When I first started work on the IPA Excellence Diploma, I have to admit to feeling a little bit disappointed. Not because I didn't think I would learn; on the contrary, I knew I was going to learn plenty. It's just that I thought this learning would be confined to brands and how they communicate, and the idea of spending countless nights with the same subject I had to deal with day in, day out at work didn't thrill me.
Perhaps even more importantly, I felt that a year of ploughing through journals, synthesising arguments and writing essays would suck up all my spare time - and not because I was worried about sacrificing my social life. No, the truth was much geekier and more disturbing: I was worried the Diploma would distract me from my real passion of writing fiction. I wanted to be crafting my next unpublishable novel or commercially impotent screenplay when I wasn't at work, not reading articles about effectiveness and channel planning. I wanted to be playing God, not studying brands.
Then something weird happened.
In November 2007, I went on a seminar run by a guy called Robert McKee - a gnarled, miserable old codger from Hollywood who thinks we're forgetting how to tell great stories. McKee doesn't talk about screenplays exclusively, but about the art of story in all its forms regardless of the medium it's rendered in - an interesting parallel for brands, given the amount of time we spend debating the same subject.
I spent three 12-hour days locked in a conference room with a self-confessed "asshole from Hollywood", learning all about storytelling. But it quickly became apparent to me that I wasn't just learning about the art of story - I was learning about people. About what moves us, what touches us deeply, down at our core. And I learnt more about advertising in those three days than in any other comparable time period.
During one of the breaks I even walked up to Mr McKee and asked if he did his seminar for businesses, too. He glared at me from beneath the bushiest eyebrows I've ever seen and said in a throaty growl: "You work in advertising, right?"
I mumbled something and sloped off, head hung in shame.
When the three days were up, I went back to work. We had a major pitch on, defending the account I worked on against a rival agency. This was a matter of pride. Everyone in the agency felt this account rightfully belonged to us, and had done for decades. We were fired up. And despite the apparent complexity of our task, something was niggling away at me ... then I realised what it was.
Our job was blisteringly simple - a straightforward case of character versus characterisation. All we had to do was what great stories do: We needed to rip away the sum total of what people thought about this brand - the mask of characterisation it wore - to reveal its character underneath1. We just needed to tell the truth.
I went straight from this pitch into another. It was a huge, an account every big agency in town seemed to be going for. To get through to the pitch stage, ten agencies were asked to come in to present for one hour on how brands become icons. The client was looking for "big brain planning" apparently ... no pressure there, then. This was a big deal, and I was a bit nervous. I wondered about how to approach this, knowing we had to do something different to stand out from the crowd.
Then it hit me. I went back to the notes I'd scribbled frantically during McKee's rants, along with the books I'd subsequently devoured about the art of storytelling in all its forms, and I decided to push aside the pseudo-intellectual marketing speak and talk to the client in plain English ... and I talked about Batman.
I said that icons represent the single biggest encapsulation of an idea that's important to us, something that smoothes over a tension in our lives, and that Batman understood this better than most planners.3 I told them that Bruce Wayne's realisation that he couldn't defeat criminals as a man, as flesh and blood - that he needed to become a symbol of justice, incorruptible and everlasting - was the very crux of iconicity.4 I told the clients a great story, one that summed up the intellectual argument better than academia ever could. We got on to the pitch list. And we won.5
I was starting to realise that there were too many parallels between brands and storytelling to be ignored. I began exploring these parallels through the essays I wrote as part of the Diploma - sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Acutely aware that this wasn't exactly new, I also read all the existing thinking on brands and storytelling. The concept of the brand as a story is gaining momentum; the Advertising Research Foundation in the US recently concluded from a three-year study that the single most important factor necessary for a brand to connect with its audience is the presence of an engaging story.6 But I was surprised o find that although much smarter people than me had used the prism of storytelling to analyse brands and advertising for years, most of their thinking had either missed the mark, or barely scratched the surface of the really juicy stuff.
So when it came to writing this thesis, my choice was simple. I believe that the future of brands lies in telling stories that inspire and move us. Brands are storytelling devices first and foremost; they tap into a fundamental need for mythology lurking inside all of us.7 Everything we do as brand agents - everything, mind - is essentially about telling a story. And when we do it well, magic happens.
Because stories teach us what it means to be human.
