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Vox Pop: 'the end' or 'happily ever after' for brand stories?

Once upon a time advertisers were the key storytellers of brand image. Now, with competition to reach further audiences, the big data push has endangered marketers' ability to spin relevant yarn for their clients. Pixar, Framestore and Jonathan Ross have reminded marketers to use technology to move past the masses towards relevance and value to engage further with consumers. The Drum Network asked it's members- is it really the end for brand stories? Or will there be a happily ever after?

James Jefferson, co-owner and CCO, Equator

Great communicators have always known the power of great storytelling. One of my favourite examples has always been ‘The Man in the Hathaway shirt’, an early Ogilvy campaign where the model in the ad for an otherwise unremarkable shirt, ended up wearing an eye-patch.The ‘story-appeal’ of this campaign made it a huge success.

But we now live in an age of digital maturity – a connected world where digital technology touches our experiences everywhere we go. In this sense, great storytelling has never been more important. In David Ogilvy’s world, brand communications were consumed in isolation, targeted at broad audiences. Today, we flit, in a click, a swipe or a tap from one experience to the next.

In the connected world, our stories represent an ongoing dialogue that aims to build relationships with multiple audiences, guiding them in individualised journeys. The impact of social media on brand storytelling has been huge too - brands need to behave better and be more authentic, making good story-telling a little more complicated.

Today we aim to use data-driven insights to create personalised story-journeys and explore ways to root these stories at the heart of brands, creating a fertile environment for story-doing. This enables people who love a brand to create chapters of a never-ending, non-linear story that flows seamlessly from device to device, from digital to real-life.

It’s no longer about advertising a fabricated reality in an eye-patch and shirt, it’s about creating more meaningful, relevant connections that grow brand value, sales and improve lives. With all this complexity though, it’s easy to forget that at the heart of any great story, digitally connected or otherwise, is a single powerful idea. Brutal simplicity of thought is more vital now than ever. For anyone embarking on a truly integrated brand story adventure, the lack of a true, breakthrough idea is the path to madness.

Sweta Pathak, deputy creative director, RBH

Are brand stories dying? No. What they are doing, is getting worse. Everyone’s so caught up with addressing contrived stigmas and ‘social experiments’ that they’ve forgotten how to craft a good yarn. So when a narrative powerhouse like Pixar starts weighing in, you’d better listen. You’re probably familiar with Pixar’s 22 rules for storytelling; so here are eight rules for brand storytelling. Number one is straight from the Pixar playbook.

- What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

- Once you know what you want to say, concentrate on the most exciting way to say it. Don’t worry about social integration, retail activation or, worst of all, winning awards.

- Tears and laughter are infinitely more powerful than a hashtag.

- What is your brand good at; what is your ‘truth’? No-one thinks you’re petro-chemical conglomerate cares about a greener future.

- Don’t get caught up in demographics. Brand stories are less about the audience than pretty much anything else you’ll ever deal with.

- Don’t get caught up in characters. Your brand is the hero. You can show me as many smiley, scarf-recovering bank tellers as you like, but that doesn’t make your interest rates seem more attractive.

- Focus groups have no interest in providing honest, critical feedback. They are probably more concerned with getting stuck into the free lunch. Or your Junior Planner’s underwear.

- Again: no-one is waiting with baited breath for your brand’s next story. You are not Pixar. Make sure it’s interesting.

Nick Adams, strategist, Yoyo Design

Brand storytelling is one of the best things about being a consumer. Think about John Lewis, Coca-Cola, Lego or even Apple (everyone uses Apple, I know). These brands have become masters of storytelling to different generations, through a number of channels, markets and languages.

New brands have emerged that have changed the way stories are being told. Netflix and Facebook are the polar opposite of a heritage brand and have created their own stories, and ways of sharing them. They utilise data to create a narrative that is inclusive for the audience and their success in story telling has resulted in them becoming culturally relevant and culturally important.

