Brand Storytelling

Brand Storytelling: Tips For Business From Hollywood And The Screenwriting World

The goals of the Hollywood movie machine are no different than those of most businesses. Find creative ways to engage an audience so you can recoup your investment, sell lots of product and make a ton of money. With these goals in mind, it's here where the world of the entertainment industry and the interests of the business world collide.

Old_film_camera This weekend I attended the Toronto Screenwriting Conference at Ryerson University. The conference featured top Hollywood talent from many realms of the business..writing, producing, directing and consulting. What struck me was the variety of ways in which the business world could benefit from their experience and ideas. As I mentioned above, there are many similarities between the entertainment and business worlds. From a storytelling perspective, it's clear why Hollywood is in a Master class all its own.

Here's a brief synopsis of some of the key speakers and their views on storytelling. Think about the implications of their ideas for business (and brand storytelling) and how the concepts could be used to better sell products and services (Note - The comments have been paraphrased based on notes taken in the seminar sessions):

Sheldon Bull  - Comedy writer extraordinaire (MASH, Coach, Newhart) and author of ELEPHANT BUCKS - An Insider's Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms - 'People watch sitcoms every week because they have an emotional investment in the characters'; 'Writers need to set it up so the audience will care about the characters and feel that emotional investment'; 'What audiences are yearning for is something they can cling to and love'

Pen Densham -  Award winning writer, producer, director - and teacher/mentor extraordinaire (author of Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (And Not Getting Eaten) -  'The purpose of a good movie is to demonstrate things dramatically so the audience can learn about themselves'; 'A good actor invests in their biological understanding of humanity'; (on the subject of pitches) 'Find a way to discover what you and the buyer are most in tune with - find the common ground'; 'Find the nugget - there has to be an emotional journey and something at stake'; 'Find out how to get people to care about you'

Kevin Shortt - Scriptwriter and story designer at Ubisoft in Montreal (Avatar: The Game, Lost - The Video Game) - 'Steven Spielberg once said that story (narrative) has to touch on the emotions'; 'Players need a level of interactivity so they own moral conflict and their own moral choices'; 'Great movies are great because of great characters'; 'Be sure the ending/end result stays in tune with the game's vision'

Christopher Vogler - One of Hollywood's leading script consultants and author of the iconic book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers - 'The idea of story and myth in story has implications outside of the entertainment world'; 'Joseph Campbell compared myth to metaphor - it's a comparison for a mystery that's beyond human comprehension - myth is in the realm of the senses'; 'Every work of art is a metaphor for your own situation'; 'Science can measure that you're in an attuned sense of consciousness when you watch a good movie - you can actually alter the settings and bring people to a different place'; 'Hook the audience and make them want to know what will happen next'; 'Give the hero mistakes/flaws that we all share - people always want to think the movies are about them'

Writing an award-winning ad campaign or pitch isn't much different than writing an award-winning Hollywood script. In both cases, you have to find a way to create a story that engages the audience - and "forces" them to do something or feel something. As Vogler suggests (based on his study of Joseph Campbell) - myth and story are in the realm of the senses. If you can tap into that emotion and primal need for story as a way of helping people discover their place in the world - audiences and consumers will relate these needs and feelings to your product, service or brand. Once they are able to relate and make that connection, chances are high that they will buy too.

Can you think of other ways in which the business world could use concepts developed in Hollywood to create compelling ad campaigns?


Brand Storytelling and Social Media: Why McDonald's is lovin' it

In a world all a-Twitter with information, it seems that social media is the last place to find a good story. An increasing number of companies realize the importance of social media to their overall marketing and communications strategy, but how many realize the value of storytelling to incite and maintain conversations about the brand?

Key executives from some of the most influential brands in the world gathered in Chicago last August to discuss ways to leverage social media campaigns to inspire employees, increase brand awareness and motivate consumers to talk about their experiences.

Rather than relay a brand message through traditional means such as a Twitter channel or Facebook page, companies were encouraged to use story as a way of strengthening their message to make it more emotional and engaging.

