What Blue Planet’s storytelling and ‘pivotal idea’ can teach brands

Why is it that Blue Planet was so effective at landing the message about plastic, when articles, reports and testimonies over the preceding decades had not been anywhere near so successful?  The answer is in Blue Planet’s approach to Storytelling.  First, the makers isolated a single pivotal idea that a huge number of beautiful and innocent creatures are being extinguished as a direct result of our behaviours with plastic.  Second, they expressed this pivotal idea with emotional power.  The viewer saw film of beautiful animals in pain and distress.  The dolphin caught in plastic, the bird with its stomach full of undigested plastic.  No proper thinking person could watch this and not respond with sympathy and some shame.

So what can we learn in our industry?  Whilst the issues may seem less dramatic, the same principles of storytelling can be applied, to draw attention to issues and opportunities, and motivate people to change.

Retailers are dealing with huge complexity, bringing tens of thousands of products, often short life, to hundreds of stores, using mind-blowing supply chains, running sophisticated technology.  But they are best led with simple storytelling.  At Sainsbury’s in the mid noughties, there was an urgent need for turnaround.  This required a simple story that colleagues could get behind.  The pivotal idea was simply about reconnecting with customers.  The emotional expression was about “making Sainsbury’s great again”.  Whether you worked in the store support centre (which many felt had lost touch with customers) or in the stores themselves (where staff needed to believe their leadership understood the sharp end), the message was simple and motivating – who doesn’t want to work in a  great company?  Colleagues rallied behind the story, and Sainsbury’s began to consistently grow ahead of the market.

The same principles apply for brands and manufacturers.  Again, there is typically huge complexity, in equipment, manufacture, supply and marketing.  Again, these companies are best led by simple story telling.  Unilever has put a lot of focus into thinking and talking about its purpose, beyond just  making money for shareholders.  If you are working on Unilever’s Dove brand, you are uniting behind a pivotal idea about Real Beauty, emotionally expressed with stories and images of men and women living comfortably, free from unhelpful pressure exerted by elements of the beauty and fashion industries.  “Helping to make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety”, is the strapline.  It’s not just about flogging soap and cream, to make some cash.

Is this all just playing with words?  Marketing fluff?  It is more than that. Storytelling can make the difference between effecting real change and carrying on as normal.  Just look at the impact of Blue Planet versus all the worthy, technically sound warnings that preceded it.  A pivotal idea, expressed with emotional power, has changed the way we think about plastic, and perhaps even the world.


Jeremy Garlick is a Partner of Insight Traction, consulting with FMCG and Retail companies.  He was formerly Head of Insight at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Premier Foods.

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