Stories are the oldest form of communication we have. They're practically hardwired into our DNA. They are the vehicles through which we search for an answer to the biggest question facing us all: Who am I, and how should I live my life?8
Story is born where the subjective and objective realms touch, in the gap between expectation and reality. 9 The protagonist acts in pursuit of a desire or goal, and the world around them reacts; this is where conflict occurs, the essence of all storytelling. That's what we're all doing, every day of our lives. That's why stories are so important.
Stories can help us overcome many of the drawbacks in conventional brand development. The greatest brands are all great stories, first and foremost. Apple, Nike, Disney, McDonald's and Coca-Cola are all based on fundamental human truths about creativity, heroism, family, happiness and unity.11 They connect with us deeply because they say something important about what it means to be alive.
The art of storytelling is under threat in an age of information overload. We continually push our instincts aside in favour of analysis and reason. Brands have become bogged down in lists of nouns and adjectives, confined to onions and pyramids, frozen in positioning statements, shackled in inappropriate research methodologies;12 the result is brands that make sense, but fail to connect.13 But the importance of telling stories that inspire and move us is more critical for brands to appreciate now in this time of spiritual and economic uncertainty than ever before. "As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the only source we still believe in: The art of story."14
During the course of this essay, I will reframe the past, present and future of brands as a story. Using classic storytelling principles, I will demystify branding to show where it has come from, where it is now, and where it must go in the future to survive and flourish in a world that is ruthlessly and relentlessly changing.
There will be a beginning, middle and end, the most recognisable of all story structures, executed in three acts. There will be a controlling idea - a single sentence that sums up the story's meaning, similar to a proposition on an advertising brief. There will be a protagonist - in this case, the brand itself. There will be progressive complications involving subplots and secondary characters. There will be a climax and a resolution.
Most of all, I hope there will be a good story.
Because, truthfully - what more could anyone ask for?
Beyond the suns that guard this roof,
Beyond your flowers of flaming truth,
Beyond your latest ad campaigns ...
We know of an ancient radiation
That haunts dismembered constellations,
A faintly glimmering radio station.
Cake, Frank Sinatra - 1996
The Rise of Self-Actualisation
In the beginning, we hunted to survive. We caught our own food and sought shelter from big, hairy things that were trying to eat us; we bashed each other over the head with clubs and grunted a fair bit. We were somewhere between man and ape, and yet we had something no other animal on Earth had, a result of an overly developed frontal lobe. It was called imagination, and it is the defining essence of mankind.15
It was this imagination that came up with agriculture as a method to more effectively control and plan for the distribution of food, displacing the hunter-gatherer paradigm. We then came up with the idea to modernise rural institutions, involving the enclosure of open land and the shift from peasant farming to large-scale capitalist farming. This generated a rise in agricultural productivity and fuelled industrial development, which in turn gave rise to the industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution gave birth to factories, where products were mass-produced for the first time. This brought two entities to prominence: The corporation, a separate legal entity for conducting business that balanced the interests of its shareholders and the capital they invested with the employees who contributed their labour; and the consumer, an aggregated commodity item with little individuality to the corporation, other than that expressed in the buy/do-not-buy decision.16 Alongside this, a thing called the brand had emerged as a way to establish ownership and manufacture of goods and services. Although the brand's origin could be traced back to Bison paintings on cave walls several thousand years ago, and probably went back even further, it was only when the corporation began mass-producing stuff and trying to sell it to the consumer that the concept of the brand really came into its own. The reason for this was simple. The corporation was essentially a psychopath, in that it was created and legally mandated to relentlessly pursue its own self interests regardless of the consequences - but the brand could conceal this unpalatable truth by providing it with a more acceptable identity for public consumption.17
Meanwhile, advertising began to appear in the mid-19th century as a way of educating the consumer about a range of recently invented products such as the radio, automobiles and light bulbs. Far from building the brand, advertising originated to inform the consumer about these new inventions and to convince them that life would be better as a result of buying them. Although many of these products carried brand names, the brand was secondary because the products were often unique.18
The corporation's greed, combined with the manufacturing power of the factory, essentially drove the brand and advertising together. The brand needed advertising to elevate it above the deluge of anonymous and generic mass-produced goods that were flooding the market, and advertising needed the brand when it could no longer rely on the uniqueness of the product to form the body of the message. Differentiation based on the brand itself became a necessity. In an age of intense competition and uniformity, the brand and advertising were destined to be together.
For the brand, advertising brought the skills of a necromancer to the table - the dark art of persuasion, the ability to manipulate the consumer based on brilliantly crafted messages. For advertising, the brand gave it a sense of purpose - a reason to exist beyond the delivery of information. They completed each other.
