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Taking the Mystery Out of Brand Storytelling
By Suzanne Pope
Brand storytelling isn’t new. But some of the risks are
It’s been said that every generation believes that it invented sex. In much the same way, every generation of ad people thinks it has discovered something radically new about communication, something that never dawned on agencies before.
These days, that discovery is brand storytelling – the crafting of brand messages to create narratives that are compelling and evocative enough to drive sales.
But brand storytelling has been with us forever, though nobody in pre-digital advertising thought to call it that. (The rise of the Internet has driven us to all sorts of desperate measures, including presenting old ideas as if they were brand-spanking-new.) Consider Marlboro, which spent its first three decades as a women’s brand, sold on the strength of its lip-protecting filters.
When the link between smoking and cancer was established in the 1950s, Philip Morris scrambled to offer men a cigarette that was “safer” by virtue of its filter tip. Thus was this women’s brand relaunched, with various über-masculine types portraying the Marlboro Man before the cowboy took on the role for good in the early 1960s.
As a piece of brand storytelling, the Marlboro Man has probably never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Though confined to the constraints of old media, the character managed to make consumers feel more involved in the brand story than most corporate Facebook pages do today. This mythical place of stoic masculinity and self-reliance was so inviting that the explicit call to Come to where the flavor is was often not necessary. And so motivating was this particular brand story that in 1992 – the same year former Marlboro Man Wayne McLaren died of lung cancer – Marlboro was named the world’s most valuable brand, with sales totalling $32 billion.
May we also talk for a moment about user-generated content? That, too, was familiar to our grandparents and great-grandparents, most famously in the small roadside signs that advertised Burma-Shave from the mid 1920s to the early 1960s. In the years before billboards became common, Burma-Shave was promoted solely through doggerel posted on sequential signs. At the campaign’s height, more than 7,000 Burma-Shave signs were posted throughout the U.S., with most of the “content” submitted through contests.
While brand storytelling might be as old as advertising itself, today’s version involves far more pitfalls than were ever known before. If a brand’s story is inconsistent or dishonest, consumers will register their displeasure in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago.
Let’s take the brand story of Coca-Cola, for example. Its narrative of shared happiness has never been more simply or elegantly expressed than in this poster by Hong Kong design student Jonathan Mak Long:
But these days, the purity of Coke’s brand story is under siege. The brand’s preferred narrative has had to take lots of unplanned detours to defend itself against attacks over Coke’s role in obesity and, more recently, environmental degradation:
And sometimes, brand stories seem to be less about the brand than they are about winning awards. As a case in point, I offer this recent ambient stunt for Coke from Leo Burnett in Shanghai:
Like most case-study videos these days, this one is unnecessarily long, so I’ll save you the clicking with the following summary: Young people have a hard time finding romance in Shanghai, and so the agency decided to use Coke to encourage more of them to get together. They stocked a Coke machine with bottles whose caps had been tightened with a monkey wrench. This way, young women who bought a Coke would be forced to approach strange men if they wished to actually drink the beverage they had just purchased.
When the case study hit YouTube, I could sense half the Internet tilting its head and going “Aww.” But I found the idea disturbingly sexist, and not just because the women needed a big, strong man to help them open a bottle. The reason it’s so hard for couples in Shanghai to get together is that there is a shortage of young women in China. Over the past three decades, China’s one-child policy has prompted millions of parents to use sex-selective abortion, abandonment and even infanticide to ensure that their one child will be male. In Shanghai in 2000, for example, there were between 130 and 140 males born for every 100 females, as this map indicates. According to the Chinese government’s own figures, males under 20 in China will outnumber females under 20 by between 30 and 40 million by the year 2020 – suggesting that China will be missing a population roughly the size of Canada’s.
I might be overreacting, but I’m thinking that if a woman makes it through the gauntlet of gestation and infancy to reach adulthood, the very least she deserves when she buys your damn Coke is to enjoy it in peace, without being compelled to partake in an ambient stunt. Intentionally or not, this idea changes the Coca-Cola brand story from one of sharing to one of coercion.