Joe Curry, Global Web Communications Manager for McDonald's, described how social media was used to inspire employees and the public about the company's commitment to its staff members. McDonald's launched the "Voice of McDonald's" campaign to identify and reward the most talented singers among the company's 1.6 million restaurant employees. The contest involved YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and told the story of the inspiring talent within their "McFamily."

Curry loved the concept of using storytelling in social media and offered this advice:

  • Social media campaigns are stories with a beginning, middle and end. The narrative can be fun, but your messages may be lost without a sense of story. The complete picture needs to make sense and have some sort of resolution or conclusion
  • Each corporate team can be responsible for a "chapter", but in the end the voices must come together to tell a complete story

Marshall McLuhan once said that the "medium is the message." If this is true, then in today's world of social media the medium and the message are necessarily intertwined. Social media and technology provide the vehicles in which to deliver the brand message, yet the ability of this technology to engage and motivate the consumer and/or public through effective use of brand story ensures the message is not lost in today's info-centric world.


Brand Story Comes Alive: The Chicago Experience

Part of what makes a brand great is its ability to tell a story that engages people at an emotional level. Great brand stories are able to communicate their messages effectively by establishing a deep connection with their audience.

Just as there can be customer journeys that monitor interactions between brands and consumers, so too can a world-class city offer the same type of journey that is able to fulfill our every need. Chicago is one of these cities.

Having recently returned from a trip to Chicago (my third visit), the city never fails to disappoint. At first glance, one would think that the size alone would inhibit the kind of closeness and intimacy characteristic of great brands. But the Chicago experience proves that this isn't so.

In his groundbreaking book BrandSimple, author Allen P. Adamson states that in the case where brands offer entertainment value, "it's more a matter of coordinating interactions to create an outcome of a more emotional nature. Here the journey is more like orchestrating an event. It's theater."

The emotional journey through Chicago begins the minute one steps into the always bustling O'Hare airport. Yet underneath all the confusion is an innate sense of order, as people from all over the globe run around chasing their next flight - or jump into the next cab or bus. The journey into the city can take a solid hour at rush hour, yet the sights and sounds are so fascinating that it's easy to forget the time. Skyscrapers loom as one approaches the city limits. The magnificent Chicago skyline seems a welcoming fortress that says "Welcome to Chicago - have a nice stay - and before you leave, you won't be disappointed by the story we will tell."

What Adamson says about brands is true. The interactions between myself and Chicago-ans are always friendly and illuminated. Service at hotels, stores and restaurants is excellent and people actually seem to want your business. The entire city offers a sensory smorgasbord guaranteed to fulfill even the most cynical appetite. Cultural events are rampant, and museums are world-class centers of historical significance. In comparison to other cities of similar size, Chicago doesn't seem afraid to showcase its grandeur. The waterfront is magnificent, and tourists are catered to in a way that makes them want to come back again.

Yes, I love Chicago. To me, it tells the story of incredible intellect and ambition in which its citizens were able to pull together all levels of government and industry to create a brand story guaranteed to incite a powerful experience for all who venture between its walls. To live Chicago is to experience it, and the story naturally unfolds to those willing to take in all the delights that the city has to offer.

Brand guru Scott Bedbury once said that "a great brand is a story that's never completely told." In this way, brand Chicago will always be evolving as visitors are offered powerful connecting experiences that continue to transcend place and time.


Put Some Creativity Back Into Advertising - Tell Me A Story!!!

I don't know about you, but I don't see a lot of creativity in advertising these days. From car commercials, to fast food chains to the thriving fashion and beauty supply industries - it just doesn't seem that there's a lot of thought put into developing and presenting ad campaigns.

There are exceptions. Products or services that use social media to gain attention in ways far more economical than buying up traditional ad space. Think of the Old Spice guy. There's also that annoying yet loveable gekko in the Geico ads that inserts a little humour into a rather dry topic. Dry topic, yes. But I remember the brand.