Advertising soon realised that product attributes weren't the most effective way to sell the brand to the consumer, and that its true power was far more emotional. The brand could stand for an idea that mattered to people much more than the product ever could. It could symbolise the core meaning of the corporation.19
At the beginning of the 20th century, Carl Jung proposed that a personality could conceal itself beneath a persona - a mask we adopt to facilitate social interactions. This was based on the idea that we rarely act as we are on the inside, and instead develop a persona for public consumption that fits with norms and expectations set by the world around us.20 Advertising realised the brand was the perfect way to create this persona, and that it was this persona, not product attributes, that would most strongly influence the consumer's purchase decision. We choose our brands as we choose our friends, and we select these friends based largely on how they make us feel about ourselves. 21
With the brand's permission, advertising set about creating powerful personas - from the warm humanity of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to the magical family values of Disney to Coca-Cola's promise of togetherness. Over the course of the 20th century, these personas grew and grew in power. Choosing an Apple computer was about striking a blow against conformity. Wearing Nike was about stepping into the swashbuckling adventurer's Swoosh-tattooed shoes. Flying Virgin was shorthand for sticking two fingers up to the corporate fat cats. The brand came to represent who the consumer was - and, more importantly, who it wanted to be.
In this respect, the brand began to behave in much the same way as secondary characters in a story. Most stories are constructed around a single protagonist acting in pursuit of a desired goal, with the secondary characters there primarily to delineate a specific aspect of the protagonist's character. They bring out the protagonist's good side, bad side, funny side, affectionate side; they show the protagonist to be complex, multidimensional, and all the more real and intriguing for it. As the protagonist in the meta-narrative it was constructing of its own life, the consumer's choice of brand was therefore often based on a desire to express a specific aspect of its own multidimensional personality - even if it wasn't consciously aware of it. 22
This approach turned the brand into the 20th century's most phenomenal success story, and the corporation into the most powerful institution the world had ever known. The brand became the icon of the homogenised international language of goods, creating meaning in the new social world of consumption. 24
The first act in the Brand Story was, therefore, one of self-actualisation, as the consumer bought into a promise of happiness and fulfilment. It raised the standards by trying harder, giving the consumer the best a man can get and the make-up of make-up artists. Impossible was nothing; the consumer could taste the rainbow and just do it, if only it believed in the power of dreams. The future was bright.
The brand raked it in, and advertising got very well paid in the process. The pinnacle of success came in the latter part of the 20th century, as the brand became the biggest asset the corporation had and insulated it from raiders. But, as with all stories, things soon got a bit hairy.
The Malaise of Self-Distraction
Despite the phenomenal success they had achieved together, the relationship between the brand and advertising soon became a bit more complicated. This was partly due to some new characters entering the story as the world inevitably changed, and partly because money and power can ruin the best friendships.
Advertising had become a little pompous and self-important, believing the mythology it spun was the sole reason for the brand's success; the brand became less trusting of advertising as a result and started hanging out with its former partners, media and research - both of whom had a bit of an axe to grind. 25
Media and research had played second fiddle to advertising for too long. They believed success had gone to advertising's head, making it insufferable, and they resented its often flippant approach to what they brought to the table. They knew they could woo the brand by developing their own specialist skills further, rather than continuing to suffer in the shadow of the necromancer they'd grown to resent. They realised they could turn advertising's strength - its creativity and the inherent risk-taking flair this entailed - into a weakness, thereby reframing it as a dangerous, egotistical artist. And so they stepped out on their own, promising shiny new things to the brand - better media planning and buying, less biased research, and greater transparency.
Things didn't quite work out like that.
Research set about convincing the brand that things weren't quite as easy as advertising made out. It claimed advertising was too flippant and didn't really get the consumer, treating it as a somewhat crude, malleable creature. It promised greater understanding of the way the consumer interpreted advertising and the brand itself through a whole suite of tools designed to improve effectiveness.
No longer content with simply trapping the consumer in a room and plying it with bad wine and stale snacks, while forcing it to discuss things it didn't really care about, research began developing more sophisticated evaluative and diagnostic measures to demonstrate return on investment. It proposed new theories on how to measure successful advertising backed up with lots of methodical arguments, particularly pre-testing and tracking, and paid relatively little attention to the more challenging issues of how to develop more engaging positioning and brand communications.26
Research also began to realise that the true effects of advertising on brand equity was almost impossible to measure.27 The consumer was highly contradictory and extremely unpredictable; it told research only what it thought it would think, feel and ultimately do, and then often went and did the complete opposite. The more elusive the consumer proved to be, the more research developed new methods to explain it in rational ways the brand would understand ... but this just added to the confusion.
