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Brand Entertainment, or how to avoid digital death

By one estimate, only 2% of digital ads are looked at for just over one second. The rest not at all.

98% of all digital ads are swiped away.

Unseen, mentally unprocessed. No impact whatsoever.

The sacrificial cash burned at the altar of algorithmic salvation has reduced many brands to commodity status – with no ‘returns’ by way of brand building: getting people excited at great discounts has painfully little to do with brand equity.

Consumers see most brands as generic, undifferentiated and with little personal relevance, and yet a herd-mentality-belief in ‘big data’ and/or research tools developed within the context of yesterday's world prevails among brand managers and advertisers.

There is a lack of courage to stop pushing vapid messages onto a jaded audience, and instead use other creative communication vehicles that pull people into a story with strong emotional influence.

Did I say story? The key to touching people emotionally is developing engaging and entertaining stories that grow out of your Principal Brand Narrative.

Contrary to trendy boardroom talk, people don’t want to listen to any self-serving ‘purpose’ statement, any empty ‘heritage’ sermons or even a specific feature-focused introduction.

People need a plausible and personally relevant reason why they should part with their cash and allow the brand into their daily journeys.

How does Story provide such a Reason?

I mentioned that people discover and learn from story: watching a story allows us to learn from the story characters: their lives may be different from ours but that’s not the point – the point is that they have perceptions, feelings, struggles and aspirations we readily identify with. We study their mindsets, reactions and choices, we feel with them when they (fail and) succeed in any given story situation. We sub/consciously project the protagonist’s choices onto our own lives, and we actively judge the veracity of those choices – this, in turn, makes us feel ‘smart’. Here's a few successful branded storytelling examples – dramatic storytelling in particular, is the most potent device for pulling people into a compelling and visceral experience, an entertainment experience that impacts belief, attitude and behavior.

The BMW Mini Movies:

One of the most well-known examples of superior branded storytelling is the BMW film series of the early ‘00s. Written and directed by professional writers and directors, with captivating storylines that focus on human experiences and emotions. In these short films not one word is lost on demonstrating the ‘Freude am Fahren’ driving experience, or on any specific car features. They didn’t even produce any stylized car shots (or stylized models smiling to project a contrived idea of ‘success’). People were glued to their screens watching a compelling story, they drew their own conclusions and which in turn created a powerful visceral brand experience for BMW.

How our Heist Thriller created a unique Toothpaste Brand Experience:

Nothing is more ordinary than toothpaste – unless you tell a thrilling heist story that dramatizes the hectic rush and stresses of daily life – and with a seamlessly integrated sub-story that shows how such a life affects oral health. The protagonist is a star detective who finds himself outsmarted by a female robber, over and over.

Until he gets the upper hand via a few surprisingly smart and unexpected mental twists. The brand here is not the ‘hero’, and certainly not some ‘magic wand’ – instead, it is organically integrated into the story and experience, commanding moments of ‘slowdown’ in which the detective gains insights into the choices available to him.

Subconsciously, the audience associates the protagonist's transformation with the (seemingly irrelevant) act of preparing to brush his teeth – and the simple presence of the brand when the antagonist spies on him from outside the bathroom window.

The emotional entry point here is the viewer’s personal identification with the daily stresses, with social and professional competition, with being challenged – and that we all sometimes neglect certain life habits and its consequences.

And the brand, well-integrated into the storyline without interrupting it, carries the whole story and its emotional experience.

Getting Students Excited about Learning Mandarin:

“I, Human”, created, written and produced by TMRC/Narrative Acuity's creative team, is a 21-episode dramatic sci-fi live action film series for Education Management International, a major Chinese-language program provider to leading international schools around the world.

The story, which is about a humanoid entering the fascinating world of Chinese language and culture, has become very successful, motivating students to actively immerse themselves in the (often tedious and difficult) world of Chinese language learning, and EMI's "Wo Hui" program has now grown into a well-known stand-alone brand in its own right.

SKII – Creatively advancing and modernizing last century’s ‘Soap Opera’ Success:

SKII’s global CEO Sandeep Seth observed that today’s consumer is simply not willing anymore to accept pushy advertising messages anymore. People want communication that is relevant to them, that truly entertains them, that is immersive.

The ‘Bare Skin Chat’, a comedy-style web series that the brand launched in 2019, became a huge success in various markets by focusing on the (funny) story and its protagonists, more than the product itself.

Another storytelling format suitable for brands is documentary storytelling:

Documentaries (even mockumentaries) are excellent vehicles for communicating, for instance, a sense of responsibility that the brand embraces – not by using abstract or generic ‘purpose’ declarations, but by showing what happens when real people deal with specific situations and challenges.

Documentaries can also re/define a sense of ‘Factuality’: not by providing an objective mirror of reality, but a specific or unique mindset: “This is how we should see the world!

A recent example is the Jack Daniel’s 2020 documentary, “Chasing Whiskey – The Untold Story of Jack Daniel's”. The story provides a lot of little-known brand anecdotes, but what it's really about is the brand’s own compelling POV on how pop culture evolved in the US and beyond.

Story allows the Brand to ‘own’ a Theme by defining it.

Advertising often ‘declares’ a theme that the brand claims to represent. Branded storytelling – the ‘storyfication’ of the brand’s POV and mindset – works differently.

The secret here is Emotional Plausibility:

In a well-told story that is aligned with its audience’s emotional tensions and needs, the protagonist’s reactions feel acutely intriguing and even personally relevant: making them a powerful ‘resource’ for viewers to judge the specific situation, to feel inspired and empowered.

And in doing so, the brand naturally owns the theme and the way it matters to people – by ‘defining’ it for the viewer. That’s the brand’s ticket into people’s hearts and lives. Brands who excel at storytelling observe a few critical principles:

A brand-driven story evolves from a deep understanding of consumers’ own stories that reveal their tensions and fears, their dreams and aspirations. This requires preceding insights via specific psychological techniques.

The role of the brand/product must be organically integrated into the story: at plot points where the product plays a critical role in the protagonist’s choices – based on an understanding of the psychological role of category, product and/or brand (whichever applies) in the consumer’s life.

They use professional screenwriters – because they understand how to deploy the psychological impact of storytelling, with the skills and expertise to craft stories that touch emotion (but avoiding maudlin, tear-jerking cliches).

Brand managers who are keen on developing an engaging story often ask me: Where do we start? What kind of story should we develop? What kind of theme, format, protagonists, conflicts and goals are suitable? There is only one way to develop a great story for your brand: by decoding the hearts and minds of your core target consumers. By decoding their own stories first.  Only then are we able to craft compelling brand stories that hit a nerve and feel personally relevant.

Times keep changing fast, so must our approaches to connecting with consumers.

Not a few brands have begun reviewing their investments in digital advertising. Brand communication will increase, of course, to aid the re-construction of brand equity, and to more effectively influence consumer emotions and choices.

Expect more branded stories to be told in dramatic or documentary format – but ‘real’ stories, well-constructed, expertly told, stories that command phenomenal emotional impact on their audiences.

And on the brand’s bottom line.

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