Storytelling matters: Hard lessons from Woolies and Coles

storytelling matters: hard lessons from woolies and coles

Storytelling matters: Hard lessons from Woolies and Coles  

  By Mark Jones, CEO + Chief Storyteller, ImpactInstitute 

  When Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci posted news of his retirement on LinkedIn last week the comment stream was remarkable.   

  Banducci’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet here were dozens of colleagues who clearly admired his leadership, who were sad to see him go, and plenty even offered ‘congratulations’ on a job well done.   

  They clearly were not talking about his infamous interview walk with ABC Four Corners journalist, Angus Grigg, which aired just days before the dramatic exit announcement.   

  It’s an extraordinary twist in the Woolies and Coles saga. Our dominant supermarkets are under investigation for price gouging and driving hard supplier deals which ultimately force farmers off the land.   

  Imagine for a moment you were caught in the spotlight like Banducci, responding to a journalist quoting former head of the ACCC, Rod Sims. According to Sims, Australia has one of the most concentrated supermarket sectors in the world.  

  What would you say? Banducci erred, muttering words he quickly regretted, “Retired, by the way.” He didn’t attack the issue but discredited the person in question.  

  The interview went south, fast. Grigg, a sharp, seasoned journalist, quickly jumped in, ‘I don’t think you would impugn his integrity and understanding of competition law.’   

  ‘He is retired, but I shouldn’t have said that,’ Banducci admitted. The interview walkout, and then return, compounded the damage.   


Lessons for every leader   

It’s a public relations nightmare with three clear lessons for executives, marketers and purpose-driven organisations.  

Lesson number one is authenticity. The words and stories you share in public must match your corporate values and the lived experience of staff.   

  Easy to say, hard to do. Australians have a sharp ‘BS’ radar and know how to apply the ‘pub test’ in a heartbeat.  

  Under fire, Banducci revealed he’d rather attack a person’s credibility than address the core issue – concentration of market power. We don’t think it’s fair, and it makes us feel uncomfortable.   

  Who wants to stare at glossy pictures of happy farmers hanging above the fruit and veggie aisles while also knowing they’re being driven out of business. I’d rather do the weekly shop without a guilty conscience, thanks.  

  The second lesson is hearts, minds and wallets.   

  CEOs like Banducci and his counterpart at Coles, Leah Weckert, must walk a fine line by telling convincing stories that win over our hearts and minds, or we’ll take our wallets elsewhere (although with so little alternatives, particularly for those outside metropolitan areas, public outcry feels like the next best thing).   

  It’s no easy task. On one hand they must satisfy shareholders and politicians, and on the other hand keep us, the watching, judging, spending public, on side.   

  The same delicate balance is needed at every organisation. So how open, honest and compelling are your stories and media engagements?   

  Finally, evidence of positive impact matters.   

  In this story, we’re already attuned to the negative impact on farmers and consumers.   

  What’s missing is a history of positive storytelling that lives in our minds at a time such as this. Stories of people and communities changed for the better because of supermarket largess.   

  According to the Financial Review, Coles was the second largest corporate philanthropist in 2023 (after BHP) with $151.9m, or 10.37 per cent of profit, given to food rescue, health, education, disaster relief and social welfare.   

  Second on the list is Woolworths at $122.1m, or 5.26 per cent or profit, given to food rescue, disaster relieve, education and health.   

  Granted, right now is not the time to be telling these stories. But what Woolies and Coles (and the rest of us) should be doing every day is gathering evidence of impact from all this largess and investing in a steady stream of positive stories.  

  That is, track how philanthropic spending is making a long-term, positive change in the lives of people and communities and use that evidence to inform your approach.


Ready to explore storytelling for impact?   

 ImpactInstitute is a professional services firm for purpose-led organisations. Our unique blend of impact consulting, brand storytelling and events services help our clients create meaningful change. Work with us and discover how your story leads to impact. Learn more.