But storytelling is a powerful tool for any organisation to embrace, not just consumer-facing brands. Story telling is not dying; it’s just a harder landscape for brands to navigate. If anything it means it’s about to get a lot more exciting to be a consumer!

Natalie Bell, marketing, CULT Ldn

Consumers are more tech-savvy than ever and face more technological distractions by way of smartphones, tablets, laptops, apps, etc. We know that. It has never been more crucial for advertisers and brands to understand that we as consumers, are seeking immersive brand experiences that are enriching and engaging. Building this movement and facilitating the relationship between the brand and the consumer begins with experiential marketing and non-linear experiences, with the end goal being to create rich holistic experiences that showcase the story waiting to be told.

The focus needs to be on humanizing technology, to the point where the user is no longer interacting with the technology itself, they’re interacting with the product and the brand story. As brands begin to understand this, the repercussions of dealing with physical entities start to emerge alongside the huge potential they hold for digital impact. By humanizing the process, our journey as a consumer remains natural and social, but creates capsules of multi sensory experiences we are able to interact with, that are complimentary and coherent to the brands heritage.

Jonathan Staines, planning director, BWP Group

Storytellling has been a very fashionable word in marketing circles for the last few years. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché. Although storytelling is not a new idea, new technologies present ever more exciting ways to tell stories and involve people in them. However, as people’s attention-spans shrink and they are bombarded with more and more ‘content’, brands have to be very careful about why and when they tell stories and whether that is actually what their audiences want. Great stories always cut through but in a world where everyone is telling stories, who do you listen to? This is where the effective use of data comes into play.

Aaron Bali, senior data planner, Hugo & Cat

Brand stories aren’t dying, but the way we tell them is changing. We’ve got to move from novels to choose-your-own-adventure books.

As a result, we must now tell brand stories through service design. We are what we do, not what we say. Your brand story comes through in every interaction, at every touch point, and via every conversation you have with your audience. It has to be broken down thoughtfully to be told in these constituent parts. Ultimately, we have to fuse the old world of brand storytelling with new media and insights in order to to cut through. We can't keep shouting into the abyss. Instead, we have to use all of the tools at our disposal to create stories which are bespoke, timely and valuable. By focusing on delivering the right message via the right medium to a specific audience at the time they're looking for it - we can tell a great story for both brands and customers. A happy ending after all.

Kate Thomas, head of content, ORM

Brand stories are more important than ever. Without them, there’s only data and text; content’s power is its story.

For me, Mike McGee’s virtual experience is actually just experience. Digital is more than the blog post, the web content, the latest gadget: it’s a brand’s ecosystem. From the microcomputers we carry in our pockets to the advertising brands control and to the news they don’t, people want a coherent and supported message (experience).

But this doesn’t happen by magic. We know by looking at the disruption caused by the immediacy and convenience of mobile to brands’ operations just how daunting the Next Big Thing can feel. The only way brands can even contemplate managing it is with technology. The days of building with a WYSIWYG CMS are over; metadata and semantic content tied to extensible, robust and flexible technology are the only way forward.

Challenge and change are brands’ new digital reality: new devices, platforms and channels are there on the horizon, tantalizingly (and frustratingly for many) just out of reach. Rather than run from these, brands really have to embrace and chase this reality. Their challenge is to flip the beginning, middle and end of traditional storytelling and create space for the different grammar referenced by Jonathan Ross.

Reports of the death of brand stories are greatly exaggerated. They’re needed more than ever, but will only do their job if paired with tech.

Neil Stanhope, founder and managing director, Underscore

Personally I think Jonathan Ross makes a valid point in that the actual way in which stories are told is not being changed by developments in technology. Ever since 'upon a time' people have told stories to communicate and connect with audiences in ways that capture imaginations, illustrate ideas, share values, and simply inspire in a way that cold, hard facts often cannot. Stories can change the way people think, act, and feel, and stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered... and then shared.

In business these audiences could be everyone from employees to customers, with the main difference being that you tell them with an objective, goal, or desired outcome in mind, rather than for entertainment. However the game is certainly changing in its delivery.

Ross also said that 'going to the cinema is very much a communal experience' and that is where the difference lies for me. As new devices and channels are morphing content all the time, the key to whether or not your own story ends 'happily ever after' will lie in the building in of enough emotional and audience driven layers to ensure the right connection wherever it it is told.

Nadia Barmada, content director, Found

Brand stories definitely aren’t dying – in fact, with access to more and more data about people and their interests, more refined and engaging brand storytelling strategies are emerging. Data is helping brands to uncover what it is that makes them relevant to their audience beyond a product or purchase, what they have in common and where they can add value.

Understanding your brand and its purpose at a conceptual level is important, but being able to extrapolate that into insightful or inspiring content that reaches its intended audience at the right time of day in the right format and channel can only be informed through data and analytics. The beauty of data is it can inform the storytelling process right through from concept to execution and back. A piece of content that’s not engaging its audience can be quickly tweaked and tested to hit the mark. Content is a cumulative game with compounding returns as you publish more relevant content and build up that story. The data and insights gained as your brand story grows through your content strategy will only help you to be more relevant and inspiring to your audience.

Colin Jacobs, client services director, Immediate Future

Volume and range of available data and technology present a greater opportunity for relevant storytelling. Creating relevancy at scale, marrying compelling stories to highly targeted audience’s means creatives should be challenged to advance their storytelling abilities, not scale down.

Matt Meckes, technical director, Cohaesus

Data has given us more temptation than ever to chase ever larger numbers on anything we can measure. An empty story consisting of little more than a clickbait headline, can be sold to naive clients as 'cognitive science', and makes pretty graphs. More clicks must be better right? Consumers are too sophisticated to be lured for long, as the rise of the AdBlocker has shown.

Data can help you understand your customer and help find ways to make your story resonate. As Matthew Luhn from Pixar says, "You get people to really connect when you can accurately convey what the character is thinking through macro and ever micro expressions.” This can enhance a great script, but isn’t a replacement for it.

Mike McGee and Jonathan Ross are exploring new ways to tell stories but the stories “aren’t different per se”. Traditional creative duos should make room for technologists who deeply understand these new mediums. When they are involved early in the process, they can make opportunities to tell the story in new, exciting ways. Perhaps in the end the creative team gets bigger, more diverse, more nerdy.

Tamara Gillan, founder and CEO, Cherry

Brand stories aren’t dead. Instead they're growing, becoming richer and ever more targeted for their audiences. The key is to create highly targeted messaging and personal stories using carefully selected channels based on real insight and understanding of the customers’ needs and desires in real time.

John Goulding, head of product management, Media iQ

The stock response of the digital evangelist would be that, no, storytelling is alive and kicking in a data-driven, automated world. Programmatic buying allows us to sequence messaging to users, stringing together a coherent narrative which can develop over time as a user increases their levels of awareness and intent. When cross-device technology is layered onto this it allows us to tackle the fragmentation of different devices and further perfect the art.

This is a technologist's answer though. There's far more to story-telling than just sequencing - building a narrative isn't good enough, it has to be a compelling and inspiring narrative. The creation of such campaigns requires creativity and our fear is that data, the natural adversary of intuition and emotion, stifles this. This fear is unjustified: all truly great ad campaigns have been built on the foundation of a product truth, an insight into how people engage with a product, what they sympathise with and what stirs them emotionally.

This is where the true role of programmatic lies in storytelling. By providing a 24/7 finger on the pulse of consumer behaviour, opinion and content consumption, data and analytics specialists can be the source of inspiration, not the death of creativity. This a gold mine of insights which can reveal the nugget of information which leads to the next great brand story of our time. If this insight can find its way into the hands of their creative agencies, brands don't need to worry - the future of storytelling is safe and sound.

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