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How the stories you tell can have a real impact 

Published 5 July 2024 in Creativity • 9 min read

Creative industries have a key role to play in creating positive social change. Here are six key insights to help them achieve their goals.

Social entrepreneurship is a key driver not only of innovation and opportunity but also of progress and change at the community level. Most successful social entrepreneurs – those who can identify a problem, pursue a solution, and sustain work that impacts the intended targets long-term – are first motivated by intrinsic rewards. Whether it is an issue that’s personally relevant or one that has taken a unique hold, founders of social enterprises believe they can change the world. Each is doing so from their angle, identifying a problem that is vexing and critical and then proposing and pursuing an innovative solution. We’ve seen products of such efforts in our everyday lives: Hydro Flask aims to eliminate single-use water bottles, Trashie is improving the efficiency of fashion recycling, Clean People is cutting the use of detergents in plastic bottles, and Misfits Market prevents groceries from being wasted. These enterprises provide tangible, quantifiable results to clearly delineated problems. But what about issues that are more difficult to explain or move the needle on?

Issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion or mental health require a different approach because to care about these issues, you must first understand them. Because of their complex, context-based nature, many consider such issues to require years of collaborative work from experienced non-profit organizations in the legal, health, or social justice spaces. However, new opportunities to tackle persistent societal issues are alive in creative industries, from film to music to digital art to fashion. In the last five years, creative social entrepreneurship success stories have become more apparent, as exemplified in practitioner learnings shared recently with Marshall School of Business students in sessions hosted by the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of Southern California (USC).

USC sits at the nexus of Silicon Beach and Hollywood, combining mega-industries and big ideas to break open existing problems in new ways. Such strategies in looking at social impact and creating social value are still novel in many cases, and students at all levels are still being introduced to opportunities in art, filmmaking, music production, digital media, and more. We share some of the lessons, strategies, and caveats from the creative industries here.

The art and power of storytelling

If you zoom out, storytelling – the art of piecing together and communicating a compelling, focused narrative – is key to all industries. In pharmaceuticals, the story is about who and how a product can change the quality of life. In finance, it’s about how a service can build financial security or prosperity for an individual or family in their hardest years or post-retirement. There are industries in which the story takes the main stage, like filmmaking, where the story told is the product created. Either way, it is a proven strategy in garnering support for new ideas and actions because stories can easily, meaningfully, and lastingly create deep connections between audiences and issues. Research, such as studies by Paul Zak, has shown that storytelling can impact our brains differently than factual sharing because stories engage our brains more and, thus, are more memorable. Moreover, character-driven stories can inspire actual behavioral change.

The Kids Book About… series is a perfect example of how creativity is used to change the world. The product is simple, as is the approach: education through a fun and creative product to change how young girls and women feel about their changing bodies. Another good example is KiwiCo, a subscription delivery service to increase kids’ creativity, interest, and ability in STEM-related activities. The boxes offer creative projects for kids to put together alone or with friends.

“Book series such as 'Pink is for Boys' might address a social issue head-on, while other series, like 'Planet Omar', do it as a byproduct of telling a completely new story. ”

Inclusion is the precursor to the solution

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a US-based 501 non-profit international environmental advocacy group. Its Rewrite the Future project explores how climate-related content in movies and television shows can help move the needle on the climate crisis. At a panel discussion last year in Los Angeles, California, Rewrite the Future Director of Content Partnerships, Daniel Hinerfeld, cited a study by USC Annenberg School of Communication which analyzed 30,000 film and television scripts between 2017 and 2020. Only 0.6% mentioned climate change. Creative spaces can combine imagination with illumination to build awareness of and empathy for real-world issues. According to Hinerfeld: “Our culture on climate is holding back solutions. We feel Hollywood has a role to play here.”

It’s true. Hollywood is a multibillion-dollar industry poised to influence and provoke perspectives on nearly every topic, but an eye on profitability alone can often lead to the promotion of the status quo. Increasingly, more companies are working to shift the narrative, realizing that all it takes is inclusion and intentionality. In other words, social entrepreneurs can make a difference in a space simply by embedding existing issues into creative spaces. From artwork or photography to film and literature, entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t have to be about reinventing the wheel. It can simply be about telling a story that includes a topic or subject previously left out. Clothing brands like JACQ NY focus on providing innovative, engaging fashion design in a gender-neutral space, opening creative expression to all by eliminating labels. While clothing is nothing new, shopping for clothes in a unisex environment is novel and increasingly sought after.

