The New Brand Storytelling

“We are in the twilight of a society based on data.”

“As information and intelligence becomes the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotions – will affect everything from our purchasing decision to how we work with others.  Companies will thrive on the bases of their stories and myths.  Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories.
(Rolf Jensen, The Dream Society: How the coming shift from information to imagination will transform your business.)

Stories are important.  They remain the primary way society ascribes and understands the meaning of people, places and things.  Modern advertising uses this to great effect, crafting rich brand narratives that imbue a sense of purpose, identity and meaning on what would otherwise be commodity products.  When a pair of shoes or a sugary beverage becomes emblematic of more than just the product itself – a philosophy on life or a source of social currency – the power of stories is evident.

In a previous post, we discussed how the advance of technology invariably affects the technique of storytelling.  Each new technology offers a range of expression that facilitates a new breed of storytelling and storytellers.  Brands have become rather adept at telling stories across mediums – handily spanning TV, print, radio, online, OOH and mobile with single minded, impactful stories that convey both meaning and emotion to listeners.  The challenge for modern brands is not cross-platform messaging, but rather interacting with consumers on a more continuous and conversational basis — in other words, interacting beyond “the message.”

Long-Arc vs. Short-Arc

This is the difference between what can be referred to as “long-arc” and “short-arc” storytelling.  Short-arc storytelling describes stories that have a distinct beginning, middle and ending.  The story told (or implied) through a TV spot and other advertising vehicles is almost always of this type.  Books and movies usually can be categorized as “short-arc” as well.

“Long arc” storytelling is a bit less defined.  Instead of a definitive plot, long-arc stories are essentially character studies built up over time and a series of multiple (and perhaps small) interactions.  As we experience the story and characters, we gradually begin to understand what they mean and what makes them tick.  The technique is similar to how we tell rich mythologies like Hercules or King Arthur.  A more modern example might be the Star Wars universe.  Though there are clear story arcs, a broad understanding of the characters is achieved through their aggregate.  While the viewer is introduced to Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope, they truly begin to understand him as they encounter his personality throughout the stories of the series, the movies, it’s books… even its t-shirts.

Keepers of the Flame

Recognizing this reality, Lucasfilm is adamant about protecting the long-arc story of their characters, going so far as to employ a full time staffer, Leland Chee, as the keeper of the flame.  Chee is responsible for maintaining the Star Wars Holocron – a massive database of everything Star Wars, from movies to merchandise ensuring that the legend of Han Solo (and others) remains intact and internally consistent.  This ensures that nerd-disasters like the “Endor Holocaust” – a popular fan theory that posits, based on its size and energy yield, that the explosion of the second Death Star would have certainly obliterated the Ewok species – never happen again.

A panel from Apocalypse Endor, a stormtrooper recounts what he thinks happened to the Ewoks.

A panel from Apocalypse Endor: a stormtrooper recounts what he thinks happened to the Ewoks.

Though most brands are probably safe from apocalyptic plot holes revealed by overzealous physics students, Lucasfilm makes an excellent example for brands looking to embrace storytelling that can exist outside of campaigns.  Ensuring that every piece of communication contributes coherently to an overall story or impression is much more important than ensuring that they all march in lockstep.

Long-Arc Advertising

The idea of defining an overall brand promise is not new, but brands will need to evolve how they pay it off.  Powerful 2.0 brands like Google, Zappos, Apple and even the socially evolved Kodak are working this model to great success.  The story of each of these brands isn’t defined by a single ad campaign, but rather as the culmination of multiple consumer interactions (transactional and promotional) with the brand.

Strategist Faris Yakob describes Google’s skillful effort to build its current “of the people” positioning:

The young hero takes on the might of the evil empire – a classic myth. Its stark homepage makes the implicit statement that they weren’t in it for the money, in contrast to all the cluttered portals of the time. They cemented this by running the site for years without monetizing it, on VC money, building the brandeme of benevolence – “Don’t be Evil”.

It uses products like episodes, unleashing them to a fan base in carefully staged installments. It launched Gmail on April 1st, which generated endless PR. Gmail also fostered the mythic positioning of Google as Skywalker against Microsoft’s Evil Empire: it offered 1GB of storage for free, where hotmail was charging for anything over 10MB. Desktop, Earth, Toolbar, Talk – each episode had its own facets and staging… Google releases products to build its myth. (Logocentrism: Brands as Modern Myths)

Short-arc and campaign storytelling is not dead.  Neither is online campaign amplification.  But the social web demands that brands learn to communicate outside of campaigns.  Communications and interactions need to live within a larger story, one that gives the brand the flexibility it needs to interact authentically and continuously.