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How to create narrative with a purpose

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The diary of Private Chris Burtenshaw of 3rd Battalion

As human beings, we’re hard-wired to connect to a good story. We began telling them millennia ago, back when we were still living in caves. They were a portable tool that could be used for transferring knowledge and connecting on a cultural level, and they had a unique, interesting ability to trigger imagery in people’s minds.

Years later, some clever clogs hypothesised that this was how our memory (and therefore, by association, our knowledge) worked, which explained a story’s visual power and how we could identify with them on an emotional level. And it also explained why they worked as a persuasive tool. Studies have shown a narrative’s power in affecting people’s response to advertising, with empirical evidence has shown that the use of stories makes us more open to persuasion, and as industry practitioners we’re adept at using them to fashion powerful connections with consumers across a range of channels, old and new.

At Chapter, like at many agencies, there are charities we are close to and which we work with, and we generally do so because of emotional and personal connections to the cause in question. Despite working pro bono for these organisations, we still approach the work in the same manner as paid work, looking for what it is that makes their brands unique and seeking out compelling stories to be told. For a recent campaign for our client 353, a voluntary organisation supporting a range of military charities, we didn’t need to delve too far to find a story after it was given permission to make use of the diary of Private Chris Burtenshaw of 3rd Battalion. Burtenshaw had served with Conrad Lewis, who was the 353rd British soldier to lose his life in Afghanistan and the inspiration for the charity, and his journal of his tour of duty describes the fateful day Lewis died. Our challenge was to employ its narrative in a respectful and considered, but also powerful, manner to raise awareness of 353’s work.

Exploiting the real-time nature of digital to tell the story, we posted each part of the journal to a campaign microsite on the same day that Private Burtenshaw wrote it. Campaign activity was promoted across social networks and the result was a significant uplift in support for the charity during this timeframe. As a compelling story that deserved retelling, one year later we reimagined the journal as a printed companion to the aforementioned digital activity, supported by a bespoke, limited run of the book which was printed with ink mixed with the blood of Chris and his comrades, and presented in a box that was handmade by craftsmen from the Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Naturally, there’s a balance that must be struck when utilising narratives in charity communications. There is the risk of appearing exploitative or commoditising the story, but there are further case studies for their use. One such example is Charity: Water’s ‘Someone Like You’ campaign, which matched you through your interests and values to a resident of Adi Etot, a drought-stricken community in Ethiopia. Your match’s story and the plight of Adi Etot was recounted using the immersive multimedia capabilities of digital tech. Charity: Water’s success with its marketing stems from its attitudinal approach to its communications, seeing itself as a content creator first and foremost. It succeeds in telling a consistent story across a range of channels and uses its power to reduce the distance between donors and the communities its activity supports.

But a story doesn’t always need to be told in an overly sophisticated fashion, using the latest digital trends or technologies. Sometimes, the most genuine narrative, told in a simple fashion, is enough to resonate with those who hear it. Take, for example, Stephen’s Story. Stephen Sutton’s account of his experience of cancer, told in the first-person, was relayed in a highly personal, tragic, yet sometimes humorous manner, and succeeded in being one of the most successful charity campaigns due to its authenticity. It didn’t need dressing up in high production values. The power of the story transcended any manner through which it was told. The tools are out there that will let you broadcast your story without the need for a Hollywood size budget, and there’s plenty of evidence online for the efficacy of the simplest (free) channels, should you need further convincing.

The science behind the neurological power of stories demonstrates their appropriateness as a tool for the charity or social marketer. Because they engage our imagination we become participants in the narrative, which in turn increases our understanding of others and our empathy for them. With trust, ethics and perceived manipulation being high on prospective donor’s minds, there’s a strong argument for telling genuine stories: the evidence points to their efficacy in changing attitudes and behaviour, along with promoting higher levels of giving.

Stories are proven powerful marketing aides. The onus is on charities to put this power to good use in their efforts to change hearts and minds, for the greater good.

Dave Evans is head of digital at Chapter.

This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.

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