So - what's up? Are clients just too scared to part with their limited ad budgets? (it doesn't cost a whole heck of a lot to develop an effective social media campaign) Are ad agencies spending time and effort to come up with the next creative idea - or have they surrendered to the mercy of their clients advertising perceptions and budgets?

Something has to give. Because as the world's media converges even more technological elements into one coherent whole, audiences are going to be looking elsewhere for entertainment. If ads are dry and boring, what's the motivation to buy a product or service?

Look at the car industry. Don't give me a long list of features and benefits, because I don't care. Don't show me how the family packs a zillion things into their minivan for their annual road trip. Boring. Too obvious. Tell me a story. Show me how they use the car in specific situations. Tell me how they just made Grandma Kettle's Thanksgiving dinner one year because the OnStar guy was able to send someone to fix their flat tire. Show me the look on their faces..before and after the call was made. Show me the world as I see a place full of human emotion...filled with good things, as well as disappointments. Give me some context so I can connect with your product. Tell me a story, and you'll win yourself a customer.


Gaming Industry Promotes Use Of Live-Action Storytelling

The video gaming industry has always been able to capitalize on the use of storytelling to better connect with their audience. A recent article published in Brandweek profiles the use of live-action ads to promote the September release of Halo:Reach - the latest game in Microsoft's hugely successful Halo series.

The live-action ad, called "Birth of a Spartan", features the star of the game - Carter-A259. It's a 3 minute cinematic short that reflects an increasing trend to use live-action storytelling to promote video games.

While the use of storytelling to promote consumer products is nothing new, the gaming industry has reaped the benefits of an engaging cinematic experience on viewers for years. Scott Duchon, co-founder of agencytwofifteen - the San Francisco based agency that handles the Microsoft Xbox account, says that they "needed to find something that was going to have a bigger emotional connection" than merely taking clips from the game. They needed to "have story lines that connect with people the way movies connect."

It's hard not to agree with the success of the big players in the extremely lucrative gaming industry. While the gaming industry is quick to see the benefits of the cinematic experience in its ability to push the envelope, there are many major consumer brands that still fail to see its full potential.

The ad has been shown (in varying times) on ABC, cable, online - and in theatres for Iron Man 2 during its opening weekend.

Kleenex Proves Brand Storytelling Is Nothing To Sneeze At

Kleenex is one of the world's most recognizable mega-brands. Regardless of whether we buy no name versions or the authentic Kleenex brand, our referral to the actual product is always "Kleenex." The name has worked its way into our culture and language as the standard in high quality tissue products.

The Kleenex website offers consumers a unique trip down memory lane with key insights into the brand story. Originally marketed in the 1920's as a "cold cream towel", the product was adopted by movie stars as a way of staying beautiful. Tissue ads stared appearing in leading women's magazines featuring testimonials from the stars of stage and screen. Men started using the product as an easy replacement for handkerchiefs.

Throughout its history, the brand took on new meaning for consumers through the innovative use of product design. Funky patterns were integrated into product packaging that seemed to reflect consumer zeitgeist at the time. Pocket versions of the product were also introduced making the brand easier to use while on the go.

To follow the Kleenex brand story through the ages is an interesting study in both consumer product success and human psychology. Much of its initial success was due to celebrity endorsements, a technique that is still in use for major brands today. The brands integration into the entertainment world and Hollywood proves its cachet and usefulness were well ahead of their time. As the world moved on and consumer tastes changed, Kleenex adapted its product and marketing strategy to reflect the current culture. To this day, Kleenex remains one of the world's mega-brands and the name continues to be used for both no name versions - as well as for the original product.

Kimberly-Clark is smart to offer the Kleenex brand story by taking the timeline approach. A brand is, in essence, the sum of its experiences with the consumer - and the history of a brand is a reflection of our own experiences with it throughout time. As a child, I remember using Kleenex while recovering from the flu. I still use it today, as I know it will have the strength to do the job. Deep down inside, the brand also conjures up memories of being taken care of...something that still comes to mind when I need to recover from a cold or flu. As the Kleenex tagline itself says - "It feels good to feel."

