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2017 - The year of storytelling in campaigns

Published on Tuesday, 6th February 2018, contributed by Stratton Craig

This article was first published as a guest post on the Knowledge Hub.

As an old marketing hand, I remember when ‘storytelling’ was the buzzword du jour and the ‘next big thing’. With storytelling techniques now so prominent across marketing and advertising, it’s clear that in the last five years it has well and truly taken centre stage. So, with an inbox chock-full of ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of 2017’ retrospectives, I thought I’d take a look at storytelling campaigns from the year past and discuss why storytelling is so effective as a marketing tool, illustrated, of course, by both good and bad examples.

The key strength of storytelling is its ability to connect with an audience at a deeper level in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re being marketed to. Much more than a straight up product flog, a storytelling approach gives the space to create a nuanced picture of a brand’s values and purpose and position its products in this context. This is particularly important in today’s market as more and more people cite shared values as the main reason they have a relationship with a brand.[i] The campaigns I looked at all seek to connect in different ways with their audiences, but there are some very useful lessons to be learned in understanding why some work brilliantly and some flop miserably.

The worthy cause

Politically, 2017 was characterised by deep and obvious tensions within societies across the globe. Several brands responded by hitching their wagons to social causes…with varying results.

Jigsaw succeeded with its beautiful ‘Love Immigration’ campaign, which I love so much I’ve written about it before. In an environment of rising domestic tension in the UK, the powerful ads explain that Jigsaw could not do what it does without materials, designers and fabrics from all over the world. The story is clearly tied to its products, making the ads relevant, tangible and perfectly aligned to Jigsaw’s core values.

In another example of using a brand as a platform for doing good, adventure brand Patagonia created its first tv advert last year, and it wasn’t peddling its wares. It was a manifesto in defence of public lands in the US. The ad is narrated by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, and blends breath-taking images of natural beauty with images of him fishing and speaking to camera about the importance of protecting these precious wild spaces. His deeply-rooted conviction about the value of these public lands and stories on the impact they’ve had on his own life, make the already powerful message even more so. With my cynical marketing hat on, this ad works well for the brand because his values align perfectly to the values of Patagonia’s target market and resonate with an authenticity that would also play very well to that market.

In contrast, a high-profile example of a campaign which missed the mark on this social cause front, and ultimately flopped, was Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad. Unfortunately for Pepsi, this was such a classic case of ‘what not to do’ that the ad has appeared on most of the ‘Worst of 2017’ lists I’ve seen so far. The ad’s tone-deaf mirroring of the Black Lives Matter movement led to it being summarily condemned on social media for trivialising and cynically co-opting the global protest movement.

But why does Jigsaw’s social message work, while Pepsi’s fails so miserably? For me it comes down to one word: relevance. The Jigsaw campaign ties its messages beautifully to its brand values and products, while it remains unclear what message you can take from a supermodel vacuously handing a can of Pepsi to a policeman. Likewise, the strength of the Patagonia example is its poignant authenticity. A feature sadly lacking from Pepsi’s effort.

The epic journey

Nike’s Breaking 2 campaign is another stunning example of classic storytelling. It tasked three of the world’s most elite distance runners with the challenge of completing a marathon under two-hours and then told the story of their journey in a number of different ways across platforms. It has all the key elements of a great epic: three protagonists vying against each other, one elusive goal, a journey through adversity climaxing with a heroic finale, although ultimately the two-hour barrier remained just beyond reach. The moral to the story? Nike positioned itself as so much more than a shoe seller by inspiring its audience with an incredible story of human potential.

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