Stories need to be unleashed to lead the consumer rather than be led by her, says Madhukar Sabnavis.
Seth Godin in his book All Marketers are liars says that marketing is about storytelling. Products are converted into brands by the stories marketers (and largely advertising agencies) weave around them. So, as long as marketing exists, so will storytelling. What next?
In 1926, Lee Dee Forest, the man who invented the cathode ray tube, said: "While theoretically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming."
In 1943, Thomas J Watson, chairman of the board of IBM, said: "I think there is a world market for about five computers."
In 1945, Admiral Leaby said this about the atomic bomb, "This is the biggest fool thing we've ever done the bomb will never go off - and I speak as an expert on explosives."
Said a recording company executive, turning down the Beatles in 1962, "We don't think they will do anything in this market; guitar groups are on the way out."
Wrote Business Week in 1968, "With over 15 types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself."
Forecasting has its perils, but with a changing marketing environment, it maybe worthwhile to guess on how storytelling in advertising will change in the years to come.
Three significant changes are taking place in the marketing environment. First is commoditisation. With growing technology and access to funds, product differentiations can be copied and so, can no longer be the driver of stories.
The second change is clutter. There is a proliferation of media and within each media the number of vehicles. Similarly, there is a proliferation of categories and within each category a number of brands. Consumers are constantly being bombarded with stories, making it more and more difficult for the average consumer to determine what to listen to and retain and what not to.
The third change is cynicism. Consumer cynicism has been a truth in the developed world. In the last two decades, the Indian media has systematically removed the mystique and magic behind many things. With over-exposure to advertising stories - at home and on the roads - the same is happening to advertising!
So, storytelling needs to work differently in the future if it is to get consumer engagement.
Yonathan Dominitz in the magazine Contagious identifies three thought patterns behind the creativity in recent successful campaigns in the interactive and integrated categories:
SABOTAGE/REDUCTION: Burger King's "Whopper Sacrifice" gave free burgers to Facebook users who ditched ten friends of theirs online. Similarly, the "Whopper Freakout" campaign for the same brand put online videos of consumer reactions, when told that the Whopper was being discontinued, shot on hidden cameras.
FIGHT FOR A CAUSE: Doritos' campaign "Bring slow dancing back", Gillette's "To shave or not" initiative and Dove's much-awarded "Campaign for real beauty" fall in this thought pattern. In each of them, the brand initiates a fight or a wider public movement that gains the engagement and emotional bonding of people who are empathetic to the subject.
CREATIVE USE OF A PROBLEM: Usually, when brands face a problem, the instinctive reaction is to look for a solution that addresses the problem. Tourism Queensland's "The best job in the world" campaign used the problem as a solution to offer jobs to candidates willing to audition for the role of caretaker of an island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The idea generated $100 million worth PR awareness for tourism in Queensland.
There are some interesting hidden principles of storytelling in all the three thought patterns. And these could be very relevant to India in the years to come.
First, clearly, stories need to not only convey brand messages but also create buzz. This is particularly useful in India where society is affiliative and only 5 per cent of people are initiators and the rest imitators. Stories that are able to multiply effect through word of mouth have a better chance to overcome clutter and cynicism.
This is often achieved through scale of production or provocation or by doing something so refreshingly different that consumers would love to talk about it. The Vodafone Zoozoo campaign managed to do that charmingly!
Second, stories need not only to deliver messages but also get consumers to interact. Multimedia has often been used to magnify ideas and surround consumers. But the next challenge will be to get consumers to converse with the brand. Technology can provide the platform to do the same.
One-way storytelling needs a different approach from stories told through a conversation. The latest Economist campaign is an interesting example of this you see the ad and sms to get to know more about it and thus the engagement is both extended and deepened.
Third, stories can be lengthened. We spoke of shortening attention spans; but there is enough evidence in society that people's attention spans are lengthening. From video games to marathon runs, consumers are moving back to long form.The emergence of the Internet allows storytellers to tell stories in longer form. This would also need a revaluation of metrics to measure effectiveness of creativity - to move from "reach" and "opportunities-to-see" (the measures of the past) to "impact" (the measure for future).
Fourth, to overcome consumer cynicism, stories need to get "really real". Advertising storytelling today lives in a world of "real" models doing "model" things that are invariably very desirable and good. Recent campaigns for brands like Motoyuva, Virgin Mobile and Fastrack have raised the shackles of the prudish.
Society has moved on and is ready to operate in grays. The challenge for stories is to play with "grays" and unleash the power of the more "negative" navarasas like krodh (anger) vibhatsa (disgust) and bhay (fear) in a way that makes consumers see the brand as more real.
Finally, stories need to be unleashed to lead the consumer rather than be led by her. Steve Jobs has consistently done that with his products. Cause-related stories do exactly that. The time has come for marketers and advertising agencies to believe and build their stories accordingly.
If the approach doesn't change, there is a threat that, to refresh what David Ogilvy said years ago, "the story will pass consumers like a ship in the dark".
Something worth thinking about.