What it takes to be a true brand storyteller

Most brand content fails because it is missing a key ingredient, says Lucky Generals' Andy Nairn.

Paddy Power isn't afraid to court controversy in its marketing
Paddy Power isn't afraid to court controversy in its marketing

Welcome back and here’s hoping 2016 is a good one, yadda yadda yadda.

Now, at the risk of ruining the festive good vibes, I’d like to begin the year with a bit of a rant about the unremittingly awful nature of most so-called "content". 

There’s no doubt that this is the new C-word in our industry.  At best it’s a bland catch-all to cover all sorts of communications that would otherwise be difficult to categorize.  At worst, it’s a term that promotes laziness and low standards, by encouraging the generation of large quantities of "stuff", without any discernable idea or realistic hope that anybody will enjoy it.

The worst offenders are, ironically, often those who insist on styling themselves as "storytellers".  Now, if your name is Hans Christian Fucking Andersen, then by all means adopt this job description and wear it with pride.  But the rest of us would probably be better off thinking long and hard about the basic ingredients of a good yarn, before telling the world that we spin them for a living.

In particular, we could all learn from the wise words of John le Carré, when he observed that: "The cat sat on the mat is not a story.  But the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginnings of a story."

Most brand content fails because it lacks narrative conflict.  It has been authored by people writing for their own enjoyment, rather than with their audience in mind.  The characters portrayed are typically all-too-perfect.  The subjects covered are usually safe and the morals of the stories unremittingly positive.  There is rarely any jeopardy, any danger of things going wrong.  As a result, ordinary people rarely care about the results. 

A few brands get that this isn’t enough.  For instance, we are lucky enough to work with Paddy Power, who fully understand that they are an entertainment brand and that true storytelling requires a bit of tension.  So they happily take pot-shots at their enemies, rather than seeing this as "negative marketing".  They actively court controversy, talking about big cultural issues rather than saying these have nothing to do with sport.  They take huge risks, in the knowledge that they could fail spectacularly, but could equally win big.  This approach means that, while they sometimes miss the target, they have more than their fair share of hits – sometimes monstrous ones, out of all proportion to the initial investment.

The point is that real storytellers welcome a fight, instead of running away from one.  So before we settle into the cosy cocoon of the New Year perhaps we should remind ourselves of the need for a narrative punch up now and again. Let’s add some spikiness to our stories.  Let’s give our tales an edge.

In summary, while I hope you had a lovely relaxing break, I now wish you a very tense and conflict-ridden 2016.

Andy Nairn is the founding partner of Lucky Generals. 

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