Why does taking a historical or timeline approach to brand storytelling help sell brand attributes? Can you think of any other mega-brands that have the same emotional affect on you? If so, which ones and why?


"Story Is King" As Pixar Urges Us To Never Grow Up

Up2 It never ceases to amaze me how many companies claim to be innovative, yet when you meet the management team they don't seem to have an innovative or risk taking bone in their body.

I've worked in marketing communications and advertising for over 20 years - many of which were in the areas of corporate communications and branding. There have been some creative and innovative companies, and many who thought they were - but clearly weren't. The world of business is a serious world of mission and value statements and objective setting for numerous "stakeholders." To make money, it's essential to have a well-defined plan to reach your end goal. You have to go through the necessary motions to make a profit.

When I look at companies like Pixar, I'm amazed at how a company filled with such innovative and brilliant people can consistently make a profit - while remaining true to their childhood heart. I used to think that the business world rejected those with a passion to go against the grain. In the 1980's, having an imagination (let alone using it in the workplace) wasn't as accepted in the business world as it is today. Companies like Pixar prove that it IS possible to be profitable and to follow corporate norm - without sacrificing imagination, ideas and a desire to reap the benefits of adulthood while going back to the best in our childhood.

In the book "Innovate The Pixar Way - Business Lessons From The World's Most Creative Corporate Playground", authors Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson offer tips to help any corporate manager craft a more creative story and brand.

Here are some tips that guarantee you'll never look at corporate strategy the same way:

  • Don't let life beat the kid out of you...It's never too late to remember the magic (remember the world when we treated everything with a sense of awe and wonder?)
  • Redefine the story you're trying to tell. What's your dream? What are your customers dreams? What story are you trying to tell? How do you want your customers to feel after their experience with your organization?
  • True earned emotion is something you really have to craft
  • "Story is King" - Everything that goes into the development of a Pixar film is in support of telling the best story they can
  • Craft customer experience and brand in terms of dreams fulfilled, magical moments, doing the impossible, story, plot and theme - and strive to create unique, memorable and engaging moments

Think of your job as being one of a corporate storyteller or film director - rather than acting as a traditional "corporate communications manager." What cast do you want in your film? Do you want boring, unimaginative people or those who want to do things a different way to achieve even better results?

Stop being uncreative and boring! Take a chance on the "black sheep" once in a while, and see how your profit margins increase. Just because someone has always done things the same way (while achieving mediocre results), doesn't guarantee that their way will work the 100th time around. Remember that every business is show business. Decide to never grow up, and you may be surprised how quickly your boring old corporate story is transformed into something magical that engages customers and gives them a reason to buy your product and/or service.

Unleash creativity in your organization and watch the results. After all, you have nowhere to go but "UP!"

Short Film By Becel Showcases The Heart Truth

Becel-logoAs a founding sponsor of the Heart and Stroke Foundation's The Heart Truth campaign, Becel has developed a two minute short film entitled "The Heart" to showcase the importance of heart health and disease prevention in women.

The film was developed in association with CTV and Bravo!FACT and first appeared during the March broadcast of the Academy Awards.

Kudos to Becel/Unilever for having the foresight and creativity to use film and storytelling techniques to get their message across. The film highlights key moments in a woman's life that tend to involve strong elements of emotional impact.

While it could be argued that some of these moments are rather stereotypical of women (why couldn't they include a mother cheering for a daughter while scoring the winning goal in a hockey game?), as an advertising campaign and storytelling vehicle the film is effective for many reasons:

  1. The imagery has a way of connecting with the audience at an emotional level
  2. Music is used to tie the whole story/message together
  3. Social media is used enabling the audience to take the message viral - the conversation is always moving forward 
  4. The use of film ensures that the message is clear and compelling - it's easy to remember long after the film is over
  5. The film is tied into Becel's overall "Love Your Heart" campaign giving women access to more information posted on the website 

The use of film to promote your brand message is a very effective and compelling advertising technique. Films give advertisers the ability to connect with audiences on both a rational and emotional level. It's the ability to connect at the emotional level that separates the best brand storytellers - from the rest.

