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In which I'll be loftily discussing the art of storytelling in a not-so-subtle attempt to justify a squandered film studies degree.

Love or hate the phrase, storytelling as a method of mass communication for brands is here to stay. Stories, anecdotes and metaphors that take an audience on a narrative journey to subtly reveal a branded message along the way are far more memorable and shareable than any brazen sales focused advertisement.

A recent survey by Aesop last month last month asked more than 2,000 people in the UK to rate brands against criteria including brand personality, memorability, credibility and purpose, in order to find out the most popular ‘storytelling’ brand.

The top-level results aren’t particularly surprising. You’ve got Apple in there, as well as McDonalds and Coca-Cola. However there ‘s a small list of brands that have snuck in under the radar to become the fastest rising companies over the last year in terms of storytelling.

Let’s take a look at those brands and see what accounts for their success.

Three

Three's rise in popularity is thanks in part to the massive ‘Dance Pony Dance’ advert, which became one of the 20 most shared ads of 2013 amassing more than 1m shares.

Combining the twin might of 2013’s most inexplicably favoured cultural references: Fleetwood Mac and tiny horses, this definitely played well to the trendy crowds.

But what makes this a good example of storytelling? Mainly its pure quirkiness, offering the viewer something completely unexpected at every turn, however there is a ‘hero’s journey’ buried in here too. 

In just over one minute of screen-time the pony has unshackled itself from the boring conformity (and possible alienation) of its herd and embarked on a solo mission to discover new pastures and possibly to find itself.

It’s the same basic tale in Three’s recent ‘Sing it Kitty’ ad. Renegades breaking out from their normal settings to embrace their differences and shake things up a bit.

Two adverts that on the surface couldn’t be more different and yet thematically are completely one, Three has nailed its own version of a fairly standard template.

Let’s also not forget the power of a hugely emotive mid-eighties, pop-rock classic

EE

You may think that EE's popularity is purely down to the ubiquitous presence of its Kevin Bacon starring adverts, but they’ve been going for a few years now and its hardly one of the most narratively solid campaigns.

The ‘made epic’ series of ads from this year however are a cut above…

Using familiar movie-tropes, high budget art design and an atmospheric score, this ad drops you right into the middle of what could be any number of taut continent-hopping political thrillers from the last couple of years… and then completely pulls the rug from underneath you in a brilliantly stupid manner. 

This works as a great piece of storytelling, mainly because of the various cinematic devices used as shorthand. The pacing, the camerawork, the foreign setting, the score, the choice of cast who already look like hard-working character actors with long unnoticed careers, all of these tools make the audience assume they know exactly what’s been going on long before the advert started. 

And of course what better example of storytelling is there than ‘lengthy set-up to quick punchline’? 

Just like Three above, EE has this template nailed and its sticking to it.

The message ‘make films on your phone more epic’ perfectly describes the synthesis of product and content in these ads.

Talk Talk

Here is Talk Talk's ‘Date Night’ advert... 

Classic storytelling certainly although it wears its many obvious influences on its sleeve. This is an advert that couldn’t exist without John Lewis’s similarly romantic ‘The Journey’ from Christmas 2012 or Three’s dancing pony and the notion that Starship make for a stirring ad soundtrack. It’s a very easy shortcut to achieve pathos with an already ingrained anthem. 

That being said, Talk Talk has created a memorable and much loved advert, thanks to the use of narrative and emotional hook.

HTC 

There’s an awful lot going on here and what may appear like a random smattering of ideas, is actually incredibly sophisticated. 

Let’s begin with the obvious. Robert Downey Jr. is here, playing an approximation of himself and certainly trading off his charming millionaire Iron Man role. Again this is cinematic shorthand, you don’t need any characterisation because you know what to expect. 

At two minutes long, this is one of the lengthier examples here (which is a ridiculous statement to make I realise), but when you see that time indicator on the YouTube clip you immediately assume you’re in for a more absorbing tale. 

It’s an advert that understands the value of a lengthy set-up. It’s at the half-way mark before you’re given the first clue as to where the journey might take you. Intrigue and the desire to unravel mysteries are the natural instincts that keep us glued.

Then despite the glamour and high-budget, something very disarming happens. You realise the company are slyly lampooning its own image. Do you know what HTC stands for? In the end it doesn’t matter because you can make it whatever you want it to be. 

This is high-budget Hollywood filmmaking, mixed with corporate self-effacement, which somehow manages to put the consumer at its heart.

You can also pause it at various points to work out what some of the many non-clarified visual gags may mean, inviting endless rewatches.

Aldi

Aldi’s long-running campaign involves putting genuine people in front of the camera comparing its own products with bigger brands.

So what’s the big deal? 18 seconds where the message is that Aldi’s products are as good but cheaper then other brands and a brief, slightly eyebrow raising punchline. This is barely an advert, let alone a ‘story’. 

Just keep watching…

The framing is consistent throughout. A rudimentary medium close-up, no camera movement. The person is central. Nothing showy, no-budget spent, in fact the camera used is certainly something anybody might have forgotten in a cupboard somewhere. 

The formalism becomes something quite beautiful and revealing. The framing insists that this is a ‘story’ no matter how small or seemingly insignificant and it should be paid attention to. 

The thematic template is also consistent. In fact if you’ve read or watched any of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’, you’ll immediately be reminded of those kitchen-sink monologues where typically English characters reveal a surprising eccentricity or something much darker. It’s exactly the same here, just played out on a much smaller scale. 

Perhaps the only difference here is that the cross-section of England featured in these ads are resolutely proud, or at least not ashamed of who they are, and by extension are also not ashamed to shop in the unbranded, cheaper supermarket.

For more on content marketing…

Check out these very informative articles from the Econsultancy blog:

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 3 September, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (5)

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Laura Hare, Marketing Communications Executive at MetaPack

I hate the EE advert campaign at the moment so much I say it every time I go to the cinema - my boyfriend keeps calling me boring. I really dislike them.

almost 2 years ago

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Tim Wade

These are some very good examples of storytelling, however I think the challenge is not one of storytelling through video, this is something that has been happening since the dawn of the medium. The challenge for brands is keeping the narrative weaved into the customer experience. So if I go into a Three shop or onto the Three website is the narrative consistent does the story continue and do the people know the story. The great thing about the Aldi campaign is the story is authentic and consistent throughout everything they do

almost 2 years ago

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Peter Harrington

Good grief, if this constitutes story telling, best head for the exit door. All I see is mindless pap and dirge aimed at the lowest common denominator.

almost 2 years ago

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Calum McGowan, Delivery Lead - Native Apps at Auto Trader Limited 2

The Aldi stuff is simple and usually quite amusing. All the other campaigns are pretty awful.

almost 2 years ago

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Simon Heyes

It's debatable whether these are examples of storytelling, or simply examples of video advertising. Take Three for instance - both of those videos don't tell a brand story. They include animals, which is designed to provoke a reaction from the audience. The audience share those videos because they like cats and ponies, not necessarily because they like Three as a brand.

I agree with Tim - brand storytelling should be weaved across all channels and assets, not simply video and digital marketing.

Storytelling needs to be human. It needs to be authentic. Where possible, it should be immersive and interactive, giving the audience control over the story. The Aldi videos are simple and consistent, and are definitely the best examples here.

almost 2 years ago

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