Meanwhile, media was also rapidly becoming much more complicated, with new channels splintering attention into tiny fragments, making it increasingly difficult to reach large audiences. The relationship between the consumer and media was changing, becoming less one-way and more participatory; no longer merely passive, the consumer began to actively take control of its media consumption.
The traditional definition of the consumer no longer seemed to fit as it began expressing itself in much more complex ways than simply the decision to buy or not to buy. Better connected and more informed than ever before, the consumer was suddenly willing and able to use its newfound connectivity against the brand if it dared contravene an unspoken contract of trust. The internet played a particularly important role in this, disabling the ability of the corporation and brand to control information in the same way the printing press had done to the church many centuries before.28
As the reality of this new, more powerful consumer sank in, the brand became increasingly worried. Things could get ugly if it put a foot wrong. The balance of power was shifting seismically, creating new rules of engagement. The brand became more risk-averse as a result, relying even more heavily on research to explore every possible contingency before it dared to act. It was thinking its way out of feeling. 29
To make matters even more complicated, a plethora of new players seemed to be entering the fray almost daily, all claiming they alone had the answer to the brand's problems. The management consultancy began to encroach on the strategic thinking the brand's agencies had typically provided, offering highly polished and scripted processes leading to new strategies that were wholly unable to cope with the messy reality of how the consumer and the brand interacted in the real world. 30 Permission marketing shouted long and loud that advertising's interruption model was dead, and that the future lay in getting the consumer to actively opt in to a dialogue with the brand. 31
Memetics said the answer lay in getting the consumer to learn and imitate,32 while semiotics said the brand engaged the consumer in imaginary and symbolic processes that contributed tangible value to the product offering.33 Co-creativity said real value came from interaction, and that the Holy Grail lay in the brand and consumer partnering together.34 Transmedia, a distant cousin of media based on convergence culture and decentralised authorship, said the brand needed to use different media as entry points into its story, which would build the formation of knowledge communities through an overarching narrative and trigger word of mouth. 35 Neuroscience caused some considerable excitement when it first came on the scene with its promise of finding the answer in the consumer's brain, but this brain turned out to be a very weird thing indeed - a trembling web of networks and associations that was malleable and ever-changing, operating in an unconscious and highly emotional manner. 36
The brand became more confused as it found itself pulled in every direction. Advertising continued claiming that persuasion was art rather than science, 37 and that every attempt to scientifically pick apart what it had managed to achieve for over a century was, therefore, fundamentally flawed - but all this did was lead to less trust, and a more strained relationship with the brand.
In this new climate of uncertainty, the brand viewed advertising's inherent creativity as too rebellious and subversive. It demanded advertising return to delivering information about the product, rather than focusing on what it now considered to be the softer elements of creativity - essentially winding advertising back a hundred years, and negating the brand's own reason to exist in the process. Even when advertising managed to emphatically prove that disruptive creativity was alive and well - a subservient rubber chicken that received millions of hits online,38 a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins39 - the brand simply refused to listen.
The relationship between the brand and the consumer began to weaken, as the instincts that had been relied upon for over a century were continually pushed aside in the boardroom in favour of analysis and reason.
And yet this rational approach brought the brand no closer to understanding the consumer, who continued to behave in increasingly bizarre and unpredictable ways. It immersed itself in popular culture, which showed no signs of rationalising; it covered itself in tattoos and risked life and limb in the pursuit of extreme sports; it ate and drank far too much and wasted countless hours in the mindless voyeurism of the Big Brother house; it led virtual lives online and racked up huge debts buying things it didn't need, then turned around and blamed the brand for leading it astray. It seemed as if all the consumer wanted to do was play around, demanding entertainment at all times.40
A frightening realisation was slowly sinking in. What if, above the quest for purpose, meaning and the realisation of inner potential self-actualisation represented, lurked self-distraction - the mindlessness of pure fun, play and joy?41
The brand was facing a crisis. Self- actualisation no longer seemed to grab the consumer, and the shift to self distraction was wholly unpalatable due to its inability to be measured through the scientific principles the brand had come to rely so heavily upon. Cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship between the brand and the consumer, and these cracks were providing a glimpse into the dark features beneath the facade. The corporation increasingly found itself in the firing line in a world where natural resources were running out and ideological divides were opening up like yawning chasms; in return, it began beating the hell out of the brand in the boardroom, questioning its value and demanding it solve the problem.
