I believe storytelling can be the key to connecting with your audience on a meaningful level and building long-term relationships with your customers. It has the power to transform the way you market your business.
But that comes with a caveat: Empty storytelling is worse than no storytelling at all.
Today I was scrolling through Instagram and happened upon a Facebook post for Women’s History Month. The video features a diverse group of women leaders throughout history and asks viewers to “#ShoutOut a leading lady in your life.”
If you know me, then you know I am a vocal, ardent feminist. So why am I deeply irked by this message from Facebook?
Let’s start at the very beginning. This 2003 article from The Harvard Crimson details Facebook’s less-than-heartening creation story. Mark Zuckerberg scraped the school’s ID photo database, collecting pictures of unsuspecting students and placing them on his Facebook prototype site to be rated by “hotness.”
There’s nothing quite as anti-feminist as a white, straight, cis man stealing people’s photos and encouraging strangers to judge them for their looks. If Animal House were set in the digital age and the frat house had a couple of coders residing there, the creation of a site like this could be a plot point in the film.
Ancient history, you might say! What about Facebook today? What about Sheryl Sandberg? Unfortunately, Sheryl Sandberg remains an outlier at the organization (and there’s a whole other conversation to be had around Ms. Sandberg’s brand of non-intersectional, #WhiteFeminism).
According to statistics on Facebook’s own site, less than 37% of leadership roles and less than 25% of technical roles are held by women. And that’s all women. If we’re talking specifically about non-white women, the stats are even more abysmal.
If you look at the women featured in Facebook’s Women’s History Month post, there is a ton of diversity. Unfortunately, that’s not an accurate picture of who you’d find walking around the Facebook campus.
This gap between marketing story and cold, hard reality is a problem brands keep running up against.
We saw a wave of this behavior during the Black Lives Matter protests in the early summer of 2020. Brands put up BLM banners on their sites and participated in the social media blackout. But when folks dug into the actual work the brands had done to champion racial justice and equity, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance behind those flashy marketing messages.
The LGBTQ+ community sees this same pandering every year during Pride Month. Brands create rainbow logos, and many big corporates build floats for Pride parades in cities like New York. But how many of those brands are walking the walk?
Time and again, we find that brands are not putting their money where their mouths are. Younger generations are growing increasingly focused on the intersection between social justice and consumerism. Ninety percent of Gen Zers believe companies must act responsibly when it comes to social and environmental issues.
And they’re not simply going to take your word for it. The same survey found that 75% of GenZers will research a brand’s actual work in these areas before making a purchase. Gen Zers currently outnumber millennials, and as more of them leave the parental nest, their collective purchasing power continues to grow.
What does this mean for brands?
It’s time to end the empty mission-focused storytelling. The BLM protests of 2020 awakened a lot of folks to the systemic inequality in our country. If you weren’t paying attention to it before, it's okay to start now. But it's not okay to pretend you were part of the movement all along.
Brands are run by people, and it’s hard for people to admit when they’ve made a mistake. It’s easier for us to embrace a message that showcases who we want to be rather than acknowledge that we’ve been off the mark for quite some time.
There is no quick-fix or workaround here. When it comes to social justice, it’s critically important that your organization walks the walk before talking the talk. And walking the walk takes time. There is no time machine leaders can take to start DEI work 60 years ago, and we can’t snap our fingers and create perfectly diverse and equitable organizations overnight. It’s a product of cumulative actions and effort.
That may seem like bad news for leaders who want to capitalize on a movement or celebratory month on the calendar. But the great news is that when all businesses dig in and do the work, not only do they have a substantive story to share and celebrate, they’ve also built a better world in the process.