The case for brands to engage in storytelling is well made and well documented. Stories are so much more effective than facts, they engage us and in so doing, they motivate brands and buyers alike to get involved and to act.
But what would happen if we turned the dynamics inside-out? If, instead of having a brand tell a story, we built a story using the various brand elements. Agencies have used this approach in communications for some time but the idea has tended to be confined to campaigns. My question is whether the idea can, and should, translate to real life.
From an article in The Globe and Mail quoting Frank Rose: “storytelling is only the first step in his immersion approach. Storytelling opens the door for individuals to connect with your brand. People want to merge their identity with something larger – to enter the world the story lives in, sharing and being defined by the story. And you must provide that.”
Changing the role of the consumer
So can brands take the consumer from the observer or listener to within the story itself? And what might that do to the relationship that consumers have with brands as a result? In such a scenario: the brand itself might be the storyteller; the experience could be what happens; the touchpoints could be where the story happens; the product could be the reward, the means or the catalyst for the experience; the consumer themselves could be the protagonist; and competitors could be the rivals or the obstacles that stand in the way of the consumer getting to where they need to be.
Think of this approach as real-life gaming, where brands look to draw consumers deeper into their worlds and to engage them directly in the storylines – to the point where they may even develop or change those storylines, individually or collectively, in real-time. I’m not suggesting that stores are about to become settings for a reality-style console game. What I am suggesting is that perhaps rethinking the ways in which brands structure their stories could also be a way to rethink how they take consumers on journeys and challenge and reward them for participation over the longer term. If, for example, brands were to reposition their competitors as barriers that stood in the way of achieving what the consumer wants to achieve, that’s a very different proposition than viewing them as an alternative or option that must be bested.
“Gaming” may be the wrong word – because it implies that the stories will be fictional and the worlds within which the stories take place imaginary. That’s certainly an option – but another is that the journeys are tied to the achievement of purpose, and that the story takes place within a framework that is focused on overcoming current views or states that stand in the way of the achievement of that goal.
Exploring new options
Unilever’s Project Sunlight looks to change the impact that the CPG owner has in the world. It’s a story that investors have come to embrace on the back of results. But are there opportunities to involve consumers more closely and directly in what happens? Currently, the linkages between good intentions and good purchasing are usually consequential: consumers choosing a particular brand can do so knowing that a set amount or a proportion of what they paid will go towards changing a situation for the better. Nothing wrong with that.
How could brands draw consumers into real adventures or journeys that went beyond promotional conventions?
But how could this idea elevate? How could everyone who believed in what a brand stood for be part of an inspiring story? How could brands draw consumers into real adventures or journeys that went beyond promotional conventions? Could brand experiences become life experiences? Could they, for example, give people unprompted and inspiring experiences, and could those experiences add to what happens for everyone? How would a brand capture that story, and what would it do with it?
It’s about aligning what people buy with the stories that they tell themselves about their lives. Finding ways to change people’s lives, and the lives of others, through what they buy – that story, it seems to me, is another option well worth exploring. The next era of brand storytelling? Perhaps.