At first, the brand tried to use corporate social responsibility to correct the imbalance, believing it could create the sense of a shared agenda between the corporation and consumer to gloss over the unease that was arising. The global economic downturn in the early part of the 21st century provided the brand with a window of opportunity, as public funds came under increasing pressure and social institutions looked to corporate sponsorship to survive. The brand even began sponsoring ordinary people, paying them to promote its messages in return for education and jobs.42
But there was a major flaw in this plan, in that it was nothing more than another attempt to peddle an outdated philosophy. The consumer didn't respond, and the malaise grew even worse; the relationship between consumer and brand began to polarise, with highly involving personalised experiences at one end of the spectrum, and pure play at the other.43 The consumer was demanding the brand become a better corporate citizen and a more entertaining plaything simultaneously, and balancing ethics and entertainment turned the brand into a dancing bear with a remit to save the planet.
This dancing bear needed to find a new plan - and quick.
The Epiphany of Selfless Actualisation
The brand knew it needed to evolve. It called all its allies to the table, but for the first time ever, it led the debate. No longer an amorphous concept led by the latest new fad, the brand had finally taken charge of its own destiny.
Together, the brand and its allies came to a realisation. The consumer was hugely conflicted, desperately searching for its own shadow and devouring movies, plays, novels and self-help books in an attempt to find its missing identity.44 Lured away from the traditional institutions of faith, family and community in favour of glitzy materialism, it was lost and unfulfilled.45 It used to go to the church for the answers to life's big questions; now it went shopping. In its desperation the consumer was turning to self- distraction to escape, but this was likely to be a stopgap only - a temporary transitional period, a cocoon hiding a fundamental metamorphosis going on inside. The consumer was changing, and the brand had to be ready for what it would become.
Then there was the issue of the brand's paymaster.
Human nature was neither static nor universal, but merely reflected the social orders of the world around it. Throughout history, dominant institutions had established roles as identities that supported their own self-interest, from God-fearing for the church, to lords and serfs for feudal systems, to citizens for democracy; as the corporation had come to dominate, so too had its concept of human nature. The corporation sought to drive out natural sentiments like care for others, sympathy and solidarity to create a society of completely disassociated individuals, whose sense of self was based purely on satisfying created needs and wants. Its ideal concept of humanity was that of a rapacious feeder, driven by psychopathic self interest.46 In essence, it had been seeking to remake people in its own image - and it had used the brand to do so.
But there was one big problem. The consumer had something called a soul, an internal engine constantly questioning everything, looking for the answer to life's biggest questions. It was this soul that had made the brand such a powerful tool, as the values the brand projected appealed directly to the soul's search for meaning. This soul rarely articulated what it must have in order to be satisfied, and even when it did mumble something, its commands were generally ill-founded or contradictory47 - but it did seem to be fundamentally rejecting the world the corporation sought to create.
The brand was finally beginning to realise what it needed to do in order to survive. As part of popular culture, it had a big responsibility and role to play in shaping the social order. The consumer's inarticulate soul was not looking for individual fulfilment, but for togetherness and unity; it was a herd animal, programmed to be collaborative and seeking belonging based on shared ideas and values - and it was suffering separation anxiety in the world the corporation had sought to create.48 Indeed, the very concept of a consumer had to evolve in a world that had filled up with too much stuff and was bulging at the seams.49 The brand would need to evolve with it.
It was this realisation that led the brand to the answer it had been looking for. The new Brand Story would be that of selfless actualisation - the concept of the greater good, where individual and collective agendas were one and the same.50
Transcending the needs of the self was the soul's ultimate desire. Religion had realised this long before the brand, but had been usurped in favour of materialism; it was beautifully ironic that, having spent so long distracting humanity from faith, it now fell to the brand to lead the consumer back to God.
The brand went to the corporation with its exciting new finding. The corporation sat and listened ... then exploded in rage. It said the brand had finally lost its mind after hanging out with its artistic friends for too long, that it had been consumed by its sense of self importance; it said the brand had always been a vague and amorphous entity in its eyes, lacking a genuine appreciation of the reality of corporate life. It accused the brand of being an outdated concept, and said that perhaps now was the time to question its right to exist in a world that seemed to be rejecting it. No matter how fancy the PowerPoint presentations it gave or how many experts it wheeled in, the brand could not influence the corporation's position. Trying to convince its paymaster to think about anything other than profit contradicted its very reason for being. Their relationship threatened to fall apart, and the brand was staring its own mortality in the face.
