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Become a binge-worthy brand

Tom Gerace
Become a binge-worthy brand Tom Gerace

If no one sees your ad, did you really even pay for it? Unfortunately, yes.

Netflix announced another record-breaking quarter in July, adding 3.3 million paid subscribers in the quarter, to reach 65 million total. Reading the news, I couldn't help but think that this is one more nail in the coffin of interrupt advertising.

Driven by the demand for new episodes of "Orange Is the New Black" and a vast array of compelling, ad-free content, people are increasingly willing to pay to watch the stories they love, uninterrupted. As we shift our viewing from ad-supported media to ad-free, subscription-based viewing on platforms like Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify (Premium), Apple Music, YouTube, and even hold-out Hulu, marketers have to be shifting their ad dollars away from advertising, right?

Not yet. Even as consumers find new ways to avoid commercials, eMarketer found that global brands will continue to increase ad spend by $30 billion annually, to an estimated $600 billion in annual spend next year. But marketers that are paying attention to the numbers are starting to worry.

Those same marketers realize their brands must shift from interrupting the stories people love to telling them. But how? Here are the steps brands must take to connect with their customers through original, sustainable storytelling:

Master the craft of storytelling

Just like listening to "Hotel California" won't give you the ability to write another Billboard hit, hearing a great story doesn't give you the skill to tell one. There is a storytelling craft -- like there is with any art -- that lies behind those stories that connect with us, make us feel happy/sad/anxious/angry, and cause us to lose ourselves in the tale being told. Studies show when these specific story elements weave together -- the characters, setting, and rising conflict -- our minds react almost as if we are experiencing the events in the story ourselves. Smart marketers know that the emotions stories elicit are powerful things, and brands that tell great stories can build strong connections with their customers through them. 

Robert McKee, world-renowned expert on story craft, explains a story framework that can help brands capture attention. McKee's framework explains why certain brands capture our attention, even when we are far outside their prospective target market. Always, which makes feminine hygiene products, is a classic example. Here's how its #LikeaGirl campaign, anchored by an Emmy-nominated video, captures critical story elements:

Core character
Stories center on a character that the audience can relate to. In this case, it's Dakota, a 10-year-old girl participating in a television shoot alongside women and men spanning ages 10 to 30. Dakota is soft spoken, wide-eyed, and seems to have faith in the world's goodness as she diligently follows the director's instructions. 

The setting not only establishes the physical space, but evokes the struggle and imbalance in the character's world. All of the elements in this clip -- from the soft music that gradually progresses to the stark gray backdrop that the participants stand in front of -- reflect the dark realities that girls face as they seek respect and recognition in their adult lives.

Progressive, accelerating turns
Stories move us up and down, elicit pain and pleasure, and fill us with fear and hope. Each scene changes some value, as McKee describes. Love becomes hate, joyful turns to downtrodden, connected becomes disconnected, or hopeful, hopeless. In this video, as the director lists off a series of actions for participants to perform, all followed with the descriptor "like a girl," a distinction emerges between the age groups. The teenagers and young women run in tiny steps, flip their hair, and mock themselves, while Dakota and the young girls run fast, throw hard, and fight with all of their strength. The juxtaposition reminds us that self-confidence is fragile.

The turning point
There must be a moment when everything changes. The director probes the participants on the meaning and impact of "like a girl." Where did it come from? How has it shaped us? The screen reads: When did doing something "like a girl" become an insult?

Crisis and the core character's choice
At the peak of the story, the core character is faced with a decision -- how will they move forward in this moment, and how will this moment impact the rest of their lives? How will Dakota define "like a girl" today and ten years from now? In this moment, the true character of the hero is revealed in the decisions they make.

I'm pained every time I watch that video, in the middle. But by the end, watching the strength and resiliency of the young girls in the film and knowing we can change what lies in front of them, I feel empowered…and I'm not alone. What an extraordinary job: a feminine hygiene company tells a story that raises awareness about a demeaning social construct. When Always tells this story, the brand connects with women who have experienced this in their lives before, and motivates them to change that reality for future generations. It isn't doing this just to do good in the world, though it certainly does good. The brand builds a relationship with women who want for a better world for themselves, their sisters, and their daughters.

Building storytelling into organizational mindset

Even with a deep understanding and eye for a good story, creating them on an ongoing basis is hard. For brands to transform their marketing from advertising to storytelling, they need to think differently about what it means to build an emotional connection with their customers. Doing this requires a shift in mindset, focusing on the experiences consumers want instead of the brand's products and services, and creating stories that can stand on their own, because they provide what customers need to know or the entertainment they want to consume.

Leading brands have found success by creating entire entities dedicated to brand storytelling. Red Bull, for example, created Red Bull Media House, which produces premium content with separate monetization goals from its products. "On a mission to fascinate," the media entity feeds its audience of risk-takers with documentaries, magazines, and feature films celebrating extreme athletes. Other brands are beginning to follow this model, including Starbucks, which recruited Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former Washington Post journalist, to produce brand-collaborative nonfiction pieces.

Not all marketers have the resources to open separate media arms, but they have the ability to think in terms of an editor nurturing an audience, rather than a brand selling a product. By building out a distinct organizational function for storytelling, and integrating the entire company on a strategic and execution level, marketers can build a foundation for inspirational brand experiences.

Taking an episodic approach

Too often, marketers put all of their time and energy into one piece of premium content, failing to recognize that people consume content every day. One piece of good content is not enough to grow and sustain audiences, especially when nine out of 10 Americans self-identify as binge watchers. To become a brand that tells stories consumers love, marketers need to tell stories consistently, both in tone and in frequency.

The way consumers learn, make decisions, and spend money will evolve and change over time. But our appetite for good stories, and the connection that sharing those stories has made between storytellers and audiences, has existed since our ancestors first painted glyphs onto the walls of caves. By learning how to tell stories well and building organizations that support sustained storytelling, marketers can build brands with a passionate following. And those brands will stand long after the last interrupt advertisement fades to black.

Tom Gerace is CEO of Skyword Inc. 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet. 


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