Yale School of Management

Center for Customer Insights

Advancing the frontiers of consumer understanding

Good Stories, Good Business

It was still early morning when Gary Hirshberg, the chairman and former CEO of Stonyfield Farms, showed a series of rather sobering slides. They were charts and tables, each demonstrating a year-by-year upward trend: inches of top soil lost, tons of agricultural pesticide applied, number of chemicals found in umbilical cords. “These are the externalities,” he said, “the unconscious result of economic decisions we make based on modern myths that we tell ourselves.”

So he laid the foundation for a daylong conversation: if myths—if storytelling—can engender such negative consequences, then might it also possess power for positive change?

This question resonated throughout the November 20 conference “Sustainability Marketing: The Power of True Stories,” convened at the Yale Club of New York and sponsored by the Yale Center for Customer Insights, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and Interbrand, an international brand consulting firm. Entrepreneurs across sectors, from boutique to global companies, engaged with a vibrant crowd of almost 200 students and professionals.

“How can we transform the norm of what it means to do business?” asked Anjali Kumar, General Counsel and Head of Social Innovation at Warby Parker, sitting on the first panel of the day. Along with three colleagues from the retail sector, Kumar discussed growing customer pressure to integrate social values firmly in the core of company operations. “I don’t think that good work has to live within CSR and marketing departments anymore,” she said.

Warby Parker, for instance, a lifestyle eyeglasses company, devotes a percentage of profits to supplying and training optometrists in developing countries. Or Zady, a clothing start-up founded to combat the “fast-fashion craze,” sources sturdily manufactured products and uses a portion of sales to finance artisanal businesses. “Brands of the past focused on a logo, but a new generation of consumers wants to go deeper,” said Maxine Bédat of Zady. “They’re asking, ‘What is it that I’m buying?’ They’re asking about the identity of each product.”

This new aspect of business opens tremendous opportunity for companies to engage with consumers—to explain the values that underpin their decisions, to offer the narrative, the people, behind their products. No longer are they “just our customers,” said Bédat. “They’re our community.” But while of growing importance to a company’s success, the clear expression of identity is a difficult proposition. As Hirshberg put it, “The challenge of communicating the DNA of our business on a 3-inch by 3-inch label has plagued us forever.” An explosion of self-labeled “sustainable” brands compounds the challenge and creates market-wide confusion over legitimacy.

Nor can stories alone carry a company; they must be coupled solidly to products that sell profitably. “When we focused on green products, on what makes them environmentally better, it was really challenging to get people to buy,” Josh Dorfman, Founder, Author & Host of the Lazy Environmentalist media brand, was quick to point out. “It’s not easy to get people to prioritize based on environmental and social aspects alone.” One unshakeable question thus remained throughout the day, sometimes muted, but never for long: how, in the end, can companies resolve their social aims with their business aims when the two conflict? What happens when social aims cannot keep up with business growth?

Warby Parker, for example, partners with the nonprofit VisionSpring to provide optometry supplies and training, but VisionSpring has a limited capacity. If Warby Parker grows beyond the ability of VisionSpring to keep up, then what happens? Do they rein in growth, or narrow the scope of their mission? For Warby Parker, this divergence may be on the near horizon, and it’s a concern that they think about often. “How do we scale with integrity?” Kumar wondered aloud. “How do we continue to scale the impact we have in the world in a responsible way?”

For everybody present, a broader form of this question loomed: how do companies ultimately reconcile the central tenets of sustainability with steady pressure to grow? Barry Nalebuff, Professor at the Yale School of Management, provoked lively, sometimes controversial, discussion on this issue in the day’s final panel. Growth and sustainability are very different stories, Nalebuff noted, to which Vincent Stanley, VP at Large of Patagonia, agreed. “How good is a growing economy if that economy is hurting the environment?” he asked. “Which begs the question: is it good for companies to grow?”

Nobody had the answer. But as these questions filled the room, CEO of Applegate Farms Stephen McDonnell offered a soaring note of optimism: “I firmly believe that this is the greatest country in the world for innovation, but we’re lacking a consciousness. As we add consciousness to our innovation, then we’ll get somewhere very different from where we are today.” Just as Hirshberg underscored the problem of unconscious economic decision-making, McDonnell shined a light on the need for conscious innovation. And he credited the companies present in the room—those represented on panels, those represented in the audience—for planting the seeds of this transformation.

Besides the two panels, a series of discussions and presentations punctuated the day. Unilever announced the U.S. launch of Project Sunlight, an effort to empower its two billion daily consumers to take part in creating a better future and “becoming conscious consumers rather than conspicuous consumers.” Joel Beckerman of Man Made Music scored the whole event and offered a short demonstration of the subliminal power contained in audio tracks. Amy Hartzler of Free Range Studios described both how to tell a good story, and the immense potential inherent in a story well told. “Myths that are the glue of society,” she said, echoing Hirshberg, “are ones that we’ve created.” And finally, Yale School of Management Associate Professor Daylian Cain described aspects of the human brain that often lead good people awry, and that make the shift to sustainable behavior such a difficult undertaking.

Cain, fittingly, closed his talk with a story, which started and ended at a shrimp buffet in Hawaii. There some years ago, while loading his plate, Cain ran into renowned philosopher Richard Rorty. The two of them struck up a conversation about the future. In the end, Rorty landed on a single proclamation: “If you want to really change behavior, you’ve got to tell a good story.” With that, the two men went their separate ways.

Contributed by Dylan Walsh
Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT