How to bring adventures to your brand through storytelling

The science of storytelling breakfast panel discussion at ENGINE's London HQ

Ronald Reagan owes the start of his political career to the power of branded content. True story.

The 40th President of the United States was the star of General Electric Theatre – a GE-funded programming strand that started on radio before moving to TV in the 1950s and 60s – that made him a household name.

The commercial break as we know it now only became commonplace in the 1960s. Before that the first forays brands made onto TV were more editorially focused, from early ‘soap operas’ to ‘anthology series’ fronted by stars, such as Reagan, of the silver screen.

Dave Roberts, Engine Group chief content officer , speculates that the primary reason we moved away from this more entertainment-based approach was an explosion in advertiser demand, which exceeded programming supply and eventually led to the commoditised interruptive model we know today. As a consequence, Roberts believes that to write the future, we may do worse than to look to the past for inspiration.

“We’re facing a two-fold challenge to the interruptive model – firstly, technology is giving us ever more effective ways of filtering out invasive commercial messages; secondly, the rise of pay walls and ad-free subscription services offer us experiences free from brand intrusion. If we’re going to future-proof our communications we have to start addressing this over-reliance on interruption and that could mean looking back to these early brand-funded shows, which used entertaining storytelling to entice an audience into their world”.

His introductory comments kicked-off a panel event at Engine’s London HQ ‘Setting Stories Free: New Adventures in Storytelling Beyond the Spot’, where he was joined by author Will Storr; Global’s Product Director, Megan Wastell; Twitch’s Director of Custom Solutions, Adam Harris and Great Big Story’s Director of Creative Partnerships, Connor Boals.

The science of storytelling

In his book, The Science of Storytelling, Storr argues that contrary to many conventional theories, character should always trump plot when it comes to storytelling. “We’ve been led to believe that character is there in service of plot, that plots are the most important thing. But I don’t believe that – plot should be in service of character,” he said.

Another important structural consideration was cause and effect storytelling. “Even very experienced storytellers often get this wrong” added Storr. “Cause and effect storytelling feels natural, rather than the ‘and then, and then, and then…’. It’s hard work because we’re having to work out the cause and effect for ourselves.”

However, as Roberts pointed out, “natural storytelling inherently means tackling issues of struggle, conflict and vulnerability, all of which are areas which advertising typically shies away from.”

Know your place in a story

The panel offered up advice on how brands can approach this new world of storytelling across disparate and diverging platforms and towards different audiences.

For Boals and Great Big Story, it’s about two interrelated things, trust and authenticity. “we work closely with agencies and brands to build trust – we know our audience, we know what works and we know how to authentically and effectively represent a brand within a story”.

In gaming, the advice couldn’t be more different. “Embrace the sell-out” urged Twitch’s Harris, particularly when talking to communities such as gamers, who are still generally dismissed as a subculture, even though gaming is now bigger than the film and music industries combined.

“Gamers have been ignored for years so they appreciate brands recognising them as a serious marketing channel,” he said. “They like it when brands come on board. However, they don’t like it when brands try and hide their message. We call it ‘embrace the sell-out’. You’ve got to be upfront and honest. Yes we are selling a product, but we’re going to make it so entertaining and intrinsic to the experience that you’re going to come along for the ride.”

The mythical short attention span

An increasing reluctance to accept interruptive advertising has created something of a fallacy around ‘goldfish-like’ audience attention spans, but Roberts points out that it’s wrong to apply this thinking to entertainment, maintaining that “people will watch if you give them reason to.”

In October, AstraZeneca will launch Breathless, a powerful documentary created by Engine about the lives of three severe asthma sufferers around the world. Rather than supporting a traditional campaign, the film’s powerful narrative sits at the very heart of the strategy, with a supporting communication and distribution strategy more akin to a theatrical film launch than a patient, practitioner or policy-maker campaign.

But a long form approach isn’t limited to just film, as Global’s Wastell stressed, if well constructed, podcasts can arguably provide an even better narrative vehicle. “The one thing we really look at across all of the different genres is something with a strong format with a beginning, middle and end that propels the listener through the story. We’re constantly looking at how we re-hook people in and get them to listen,” she said.

“People will listen to quite long pieces of content – you just have to keep pulling them back every couple of minutes.”

Wastell advises a test and learn approach and being prepared to fail fast. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t, scrap that and take something else to the marketplace.”

Wastell also advocated bringing in experts when needed, be that in-house or externally, in order to get things right. Boals agreed, saying that brands wanting to partner with his company had to “trust” in its storytelling expertise and deep knowledge of its audiences.

“It has to be about trust from the get-go,” he said of the “perfect” brand partner. “We know what we’re doing and what our audience wants. Trust that we have listened to you and your KPIs and what it is you’re trying to accomplish and what we are coming up with. While it might not feel like your brand is front and centre, hitting them in the face, the experience and data prove by the end of it you’ll have a positive uplift on brand recall and they’ll have more positive associations with your brand.”

It’s about character-led storytelling, that we would do on our own, but around a mutually agreed upon theme.

New challenges, new skillsets, new opportunities

For Roberts, the important thing is for brands to try: those that innovate, test and learn, almost irrespective of investment, can make genuine gains and gather invaluable insight.

Great advertising can and will continue to cut through, even as ad-blocking rises, but brands must look beyond the spot to supplement campaigns with smart, story-led content strategies if they are to truly connect with their audiences.

“We’re moving from share of voice to share of audience attention and that requires completely new skillsets and new partnerships” he said. “It puts us in competition with the best storytellers on the planet – but that’s a pretty exciting challenge as far as we’re concerned”.

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