Without products or services, cause-related brands have no choice but to be masterful storytellers, which makes them particularly popular with agencies.

Last month the United Nations (UN) hosted the Media for Social Impact Summit, an all-day event at UN Headquarters, which gathered leaders in advertising, media, marketing and journalism. The goal? To highlight the power of media to drive social change, and kick-off planning for a massive ad campaign to mobilize everyone on Earth behind key sustainability goals by 2030.

At the Summit, I listened to a variety of panels and case studies and noticed a handful of themes that can be applied to marketers of all kinds looking to raise their storytelling game and inspire people to take action.

Meld Company and Cause

Kenneth Cole shared his journey as a fashion designer and his epiphany early on in his career: that he could use advertising to instigate social change. Over the last 30 years, he's shaped the brand's marketing into a pulpit for causes ranging from AIDS to homelessness.

In a more recent example, Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud shared the story of his company, NA3M. Growing tired of seeing Arabs misrepresented in entertainment and media, he had a vision for content created by and for people throughout the Arab world. NA3M is an incubator that creates, promotes and licenses content like games, animated series, and educational software that combats these stereotypes. 

Reveal the Role of Real People in Both Problems and Solutions

For causes looking to break through issue fatigue, one campaign showed the power of reframing the problem. The Autocomplete Truth was a collaboration between UN Women and Memac Ogilvy, which aimed to bring awareness to gender inequality. It featured actual results of Google's autocomplete search suggestions following the phrase "women should..." The resulting (Read more...) cleverly revealed deep-seated negative attitudes in regard to women. (Google has since made adjustments to its autocomplete results in many markets, removing offensive terms.)

It's On Us is a campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses. While it was driven by national media and celebrity endorsements including a video by President Obama during the 2015 GRAMMY awards, perhaps the most interesting aspect is how it's putting the power into the hands of student body presidents and others at the local campus level. Doing so is helping the effort live up to its promise, placing the onus of responsibility closer to the actual source.

Think Big, Act Small, Repeat

Change the Course, created by National Geographic, Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and Participant Media, has a very lofty goal-to create a national water conservation movement. To create momentum around an issue that's pretty intangible here in the United States, they focused on one highly recognizable water source and its plight: the mighty Colorado River, which no longer flows to the sea.

The campaign encourages people to shrink their water footprint by taking a pledge, which spurs corporate funding for water restoration projects along the Colorado River. After Change the Course saves the Colorado, they'll expand the campaign to other endangered freshwater systems around the world.

Another example is Make Room Concerts for the 1st, which sheds light on the rental affordability crisis in America by bringing big-name musicians into the living rooms of struggling families for an intimate performance. Carly Rae Jepsen kicked things off for one family in Los Angeles, and new concerts will follow on the first of every month-the day rent is due.

Unlike most marketers, cause-related brands don't have a product or service as a reason for people to believe their central idea. Their underdog status in the marketplace of ideas has forced them to recognize the power of a good story (which is a big reason why agencies love working with pro bono accounts).

So the next time you're thinking about how to give purpose to your brand, ask how you can incorporate your cause into the business itself; reveal the role of the individual; and continue to think big, but act small, over and over again.

Well-told stories may save the world after all.

Homepage image via Shutterstock

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