Danone CEO offers masterly case study in passionate sustainability ‘storytelling’

‘Storytelling management’ is a business trend and function that really started to take-off in the late 1990’s especially as a tool to manage change. The simple premise is facts and figures are no longer enough –  there has to be a convincing narrative or storytelling alongside these to enable corporate transformation and to help manage employees and stakeholders towards strategic goals.

Sustainability narratives have become widespread, some rubbish, some pretty good. In the food sector powerful ones are Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan or Marks & Spencer’s famous Plan A.

To my mind one of the pioneers of sustainability ‘storytelling’ or for creating a new sustainability narrative was Robert B Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto, as he sought to change an agri-chemical company to a futuristic ‘life sciences’ business through a vision for sustainability. He set out this early sustainability narrative in a compelling interview published in the Harvard Business Review back in 1997.

Now 20 years later we have a new great sustainability storyteller in the CEO of one of the world’s largest food companies Danone – a company with sales of €22 billion (2016) and around 100,000 employees. Emmanuel Faber, Danone CEO, has laid down his company’s new sustainability story in an article published on Linkedin.

It is an old story retold for today’s food consumer: a story about loss and redemption, about a search for meaning. Its subtext is about business strategy for company transformation.

People have become disconnected from their food

Emmanuel Faber starts by setting out our ‘known’ food world or ‘act one’ in the story, he writes: “Food is part of who each of us are. Our food tells a point of view on the world, a meaning in life. But we have lost this meaning…the food system has disconnected people from their food. Many kids, even adults, don’t even know the link between meat and animals, between fruit and trees. And we start realizing this is a problem.”

But then there is hope, even a turning point, the food hero begins his journey. According to the Danone CEO: “I also met with people…from all generations, all countries, who are reconnecting the dots, re-synchronizing the food cycles. All of them contributing to a movement we call the ‘Alimentation Revolution’ in search of this lost meaning.” The story’s tuning point is now clear – nothing less than a ‘revolution’ is needed to regain food ‘meaning’.

He then enters into the long ‘act two’ in storytelling terms as he goes on to elaborate on some of the things Danone as a corporation is trying to do in response to this ‘turning point’ and to restore such meaning. But he is candid: he says this is only a start.

Changing how food brands interact with communities

We now enter into the story’s ‘act three’. This begins with a plot ‘twist’ – a possible loss of hope – when Emmanuel Faber goes deeper to question what the role of business is and the fixation on short-termism. As he writes: “Should we surrender on the transformation to address the revolution and just focus on extracting capital out of our businesses, making a few even richer and a darker future for many?”

But he then quickly moves on to his finale, a call-to-action and renewed hope, towards a new world, one very different from the old one set out at the start of his story; he writes: “And as CEOs, as leaders, we will have the responsibility to adjust the way our companies operate, the way our brands interact with their communities. This is full of risks and opportunities. Our business models, our companies organizations could be – will be – disrupted. But this is the only way out, off the limits. Set food free”.

So the food business transformation (and sequel) is truly set up – what will a future food system be like when food is ‘set free’? The business story is: we have looked at the facts and financials and the old ways of doing things don’t seem to be delivering as they used to, consumers, markets and use of resources are changing, we will need to as well. But there will be pain, as well as gain. Let’s get going.

Danone’s new company signature launched

The article coincides with the roll-out from July 7th of Danone’s new strategic ‘signature’ under the heading ‘One Planet. One Health’. This aims to help “reconnect people with the food they eat” and the interdependence on the health of people with that of the planet (by coincidence, one of the central arguments in the book Food Wars written by Professor Tim Lang and myself but first published in 2004).

The company also hopes people and others will join their Alimentation Revolution which they say will be aimed at nurturing the adoption of healthier and more sustainable eating and drinking habits. The new identity will start being endorsed by Danone’s brands from 2018 – these include such iconic global brands as Activia, Actimel, Alpro, Evian, Volvic, Aptamil and Nutricia as well as a host of national ones.

Further reading:

Read the Robert Shapiro interview here: https://hbr.org/1997/01/growth-through-global-sustainability-an-interview-with-monsantos-ceo-robert-b-shapiro

Find Emmanuel Faber’s article here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/food-human-right-commodity-emmanuel-faber?published=t.

Find more about Food Wars (now in its 2nd edition, 2015) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Food-Wars-Tim-Lang/dp/113880262X/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_img_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=8PCM4SVEMT3J8Q3GGNNF.