Can you think of any other films that were effective in promoting a brand story?



BMW - Driven By The Power of Brand Storytelling

When it comes to grasping key elements in the world of brand storytelling, BMW is one of the best in the world.

One of their newest print ads uses several techniques that are key to success in brand storytelling. The ad covers 4 pages in this month's Vanity Fair magazine and features the keyword "Joy."

Here's why the ad tells the story of the BMW brand in an effective and engaging way:

1) The combination of both colour and black and white images reveal the intended amount of emotional appeal. The colour scheme also matches the tagline associated with each photo. For example, an old shot of Elvis waving to a crowd is featured in black and white. The tagline? "Joy is timeless." Black and white is traditionally used to portray something of historical/archival proportions and was used quite effectively here. The last set of photos features a more modern generation driving the cars. Colour is used to emphasize the 'changing colours of joy' in today's society. It also implies a multi-dimensional perspective on the BMW brand experience.

2) Copy is used to drive the brand story home. The theme of "joy" appears on every page and accompanying copy tells micro-stories on its own. The first page is presented in black and white - with just copy and no visuals. The copy reads: "We do not make cars. We are the creators of emotion. We are the keepers of the thrill. We are the guardians of the one three-letter word. It's independent of everyone. Accountable to no one but the driver. While others try to promise everything, we promise the most personal, cherished and human of all emotions. JOY."

The brand is personalized through the use of effective and engaging copy.

3) Emotion is used to tell the brand story. BMW "gets us" through the use of nostalgia (copy and visuals), and by tying the brand experience (driving a BMW) into our own humanity. Micro-stories are used within the overall brand story. Hollywood is mentioned, and credits are listed showing how the BMW brand has been a player on the Hollywood scene. The player (or brand in this case), is actually a participant (or actor) in its own story. 

The use of brand storytelling techniques to drive home the BMW brand experience proves that the storytelling method doesn't have to be overly conceptual, technical nor complex. All it takes is a little bit of guts - and the desire and inclination to be among the best brands in the world.

So the question remains...just why aren't there more companies out there doing this?


Engage Your Audience - Elevate Your Brand!

As a member of Toastmasters International, I used to compete in public speaking competitions. The competitive arena taught me how to read an audience, through both my actions as well as my words. If the audience wasn't engaged, an otherwise great story would have absolutely no effect on them.

I've been to numerous business conferences over the years and am still astounded by the sometimes mediocre level of speaking ability. Some presenters are great, yet others fail to engage and lose the audience after uttering their first word.

EngageIn business, having a great story is half the battle. Conveying that story in an engaging and effective way is the other half of the equation. Hollywood has fine tuned the art of storytelling and has adapted it to suit a mass audience. Think of your favourite movies. Chances are they have a few things in common.

1)  The ability to  make you feel something...some sort of emotion that might relate to a specific situation in your life - past or present

2) Characters who you can identify with - you might have been in a similar situation or have known people just like them...or...perhaps you ARE them

3) A storyline that keeps you engaged and hanging on until the end of the movie. While watching it, you feel as if time has almost been suspended for the moment

The power of stories and storytelling on an audience is timeless. The advertising greats knew this, and constantly strived to establish connections with brands and audiences. Stories enable us to connect with one another in a way that makes us feel valuable and "in the loop." Look at how quickly stories spread over the internet. Who hasn't talked about Tiger Woods around the office cooler - or the antics of the now infamous "balloon boy" father?

To elevate your brand, you must engage your audience. If we don't "feel" anything by using your brand (ie. if it doesn't make us feel cool, or hip, or "in the know" or as if it's helping us solve a particular problem), chances are we'll find another brand that will help us feel these things.

The art and science of branding can be used to elevate ROI if you keep one simple principle in mind.....all business is showbusiness and your consumer audience is out there to be entertained. Make them feel something and design a quality product - and just wait to see the box office results.

Do you agree that principles used in Hollywood can be used to promote brands? If so, why aren't more companies capitalizing on these techniques?