Then something remarkable happened. The cocoon hatched.
After its long metamorphosis in a state of self-distraction, the New Consumer finally emerged. Rising from its spiritual vacuum, the New Consumer demanded nothing less than authentic experiences based on values that matched its own.51 Better informed, fully connected and galvanised like never before, it began to systematically dismantle the structures that had formed the corporation's power base. It removed political institutions that had pandered to corporate greed, installing new ones whose legislation reflected its values; it demanded greater accountability on environmental and social issues.52 Within a decade, a new world order had formed to address the crises the planet was facing.
The corporation came back to the brand with its tail between its legs. It gave the brand the remit it had asked for, knowing its survival depended on its old ally's ability to create meaning in the new social order of conspicuous, conscientious consumption. The brand immediately set about forming a plan, gathering its partners together in an attempt to find the best way to tell its new story in a world where attention was scarce and the New Consumer ruled. This story needed to be more dynamic and fluid than ever before, emerging organically as various authors - advertising, media, direct, digital, the New Consumer itself - contributed to the overarching narrative.53
Advertising claimed it was best- placed to be chief storyteller, given its strong creative credentials, relationship with the brand and considerable input into shaping the brand's narrative - but it was akin to a writer used to working in a specific medium, too scared, or perhaps too stubborn, to embrace all the means at its disposal to tell the story in the most compelling manner possible. Other channel specialists such as permission and digital were considered even less appropriate, despite being a bit better at fostering audience participation. Media already controlled the budget and had a homogeneity of culture lacking in its more creative brethren, but it lacked creativity.54 The same issue faced the brand: Although taking over the role of chief storyteller itself would allow for centralised unbiased control, greater visibility and financial transparency, it too lacked the intrinsically creative culture necessary to inspire the New Consumer.55
The solution came from Hollywood, of all places.
A movie producer in Hollywood has final responsibility for all aspects of a film's production. They are frequently the first person involved in a project and participate in all the main phases, from production to post-production to marketing and distribution. Their remit is to turn story ideas into profitable cinematic entertainment by convincing others to share in their vision through fostering a culture of creative collaboration. They must create the right conditions for narratives of beauty to unfold, and they are ultimately accountable for the success of the movie in the eyes of investors.56
The brand realised that an outside agent acting as the glue to bind all its authors together was the most effective way to tell its new story, and the brand producer emerged as a powerful new figure in the communications industry.57
With the right team in place, the brand set to work.
It freed the New Consumer from the prison of the information age, returning it to its intuitively creative soul where imagination ruled and nothing was impossible. It span mythology around increasing universal happiness and made global citizenship a reality, one planet acting together to solve its problems. It became a marker of quality again, with this quality judged by the contribution it made to the world around it. Most importantly, the brand went back to doing what it did best - telling us those crazy, imaginative and wonderful stories that said something about what it meant to be human.
There is only one golden rule in storytelling: You must write the truth. The truth isn't necessarily what happens, but how we feel about what happens - and this truth has to start with an insight into life that is worth expressing.
All storytelling, no matter how seemingly complex, can be broken down to a controlling idea, a single sentence that sums up the story's message.58 It's essentially the same as a proposition on an advertising brief. In Brand Story, the controlling idea is that if you look hard enough, you can find God in anything - even advertising. This idea came from an insight I had about how materialism has led us away from faith, and yet we're still essentially looking for the same thing: A sense of meaning.
In December of 2007, I went to possibly the most spiritually devoid place on the planet, Las Vegas, to watch a boxing match. I stayed in the Bellagio, directly across the Strip from Bally's Casino & Resort. Bally's had an electronic billboard that repeatedly displayed the message "SHOP THE WORLD", rotating through a series of logos proudly displaying all the retailers lurking inside where you could do just that.
Less than a month later, I was walking through Britain's own Mecca of consumerism, Selfridges, during the January sales and was hit by slogans suspended from the ceiling saying "I shop, therefore I am". I shuddered in horror.
Just two months later, I ended up talking about materialism versus spiritualism in the same presentation about iconicity in which I talked about Batman. There is a photo I used to explain this shift, with a silhouetted church on the right-hand side of the picture and Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre on the left. It proves empirically that for all our so-called advancement, all we've really done is cross the road.
