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How Edelman Shapes the Stories That Spark Change

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With trust in many of society’s key institutions – business, governments, nonprofits and the media – at historic lows, organizations must evolve to promote and protect their brands. And this fall in faith is hitting businesses the hardest.

But even in this environment of reduced trust, companies can’t afford to run for cover – people continue to ask business to play a leading role in not only delivering profits, but also contributing to improve the economic and social conditions in the community in which it operates.

Shaping the Stories that Spark Change.“Trust in business is now so low, that it has almost crossed the line to distrust,” said Lucy Allen, who heads Edelman’s Bay Area Hub, last week during a session for the NewCo Bay Area Festival at Edelman San Francisco. “That’s why when we think of stories that shape change, we need to think about it through this lens of reduced trust.”

As part of the festival, dozens of entrepreneurs, corporates, students and others interested in purposeful storytelling gathered at Edelman’s downtown San Francisco office for a session organized by the Business + Social Purpose (B+SP) team: “Shaping the Stories that Spark Change.”

“Restoring trust in the system will happen one institution at a time,” Lucy said. “And they can do this through five key behaviors: treating employees well, providing high-quality products and services, listening to your customers, doing your fair share for the community and behaving ethically.”

Stepping up with a purpose

In this complex ecosystem, fueled by the populist political landscape, companies must step up to fill the leadership vacuum. And it’s expected of them – some 75 percent of people expect the businesses they engage with to take specific actions to improve social and economic factors affecting community alongside profit, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

“How do businesses step into this space when businesses are expected to lead?” said Alex Heath, a senior vice president who leads San Francisco’s B+SP team. “It starts with a paradigm shift.”

He explained that the way Edelman looks at purpose is shifting from the old-school mentality of how you spend your money, to how you earn it. This “spectrum of purpose” spans from philanthropy through cause marketing up to sustainability all the way into shared value for society.

“It’s not enough to communicate good intent, it’s not enough to tell great stories – those are pieces of it,” Alex said. “It’s about shaping stories that spark change.”

Edelman helps its client do this by helping them to identify, activate and communicate their social impact, sustainability and purpose.

Alex discussed how we worked with CVS* to communicate its decision to stop selling tobacco products. While this might not have made immediate business sense – the company expected to take a $2 billion potential hit – it was seen as a critical step for staying true to its purpose of being a healthcare company. While the company lost that revenue stream, it acquired significant brand equity and now is seen as a healthcare leader.

Driving action with insights

“When a client comes to us with a challenge, one of the first things we do is talk about audience,” said Emily Chan, a vice president on the B+SP team.

Emily discussed how Kashi* approached her team asking for help winning back trust with consumers after its acquisition by Kellogg. The first thing we did was try to answer a simple question: what does the consumer want?

We discovered that Kashi, which is committed to increasing the availability of organic products, had been struggling for years to source enough organics to meet growing consumer demand. This helped lead to what is now known as Certified Transitional, a product label that helps farmers convert from conventional to organic certification. Since the launch of Certified Transitional in May 2016, Kashi has been able to quadruple the amount of transitional acreage thanks to spiking consumer demand.

“Looking for insights is looking out and looking in,” Emily concluded.

The age of collaborative journalism

“Collaborative journalism is something we do here at Edelman where we have current journalists, former journalists, recovering journalists – all stripes – hybrid talent mixed with marketers use journalistic tactics to tell stories,” said Todd Krieger, who leads the Edelman Bay Area Hub’s collaborative journalism efforts.

“It’s an opportunity and imperative that brands need to tell their own story.”

Todd emphasized the importance of inclusiveness in these efforts – in a media environment driven by sharing, people need to be inspired and enabled to be part of it. He cited REI’s* #OptOutside as an example of mixing insights with actions to tell effective stories.

REI asked what it could do for Black Friday which aligned with its brand purpose – encouraging people to go outside. In 2015, this led the company to do what at the time seemed like the unthinkable – closing down on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The action delighted consumers and the media alike, leading to a whirlwind of action on social and traditional media channels that elevated the brand’s image. REI saw its revenue grow by more than 9 percent in 2015 – an unprecedented boon for the company.

Attendees of the event left with a newfound knowledge of how Edelman works with the world’s largest brands and mission-driven organizations to drive lasting social and environmental impact through smart and inspired storytelling.

Mike Hower is a senior account executive in San Francisco.

*Edelman client

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