their rights because unity is power,” said Rosemary.
If you’re struggling to communicate the problem your brand is trying to solve, you might want to share a success story that helps reframe the problem and your solution.
4. LESSONS LEARNED STORY
Lessons Learned stories are about moments that taught you something new or inspired you to take a different course of action.
Dilip Kumar Pattubala is an India Acumen Fellow and the Co-Founder of Uninhibited, a Bangalore based social enterprise educating women and girls experiencing poverty about menstrual hygiene and improving access to affordable hygiene products.
Dilip Kumar PattubalaDilip is the co-founder of Sukhibhava, a Bangalore based social enterprise educating women and girls experiencing poverty about menstrual hygiene and improving ...
On Uninhibited's website, they tell the story of how they’re “creating a movement” that makes menstruation a non-issue by de-stigmatizing menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health in India. They take readers through a timeline of “aha” moments that inspired them to create the impact they’re having today.
In 2014, “We started out solely as a period product distributor, selling pads at scale, until we noticed that we were only reaching marginalized menstruators who were already using sanitary pads.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Uninhibited learned that to engage new customers, they needed to provide education around menstruation, create safe spaces to normalize the conversation, build capacity by training others to lead the ecosystem, and include men and boys in the conversation to drive lasting behavior change in the household. When COVID-19 hit, they also launched a free helpline to sustain and scale access to menstrual healthcare during the pandemic.
By 2021, Uninhibited has already impacted +200,000 menstruators, men and boys.Today, Uninhibited’s vision for the future is global scale.
“Similar challenges exist in marginalized communities all over the word. Through glocal collaboration, we can scale a movement to normalize menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health.”
If you feel like your journey has been a never-ending series of failures and lessons learned, use that story to your advantage.Think about how your lessons can tell an inspiring story about your brand’s journey and impact.
5. MOTIVATE CHANGE STORY
Motivate Change stories shed light on what’s wrong with the present situation by establishing the case for change or creating a new vision for the future.
Martha Osiro is an East Africa Acumen Fellow and a social innovator who lives and works in Kampala, Uganda. In a panel discussion with Acumen Academy, Martha tells the story of how her experience living outside of Uganda sparked an idea that changed the country’s healthcare system.
East Africa Fellow
Martha OsiroMartha manages the Uganda branch of the Aga Khan University Hospital, which provides quality healthcare and medical education in East Africa. She has engaged ov...
“When I moved back to Uganda from the US, I realized the different ways people approached health. In the western world, people go for yearly checkups. If they find something, they treat it early. In Uganda, it was only when people were really sick — about to die — that they would go to the hospital.”
“As the Manager of the University Hospital at the time, I saw wealthy people coming to our clinics with diseases like hypertension and diabetes that could have been prevented. I thought, if hospitals couldn’t solve ailments for the middle and upper classes, where does this leave the poor?”
But in Uganda, it’s hard to get the poor to go for checkups. Hospitals are expensive and a doctor’s visit is considered a luxury when your main concern is to put food on the table.
Martha decided to take action. She found partners and opened a medical camp so that people from all over the country could get free checkups.
“It was only after two or three years that we began to see people getting their teeth checked, going for yearly checkups, and following up on their health. We treated many people that were pre-diabetic, pre-hypertensive and were able to intervene early on so that the disease would not progress to a stage that was incurable. Over time, it worked. And several government agencies began offering their own medical camps. It became a sustainable project that pushed the country’s healthcare in a new direction,” said Martha.
No matter where you are on the journey toward creating change, telling a story that sheds light on the problem you’re tackling is a good way to brand your vision.
6. IMPACT STORY
Impact stories combine data with an emotionally engaging message to bring a data point to life.
Acumen Academy interviewed Mandy Gardner and Justin Belleme from JB Media Group, a digital marketing agency for organizations that are changing the world. They say “for every data point you want to share, tell a story that helps your audience see the community that data represents.”
For example, the Fifteen Percent Pledge is an advocacy organization with a landing page that hits you with a leading point:
“Black people in the U.S. make up nearly 15% of the population.”
“So we’re calling on major retailers to commit a minimum of 15% of their shelf to Black-owned businesses.”
The brand uses data to tell the story of their community and the struggles that black-owned businesses face compared to other business owners as a result of the pandemic:
“Business owners that have gone bust due to COVID: 40% black, 34% Latinx, and 17% white.”
“21% of black-owned businesses say they won’t survive the pandemic.”
“5% of white-owned businesses said the same.”
They call on consumers to change that reality:
“There are 124,000 black-owned businesses that you can buy from. All you need to do is...look.”
Using data, they paint a picture of the large number of black-owned businesses to look out for, across industries. There are:
“8,753 black-owned retail firms, 8,218 construction firms, 7,492 food and accommodation firms, and 2,583 arts, entertainment and recreation firms.”
“So buy black!”
When using data to tell your story, make sure to apply ethical marketing best practices, keeping it as simple and straightforward as possible.
Grow as a Storyteller
If you’re seeking more ways to use storytelling to grow your business or your impact, dive into one of these three courses at Acumen Academy:
A good public speaker is a good storyteller. Chris Anderson’s Master Class on Public Speaking cracks open your public speaking skills and teaches you how to tell stories that move a room of people into action.
If you’re looking for new ways to grow as a leader, join Acumen Academy’s free Storytelling for Change course. You’ll learn the “Leadership PRESence” framework and other strategies to communicate a personal story, craft a powerful presentation, and inspire change among others.
Learn how to use storytelling to reimagine the world by practicing the principles of moral imagination in Jacqueline Novogratz’s course The Path of Moral Leadership. You’ll practice courage to share your story while amplifying those of others and learn the hard-edge skills to build a better world.