In creative spaces, there is room to play

Entrepreneur Mike de la Rocha is the founder and CEO of Revolve Impact, a movement-driven creative agency that shifts minds through media. Over the years, he’s designed arts and music tours, video campaigns, graphic designs, and more to build momentum for cultural narratives to shift outlooks on key issues such as youth empowerment and criminal justice. Addressing USC Marshall’s Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship students in 2023, he said: “In storytelling, you can interweave multiple issues for collective benefit.” In other words, even though multi-layered stories might be deemed risky by traditional businesses, they can bear the richest impact. At the same time, you can choose how to attack an issue you’re passionate about, whether you want to hit it head-on with a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth or package it in a fun, fictional narrative like Don’t Look Up. Similarly, book series such as Pink is for Boys might address a social issue head-on, while other series, like Planet Omar, do it as a byproduct of telling a completely new story.

Choose how to attack an issue you’re passionate about: hit it head-on with a documentary like 'An Inconvenient Truth' or package it in a fictional narrative like 'Don’t Look Up'. (Image: Columbia Pictures)

Understand how you are meeting your impact goals

While metrics can be fairly straightforward for companies like Hydro Flask, which can quantify single-use plastics saved, or Trashie, which shows individual customer stats on how much water and other materials they have saved by recycling, social enterprises that offer more esoteric products can find it difficult to measure their impact. Take documentary film production, for example. Producer Sarah Olson, who developed Knock Down the House, a film that follows relatively unknown women leaders in their quest to gain seats in the US House of Representatives, says you need to understand your goal. Do you want to build awareness or galvanize the next steps?

Olson shared how she measures her impact, including crowd responses at Q&A events. For Knock Down the House, which debuted in 2019, she says she still receives emails from university students. “It’s got a long tail on it; it isn’t just a topic for today, but a topic for generations a decade in,” she added. There’s also inspiration. “We would go to screenings and have young women crying, saying: ‘I saw your film, it struck a chord, and I decided to run for city council or county commissioner.’ Many of them won their seats.”

While impact might be difficult to measure in financials, obviously good monetary returns –tickets purchased and film licenses acquired, for example – demonstrate a wider audience reach. At the same time, action campaigns can be associated with such films. One notable point of impact, Olson reported, was that when Netflix bought the film at the Sundance Film Festival, it was also one of the first times a streamer came on board and agreed to fund the impact campaign. That campaign also helped inspire many other unknowns in the political sphere to run for local office.

Similarly, writer-director-producer Ted Braun said one key metric for his film Darfur Now was how it lobbied key decision-makers, including the UN Security Council, to add Darfur to their agendas.

Your key demographics may care more about your values than you think

In the creative industries, identifying your core demographic can be more difficult than for a product like a board game or beauty product. But don’t make the mistake of generalizing. Your audience might include people of many demographics but think carefully about who you are seeking to move and motivate. Hinerfeld shared that this is particularly true for the film industry, where movies that used to be considered “sure bets” now often don’t pass the litmus test with young people or diverse populations. A recent study suggested that even accounting for critical acclaim, big-budget films lacking in diversity make $27m less on their opening weekends (and potentially $130m less in total) than more inclusive films. Moreover, a 2022 Edelman report stated that 59% of Gen Z buyers surveyed said they would stop buying a brand if they did not trust the company. More than eight in 10 surveyed said they buy based on their beliefs and values. The opportunity to capitalize on building connections between your brand, product, and/or service and deeper social value is growing and important to stay profitable.

Don’t just focus on the central story

Making an impact in creative industries doesn’t mean all the impact comes from creative work. Focus on the behind-the-scenes threads to create truly inclusive opportunities and impact.

Creative industries are highly competitive spaces where it’s difficult to translate ideas and passion to sustainable income and career longevity. Entrepreneurship is about innovation and problem-solving with a product or service, but in creating such new spaces, we often overlook the creation of pipelines. Social impact is not just won through a movie, an artwork, or a song, for example, but by providing those without access to privileged spaces the chance to be trained and hired.

Take Group Effort Initiative (GEI), which partners with more than 250 companies in North America to create diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines for the entertainment industry. “There are a lot of DE&I issues in Hollywood, from trans people not getting proper bathroom access to people of color being underpaid,” said Sumi Parekh, director of GEI. “Heads of studios are straight, white men who don’t really understand.”

At GEI, staff focus on providing underrepresented populations with training and exposure to Hollywood productions. But to truly have an impact, Parekh says partners need to support more than just entry-level hiring of underrepresented individuals. “We’d love to see them do more for those communities: teach them how to network with executives, help them get promotions, and provide tools and resources to bolster their success at higher levels.”


Avni Shah

Communication and Editorial Strategist

Avni Shah is the Communication and Editorial Strategist for the Marshall School of Business Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the University of Southern California. She primarily profiles social-impact-oriented business leaders and their organizations. Shah has written essays and op-eds for the Los Angeles Times, InStyle, Huffington Post, and Salon. 


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