Advertising is dead. Messaging is dead. Branding is also dead. Or maybe it just has an inoperable tumor of some sort. At least that’s the ‘story’ according to the content marketing military industrial complex as it rolls out the ‘brand story’ juggernaut.
And I’m not here to argue the imminent resurrection of the 30 second spot as the ultimate form of persuasive creativity. Far from it. You can mark me down as a fan of branded content (when done right) and of brand utility in particular. These were definitely the themes I witnessed in 2010 when I was lucky enough to get to SXSW and saw ‘brands as publishers’ emerge as a dominant ambition amongst marketers and agencies in attendance.
No story, straight to bed.
The more recent shift, however, is from brands as publishers of stories in the journalism sense of the word (an analogy that worked well for the PR/social practitioners in the house) to a place where brands now must cast themselves as authors or narrators of stories in the fictional sense of the word.
As you’d expect, TED talks (and their audiences) are going apeshit for this kind of metaphor. Which means that agencies and marketing departments are going apeshit for it too. Every brief is now a challenge to “tell our story”. The objective is now to “get users to engage with our story”. The desired outcome is to get users to “share our story” (more sophisticated than saying “get more ‘likes’ on facebook, but essentially the same). It’s all gone a bit story crazy. I’ve even heard the borrowed-jargon double-whammy of ‘curate our stories‘ more times than I’d care to count. I think brands telling their stories is kinda bullshit.
The medium is the massage parlour.
Sure, it can be seen as a welcome evolution from producing and distributing a broadcast message, but in practice, the current format of brands as storytellers is often just a slightly more complex and technologically driven expression of the old political tactic: stay on message. Generally, we’re just giving our core brand massage a bit of a social rub n’ tug and calling it transmedia storytelling.
The thing about stories (in the fictional sense of the word) is that they aren’t generally neat or straightforward. Hell, they generally aren’t particularly positive of uplifting. Even the ‘happily ever-after’ variety of story needs to go through a few rough patches if it is to have any dramatic tension or connect with the reader.
The best illustration of this comes from Kurt Vonnegut and his ‘Shape of Stories’ theory, reproduced as an infographic here by visual.ly
This is a problem for most brands. In practice, their tolerance for anything that is below the midpoint of the ‘happy’ axis is minimal. Can you imagine receiving a brief that states a brand wants to pursue a “man in hole’ storyline? And their reaction when you present back to them a public fuck-up of epic proportions for the second act (the hole) so that the brand (the man) has something to climb out the other side of and into redemption? No, I can’t either.
So perhaps the idea of a ‘brand story’ is best taken as a metaphor rather than a set of instructions. To that end, Scott Donaton (global chief content officer of UM) did a solid job of pulling the threads of the ‘story as metaphor’ story together to offer some good advice to brands embarking on content. His point of it being ‘not all about you’ is a particularly good one.
I’m not trying to be a literary purist about the word ‘story’ and reclaim it for novelists and screenwriters everywhere, but I do want to sound a note of caution (and realism) as brands rush to become storytellers:
You are probably not your story.
You are more likely to be a character. Or a location. Or a plot device. Or maybe a chapter. But the real protagonist (the person we care most about in any story) is likely to be the person you’ve spent years describing as your audience. And there’s the problem – the person we’re working so hard to tell the story to, is actually the person we should be telling the story about.
Instead of thinking about controlling your brand narrative (still a useful construct, but much more applicable to the world of PR, particularly in the realm of crisis management), think about defining the hole that your brand is pulling the protagonist out of? What are your brand’s main character traits? What actions are believable? What’s their motivation? And perhaps most importantly, how do we as a brand help the protagonist answer the Major Dramatic Question?
So, should brands be authoring stories? Doesn’t really matter what I think, because it’s happening regardless. I would argue, however, that the bulk of marketing activity happening under this terminology isn’t storytelling at all.
It might be a subtle distinction, but I believe brands would be better served if we worked out creative, relevant ways for them to be in the stories being written every day by the artist formerly known as the audience.
At least that’s how I’d cast it.
This post also appeared on the Firebrand Talent Blog
About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+
About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.