Storytelling is essentially rhetoric, an argument between an idea and counter-idea (eg. crime pays; crime doesn't pay).59 Materialism versus spiritualism provided me with the argument I needed for Brand Story; I also knew from the outset that my first act would be about self-actualisation, simultaneously the simplest and most sophisticated way for describing what brands mean to us as people. But as with all good stories, I still needed an inciting incident to give the story a purpose.
Despite their seemingly endless complexities, the structure of all stories is essentially the same. The protagonist's life is thrown off balance by something wholly significant that ignites the central spine of the story; they then go about trying to restore this balance by pursuing an object of desire. They face progressive complications along the way, and often go through a transformational "arc" as a result.60
In Jaws, the inciting incident was a killer shark swimming into a small seaside resort, and the object of desire was Chief Brody's urge to make Amity safe again. In Rocky, the inciting incident was an underdog club fighter getting a shot at the title, and the object of desire was Rocky's need to go the distance and to prove that he wasn't "just another bum from the neighbourhood".61
In Brand Story, the inciting incident was the brand's own phenomenal success. It was this success that led to the progressive complications of the second act, culminating in the consumer turning away from the brand and seeking self-distraction. My motivation for this second act comes from several different places, but crystallised on 20 October 2007 as I sat in a pub watching the Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa. When the Cadbury's gorilla came on in the ad break, practically the entire pub actually stood up and applauded. I knew this was the most popular ad in a long time and was as guilty as the next person of regurgitating it as an example of creative excellence in client meetings ... but this was a bit different.
It got me thinking about whether or not self-actualisation really is the driving force behind the social world of consumption. Could it be that above this sits self-distraction - the mindlessness of pure play, fun and joy?63
Then it hit me. Perhaps self-actualisation has led us into a bit of a rut, and self-distraction is just a mindless breather before we move on to something more profound.
We've been looking to brands for poetry and spirituality because we're not getting these things from each other;64 having peddled consumerism for more than a century, could it fall to the brand to ultimately lead us back to spiritualism?
I found another clue in the most unlikely of places. The Bible states that no man can serve two masters at once: "Ye cannot served God and mammon".65 Mammon is the false god of riches and avarice, described by Milton in Paradise Lost as forever looking down at heaven's golden pavements, rather than looking up at God. If the brand and advertising represent mammon and have spent the past 100 years distracting us into looking down, might it fall to them to teach us to look up again? The irony was almost too delicious to be true ... but life is ruthlessly and relentlessly ironic.
With my controlling idea firmly set, I sat down and wrote Brand Story. I cast the brand as the protagonist and the corporation, the consumer, advertising, media, research et al as secondary characters to delineate the brand's personality.
I set up my inciting incident, progressive complications, climax and resolution. I ended up writing something that felt true - not because it's the right answer to where the future of brands lies, but because it was honest and written from the heart.
All storytelling, like advertising, is a completely emotional experience - not an intellectual one. In life, we feel something, then think about it; in stories, we can do both simultaneously. Stories unify what life separates.66 In Brand Story, I was able to unify what I've learnt throughout the IPA Excellence Diploma with what I feel deep down about the future of this industry. Even more importantly, I had fun doing it.
In conclusion, it is my belief that the future of brands lies in telling stories that inspire and move us, and that telling a good story is the most important thing brands can ever do. To wrap up, I will briefly return to an old favourite of mine.
The latest movie in the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight, released in July, is rapidly becoming the most successful Hollywood blockbuster of all time. The reason for this meteoric sucess is simple. Despite how things might appear on the surface, this isn't a story about a guy in a cape who beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands; it's about how far we will go to police society against those looking to disrupt it.67
As such, it is a complex rhetoric about power and control that resonates because the world we live in is seemingly at threat from forces that cannot be negotiated with. It is a compelling story because it tells the truth. Nothing more - and certainly nothing less.
And that's all anyone can ever ask for.
1. Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots, New York: Continuum.
2. For the record, I would like to formally state that this pitch win owes much, much more to the incredible efforts of everyone at my agency who was involved than it does to the fact that I used a few clever storytelling analogies. But it was a start.
3. Douglas Holt also understands this pretty well ... his book, How Brands Become Icons, was invaluable to me throughout writing that presentation (2004, Harvard Business School).
4. My executive creative director never really believed that iconicity was a real word, but at least he let me use the Batman analogy - for which I'm eternally grateful.
5. For the record, I would like to formally state that this pitch win owes much, much more to the incredible efforts of everyone at my agency who was involved than it does to the fact that I talked about Batman that morning. But it was a start.
