Is literature the next frontier for branded content?

Mercedes-Benz Italia commissioned a personalised, branded novella

While branded content has proven to be a semi-reliable bedfellow for editors, broadcasters and even the music industry, certain marketers are now looking to the enduring power of the novel as their next medium for advertising copy.

Almost a year ago, Mercedes-Benz’s Italian division released a novella – not a tome dedicated to its rich history but a 33-page work of fiction. Partnering with Google to create a personalised story, the idea was, according to marketing manager Cesare Salvini, explicitly to increase the brand’s coolness factor.

“Six or seven years ago the average image of a Mercedes driver was an old guy with a hat driving a C-Class,” he said. “We want it to be a millennial driving an A-Class.”

La Forma della Nuvole, translated for an English-speaking audience into The Shape of Clouds, uses Google’s technology to pick up where in the world the reader is and what situation they’re in. As they get deeper into the story, it soon transpires that they are the protagonist, with location and weather data used to set the scene – literally.

The creator of this book was not a marketer or copywriter, but the Italian bestselling novelist Gianrico Carofiglio. And while it’s not the first time an author has collaborated with a brand, it was a watershed moment for branded content – copy that usually lies within journalistic publishing and not literature.

“Sometimes readers ask: ‘Is [working for a brand] against the nature of writing?’” Carofiglio said. “’Shouldn’t you seek your own inspiration?’ But inspiration is something that comes later. [The project was] not against creativity. You find very interesting things when you’re fenced in, when you’re behind bars.”

This openness towards working on tech-laden, brand-led projects may be surprising from a novelist, but it’s not uncommon. While authorship is, for the Faber Academy’s fiction programme director, Richard Skinner, a “very monastic” process of early starts and solitude, most novelists find it necessary to supplement their writing through more commercial means. After all, just 11.5% of professional authors – both literary and academic – can afford to earn a living from writing alone, according to the Authors' Licensing and Collection Society.

“I don’t think of myself as a novelist,” said Skinner, who has published three novels, when asked if he would take on a project such as The Shape of Clouds. While he admitted many writers would be averse to entering the dark side of branded content (“There are a lot of writers who feel … that the page is a sacred space”), he himself feels like “a writer – writing across genres”.

“If something came up like that, I’d be interested,” he said.

It’s not the first time Skinner has heard of novelists writing fiction outside of the traditional publishing world. In his circles he’s noted peers working in the worlds of gaming and cinema, using their grip on “highly sophisticated storytelling techniques” and translating them off the page.

Naomi Alderman, the author of 2017 novel The Power, has written about the connection between non-traditional storytelling genres, too. Herself a game designer, Alderman has written extensively on the potential for writers to explore technology in order to create immersive stories that give the reader choice and a voice in a fashion far more erudite than the ‘choose your own adventure’ books of the 80s.

She also argues that these stories are already prevalent – they’re just called videogames.

Authors – usually of the more successful variety – have also begun reaching out to brands in the digital space themselves, looking for new ways to tell their stories. This conversely provides these brands with fresh opportunities to connect with consumers’ cultural interests, if only on a secondary level.

JK Rowling’s partnership with Sony, forged to launch Pottermore, is the leading example of this. While the deal came to an end three years after the digital reader experience was unveiled, the site collaborated with the expertise of the tech brand for launch; indeed, Rowling herself praised the brand for its “unique philosophy of creativity in harmony with technology that made them my first choice”.

As well as the priceless PR, Sony was able to utilise the site’s shop to push its products and services related to Pottermore. Rowling, on the other hand, found a way to expand the universe of Harry Potter outside of the traditional publishing sphere.

For brands and agencies, working with novelists on a project-led or internal basis may also prove fruitful. Successful authors know how to discover “wonderful ideas, to look in unexpected places for creativity – places copywriters might not have looked before”, said Skinner, thereby adding another dimension to the industry’s standard ‘creative’ process. As Alderman succinctly put it in a Guardian column: “When digital people run workshops … about storytelling, they often seem not to notice that quite a lot of very clever people have been thinking very hard about stories for, oh, the past 3,000 to 4,000 years.”

Symbiotically, the novelist would benefit from learning to work to deadlines, something Skinner admits his kind are “terrible” at.

As for the efficacy of the branded novel? Salvini noted the Italian version of The Shape of Clouds has been downloaded more than 90,000 times, and “caught the attention of publishers” looking to innovate the e-book format. But he couldn’t say how many cars had been sold off the back of the exercise.

Like most forms of marketing, it may be ROI that stands in the way of the branded publishing revolution.

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter for creative and video, based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as Anatomy of an Ad, Creative Pursuits and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing.

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