Social impact storytelling done right: An inside look into how Best Buy’s Ashley Rajaratnam elevated the story of the company’s Teen Tech Centers

When Associate Director for Social Impact Ashley Rajaratnam joined Best Buy two years ago, her job was to formalize and expand their community partnerships. That meant thinking through what it meant for Best Buy to lead a coalition of companies and philanthropic organizations for social good. A critical part of this process was spreading the word about this work through storytelling.

According to Ashley, in the past, Best Buy been quiet about its philanthropic work.

We know from looking at statistics that younger generations -- and Gen Z consumers in particular -- want to buy from and work for companies that are addressing social issues. Ashley Rajaratnam
The appetite for talking about their good deeds in the community began to shift as consumers and employees demanded it.

“We know from looking at statistics that younger generations — and Gen Z consumers in particular — want to buy from and work for companies that are addressing social issues,” said Ashley. “From a business standpoint, we need to tell that story authentically, and our Teen Tech Centers are great to highlight because they align so well with our company's purpose to enrich lives through technology.”

In 2018, Ashley partnered with Best Buy's marketing team to launch the company's first-ever Teen Tech Center awareness campaign.

She said her team quickly realized that collaborating with another business unit, one with separate priorities and goals, came with some real challenges. The marketing, creative, and production teams needed education to understand the core issues facing the young people from the Teen Tech Centers. And, the Social Impact team needed a primer on the complex world of brand marketing.

Ashley said what followed was a quick and necessary lesson in relationship management.

We try to do everything we can to support all business teams involved so they have a deep understanding of what a Teen Tech Center is, who these kids are, and the broader contextual challenges they face so they can do their job well. Ashley Rajaratnam
“Our priorities were twofold: maintain the positive relationship with our teens and nonprofit partner, while simultaneously showing marketing the value in the stories — so much so that they would want to continue to tell it,” said Ashley.

“The young people we work with are from underserved and disinvested communities; they don't necessarily have a lot of experience with, or trust, for corporate America. On the flip side, our marketing and creative teams are amazing at what they do for the company. But, they're not as familiar with the deep-rooted challenges this population faces.”

Bridging the gap between a social justice-oriented nonprofit organization and a Fortune 80 company was no easy task.

“We had some bumps along the way,” she said. “Fortunately, our marketing team and our nonprofit partner were both fantastic. We debriefed and asked for feedback from both sides. In the end, in part because of our willingness to be honest about missteps, we were able to maintain positive relationships all around.”

Those early challenges also resulted in some important process changes for both teams.

“Our marketing team works incredibly quickly. We found ourselves missing their deadlines or pushing back on them on behalf of the teens, due to things like school vacations or part-time jobs. It was critical for us to highlight the reality for our Teen Tech Centers and their youth participants,” Ashley said. “Once the marketing team heard our perspective, they worked with us to tweak their standard processes to build in more lead time, for example.”

If we're going to highlight stories in an authentic way that showcases the true diversity of the program, that means reaching outside of our hometown and building a budget for it up front. Ashley Rajaratnam
She also noted that Social Impact now requires marketing to provide an official “brief” for teens, Teen Tech Center staff and parents to lay out all of the information about an opportunity (including the business objectives behind the ask), along with detailed pay information (all teens are paid for their time and participation in all marketing campaigns).

Ashley added, “We also created a list of some of the language that we use and don't use when writing about Teen Tech Centers and shared that with our marketing team so they had it up front.”

“We try to do everything we can to support all business teams involved so they have a deep understanding of what a Teen Tech Center is, who these kids are, and the broader contextual challenges they face so they can do their job well. Ultimately, we want the experience to be a good one for everyone involved,” said Ashley.

Ashley and her team have also made a point to encourage marketing to cast a wider net for stories, and capitalize on the diversity of the 33 Teen Tech Centers.

“We're based in the Twin Cities, so our marketing partners appreciate engaging with teens from local Teen Tech Centers because it's convenient and more budget friendly,” said Ashley. “But if we're going to highlight stories in an authentic way that showcases the true diversity of the program, that means reaching outside of our hometown and building a budget for it up front.”

After the 2018 awareness campaign, Best Buy shifted from focusing solely on Teen Tech Centers to integrating them into broader campaigns.

Instead of a whole campaign being about the Teen Tech Centers, we're now integrating into other campaigns. Ashley Rajaratnam
For example, Best Buy's 2020 Black History Month campaign includes a story about a Teen Tech Center mentor, and the Women's History Month campaign will include multiple stories of young women from Social Impact's various programs.

“Instead of a whole campaign being about the Teen Tech Centers, we're now integrating into other campaigns,” said Ashley. “We're seen as a key part of how the company shows up to consumers and employees.”

Throughout this phase, Ashley and her team have learned the importance of finding advocates and champions in the business who believe in Social Impact's work.

“Communication and awareness building is even more important when we're not doing a focused campaign,” Ashley said. “We have to make sure Teen Tech Centers are always on people's minds, even when someone from our team isn't physically in the room.”

Creating relationships with leaders across the business, and particularly in marketing, who can advocate for Social Impact has been one way Ashley is intentional about this.

On the other side, Ashley notes that setting up a cadence of re-occurring meetings with marketing has helped ensure the two teams are in regular contact and can share upcoming storytelling opportunities with plenty of notice.

“Sitting down with a 2020 calendar and brainstorming all the ways our work might layer into these various moments throughout the year is an important exercise, and we've appreciated our marketing team's willingness to include us in that way.”

Ashley said every one of the 200+ teens at their 33 Teen Tech Centers has an amazing story — but collecting that information can be difficult.

It's easy for us to think that any of our youth or Teen Tech Centers would love the opportunity for their story to be told, but that may not be the case. Ashley Rajaratnam
So far, they've tried emailing requests to the Teen Tech Center staff, conducting regular check-ins via phone, and providing a specific email address that can be used to submit stories directly. Those tactics have only scratched the surface — Ashley believes the Social Impact team receives only a small handful of the stories that are out there.

“Every time I visit a Teen Tech Center and hear something interesting or inspiring, I make a note to follow up,” she said. “We want to tell the world about the amazing work that is happening, and I'm constantly trying to work through that challenge of how we can mine those stories better and more consistently.”

For work like this, she said it's also important to remember the power dynamics at play when you're working with community partners.

“It's easy for us to think that any of our youth or Teen Tech Centers would love the opportunity for their story to be told, but that may not be the case,” she said. “We have to be really careful with our asks and make sure our community partners feel comfortable saying ‘no.'”

Ashley also emphasized the importance of being thoughtful about social impact marketing campaigns, because customers can see when companies aren't being authentic.

“Thankfully our Teen Tech Centers line up well with what our company does and believes in at its core, so it's not an issue for us,” she said. “It adds to our ability to convince folks that we're invested in this in the long term.”

At the end of the day, she said success comes from thoughtful cross-enterprise collaboration.

“Find those individual people across the business who believe in what you are doing, believe in the value of your story, and who are willing to advocate for you,” she said. “The result will be a collaborative process, an authentic story, and some great lessons learned along the way.”

Ashley Rajaratnam has been a member of the CSR Board since 2019. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.