6. Brandweek.com/ 29 October, 2007.
7. Bedbury, S. (1997) What Great Brands Do, Fast Company, 10: 96-99.
8. Aristotle, (1999) The Nicomachean Ethics, New Ed., Dover Publications.
9. Bell, J. S. (2004) Plot & Structure, Ohio: Writer's Digest.
10. McKee, R. (1999) Story, London: Methuen, p.147.
11. Bedbury, S. & Fenichell, S. (2003) A Brand New World, Penguin Books.
12. Howard-Spink, J. (2003) What Is Your Story?, Admap, September 2003:16-18.
13. Hammond, S. (2007) BE Brands, Australia: Wrightbooks.
14. McKee, R. (1999) Story, London: Methuen, p.12.
15. Gilbert, D. (2005) Stumbling On Happiness, New York: HarperCollins.
17. Bakan, J. (2004) The Corporation, London: Constable & Robinson.
18. Klein, N. (2001) No Logo, New York: Flamingo.
20. Jung, C. (1915) The Theory of Psychoanalysis, New York: The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease Publishing Co.
21. JWT London (1971) What Is A Brand?, Cambridge: The Journal of Advertising Research.
22. King, S. (2000) On Writing, London: New English Library.
23. McKee, R. (1999) Story, London: Methuen, p.380.
24. Thompson, J. (1990) Ideology and Modern Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press.
25. Fletcher, W. (2008) Powers of Persuasion: The Inside Story of British Advertising, Oxford: University Press.
26. McDonald, C. (2003) Is Your Advertising Working?, WARC.
27. Binet, L. & Field, P. (2007) Marketing in the Era of Accountability, WARC.
28. Lewis, D. & Bridger, D. (2000) The Soul of the New Consumer, London: Nicholas Brealey.
29. Hammond, S. (2007) BE Brands, Australia: Wrightbooks.
30. IPA Excellence Diploma debate, 11 May 2008.
31. Godin, S. (1999) Permission Marketing, New York: Simon & Schuster.
33. Eco, U. (1978) A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana: University Press.
36. Wendy Gordon, IPA Excellence Diploma debate.
37. Bill Bernbach.
38. Burger King's 2004 "subservient chicken" campaign, from the twisted genius of Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, Miami (subservientchicken.com).
39. Cadbury's 2007 "gorilla", written by Juan Cabral of Fallon London.
40. Wolf, M. (2003) The Entertainment Economy, Three Rivers Press.
41. Adapted from Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs model, originally proposed in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation (1943).
42. Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe, the world's first corporate sponsored human beings, who received financing from First USA to attend the University of San Diego.
43. Nick Kendall, IPA Excellence Diploma debate.
44. Brown, M. (1999) The Spiritual Tourist, London: Bloomsbury.
45. Ridderstrale, J. & Nordstrom, K. (2002) Funky Business, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
46. Bakan, J. (2004) The Corporation, London: Constable & Robinson.
47. Brown, M. (1999) The Spiritual Tourist, London: Bloomsbury.
48. Earls, M. (2007) Herd: How To Change Mass Behaviour By Harnessing Our True Nature, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.
49. Appleyard, B. Waiting For The Lights To Go Out, The Sunday Times (October 16, 2005).
50. Adapted from Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs model, originally proposed in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation (1943).
51. Lewis, D. & Bridger, D. (2000) The Soul of the New Consumer, London: Nicholas Brealey.
52. Soon to be witnessed in the election of Barack Obama to the White House.
53. Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: University Press.
54. Taylor, J. (2005) Space Race, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.
55. Bedbury, S. (1997) What Great Brands Do, Fast Company, 10: 96-99.
56. Goldman, W. (1984) Adventures in the Screen Trade, London: Abacus.
57. A concept I originally wrote about during Module 3 of the IPA Excellence Diploma.
58. McKee, R. (1999) Story, London: Methuen.
59. Burroway, J. & Stuckey-French, E. (2007) Writing Fiction, Pearson-Longman.
60. Campbell, J. (1993) The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fontana Press.
61. Rocky (1976), Chartoff-Winkler Productions.
62. McKee, R. (1999) Story, London: Methuen, p.195.
63. Actually, it was Nick Kendall who got me thinking about this during an IPA Excellence Diploma debate - the gorilla just reminded me.
65. Luke, 16:13.
66. Robert McKee's Story lecture, November 2007.
67. The Sunday Times, 17 August 2008.