Most often when we think of stories we imagine singular self-contained narratives. The latest John Grisham novel or the romantic comedy at the box office can be consumed in one go or many but exists—and can be understood—independently of any other works.
Many stories are far more diffuse, spanning multiple channels of distribution and even crossing into different genres. Coca Cola’s brand story, for example, or the Marvel universe, is more like a narrative world than a linear story, even though it may add up to a few big ideas.
Untangling story worlds
The billboard you pass on your commute home tells one part of a grand narrative. A different piece of this same story is told in the ad that streams on YouTube, the product packaging you see at the store, and conversations about the brand on social media.
We are rarely exposed to every facet of these story worlds—someone may enjoy the Avengers movies without ever reading the comic books or discussing fan theories—so we each develop a slightly different story in our heads by piecing together those facets we do encounter.
When all incarnations of the grand narrative—every corner of the story world—align, they work together to create a largely standardized impression. Each must overlap sufficiently with the others to allow continuity and cohesion, while also adding some distinct piece to the puzzle.
Brands are noticing the potential in these decentralized storyscapes, but there is still much uncertainty about how to best implement them—and mitigate the dangers they pose. After all, the more storytellers you have the harder it is to control the narrative.
Extending an open invitation
One solution is to stop fighting audiences over storytelling power and instead provide them with the tools and opportunity to cooperate in the creation of brand narratives. Snapchat allows brands to do just that, with virtual overlays that feature sponsored content.
During the last Super Bowl, users could select an augmented reality lens that simulated a Gatorade cooler being poured over their head. The lens’ reach was 50% larger than the game’s, with over 150 million people either seeing or using it while interacting with friends.
The upside is indisputable. Not only are people more open to ideas presented by—and amongst—friends, but the ability to bring together Gatorade’s story with their own makes the brand’s message more personal, more relatable, and truer to their daily experience.
Epic Games harnessed the power of narrative world building to spectacular effect with the release of their most recent title, “Fortnite”. The game’s story, founded on its creative game mechanics, is being told on at least a half dozen platforms by thousands of storytellers.
A spectrum of content creation
Players live stream games on Twitch, adding their personal flair and commentary to build large communities of followers, while fans on Reddit share memes they create about their shared experience. Twitter connects game developers and players seeking to improve the game.
In a promotional coup, Epic announced the Support-A-Creator event. For several months, Fortnite storytellers—be they live streamers or bloggers—will be awarded a 5% cut of the in-game purchases made by their game-playing fans, who spend over $200 million per month.
Recognizing the value they add, Epic has chosen to cut independent Fortnite storytellers in on the game’s massive revenues instead of threatening them with copyright lawsuits. It is less than clear, though, how Epic’s recipe for success can be applied by marketers in other industries.
Five principles for curating story worlds
Storytelling remains critical but today the victors are those who curate story worlds with content from multiple co-creators. Getting this right is hard, with effective practitioners mastering five principles:
1. Be purposeful. Begin with a clear idea of brand purpose. Maintaining consistency across the branches of your story world requires a focused vision of the value that a brand contributes to consumers. Budweiser sells an authentically American beer, while Patagonia produces high quality outdoor gear. Budweiser’s brand purpose is thus closely interwoven with the ideas of tradition and the quotidian, while Patagonia’s brand is in constant dialogue with the natural world.
2. Apply brand purpose to consumer well-being. Mastercard gives consumers access to the credit they need to accomplish their goals. As CMO Raja Rajamannar said in a recent interview, “It’s not enough to tell stories about priceless experiences…We need to…help [consumers] create their own.” Mastercard’s new marketing strategy seeks to better align company practices and messaging with the brand’s purpose. A campaign of annual meal donations to the UN Food Program is part of a larger story world in which Mastercard enacts its mission.
3. Bring consumers into the conversation. Instead of just bombarding audiences with ads, draw them in with useful content (e.g., how-to videos), competitions (e.g., Lays’ “Do Me a Flavor” campaign), and the tools they need to tell their own stories about the brand (e.g., Snapchat lenses). For many years, Doritos ran an annual competition, receiving tens of thousands of independently created ads, with the winner receiving a spot in Doritos’ Super Bowl advertising.
4. Be responsive to consumer contributions. The Mastercard meal campaign demanded an almost immediate readjustment, as audiences complained the donations—some of which were tied to goals scored by soccer stars–ought to be given freely, rather than used as a marketing ploy. In a matter of days, Mastercard changed the campaign and agreed to donate a full million meals—irrespective of goals or gimmicks. Bringing audiences into the conversation means listening to what they have to say, not just giving them a forum to speak.
5. Let consumers live the brand. Successful brands won’t just enact their purpose in a way that reaches consumers, they will encourage their audience to share the ways the brand has empowered them to manifest their own purpose—just as Epic games is supporting independent content creators. Airbnb similarly leveraged the visual power of Instagram. Using the hashtag #AirbnbShorts, the brand asked users to share their favorite things about their city in 15 second videos—promoting not only the brand, but individual users and regional communities as well.
It takes a village
It is no longer possible for brands to tightly control their narrative, and consumers don’t really want them to; they feel entitled to have a voice in the development of brand stories, and to manage the interactions between brands and the communities they are a part of.
To succeed in this new environment, brands must define the rules that govern the narrative space within which they operate. Through which avenues can audiences engage with the narrative? How do each of these offer different opportunities for engagement?
The object is not to build a world that audiences can lose themselves in—it is to create a space where they can achieve their goals in a way that aligns with the brand’s purpose and values—it’s about creating a shared experience between brand and consumer.
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