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The next evolution of brand storytelling

27 January 2022

This article first appeared in Warc written by Kristine Axsäter, Creative Strategy Director, Imagination.

For all the growth in digital media, the fragmentation of attention and the changes in how people read, view and interact with content across multiple platforms – the need for a good story continues unabated.

The art and craft of storytelling – to engage, delight, inform and entertain – is invaluable. Storytelling remains an essential and established communication tool. It can be highly effective not just in advertising, through online content and in digital channels but across a wider spectrum of experiential marketing.

WARC’s 2020 Health of Creativity report found that more than a quarter (26%) of the award-winning campaigns analysed used storytelling as a creative strategy, the third most used strategy.

In the current complex world situation – from the pandemic to geo-political tensions, economic recessions to the climate crisis – with fundamental shifts in consumer behaviours and expectations, new brand storytelling opportunities are being created.

So, creating compelling and interactive stories that bring experiences to life, regardless of the channel or format, is central to our work. The story should always come first; the mode of engagement and how that story is told is secondary. But it is in the detail of how they come together that the full potential of creating truly powerful brand experiences can be reached.

Within this setting, there are several trends standing out for anyone interested in richer and more engaging brand storytelling in the coming year.

Purpose

Brand purpose has been much purported recently and this focus looks set to continue especially as growth is stronger for those brands with strong brand purpose. Consumers’ buying decisions are strongly influenced by brand values – people are beginning to care more about a brand’s ethical values and actions than its products.

The stories brands want to tell, and that people want to hear, are getting more purposeful and this is leading to more raw, diverse, inclusive stories which are culturally relevant – a fundamental aspect of successful storytelling. The best storytelling has the power to persuade an audience and to evoke empathy or an emotional response, but to do that it needs to be relevant and recognisable to the viewer.

Emotionally engaging narratives and relatable characters can reach increasingly concerned audiences and we saw this with Barbour’s Paddington Bear Christmas ad promoting the brand’s centenary and eco-credentials.

An accompanying virtual experience allowed users to explore an exhibit of Barbour’s history, and a three-minute documentary on Barbour’s rewaxing centenary.

Brands have also had to tell stories of purpose in more innovative and creative ways because of global lockdowns, restrictions and new expectations of digital engagement. Bringing people together around an issue online – and adding a level of interactivity – can result in better reach and depth.

Unilever’s Hellmann’s mayonnaise collaborated with Animal Crossing: New Horizons so that for a limited time, players could convert virtual food waste into real food for children in need – to promote the brand’s mission to tackle food waste.

And to celebrate Anzac Day (a National Day of Remembrance in Australia and New Zealand) in 2020, Imagination worked with the Australian War Memorial and Department of Veterans Affairs to create a series of initiatives that would allow Australians to connect and virtually commemorate military veterans with personal stories central to that work.

Authenticity

Like purpose, authenticity has been gaining traction in the business lexicon. This is not a fad. There is something central and vital to authentic brand stories – and in a complex business landscape, it is more important than ever that the stories brands want to tell are transparent, less corporate, more action-oriented and honest about their journey.

There is an enduring appetite for authentic, relatable content post-lockdown, especially with younger generations. We see a demand for real people and more authentic, small-scale influencers – 63% of consumers trust what an influencer says about a brand over the brand itself, and 58% have purchased a product because of what an influencer has said.

Creating an authentic response using storytelling was front of mind when Imagination worked with the Detroit Youth Choir (DYC) to support racial justice by creating a new version of the song Glory.

Innovation and advanced technology

Online and virtual worlds have gained a place in our lives and that trend continued apace as the pandemic drove consumers to spend more time in these cyber worlds. With that growth came higher expectations of digital and online interaction, and platforms to build new ways for brands to create powerful, immersive narratives. Interactive stories can be created as effectively in the metaverse as in real-world destinations. Innovative storytelling tools such as virtual production, collaborative interactive events, VR, AR, gaming technology and NFTs have grown exponentially in recent years.

Telling stories in an immersive environment can create multi-sensory, hands-on interaction which can be easier to identify with, more memorable and ultimately more effective. For the HSBC Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) we put investors at the heart of the story to simplify the complex narrative of a global infrastructure programme using an educational VR experience.

We have worked with both Jaguar and Land Rover on immersive VR experiences in recent car launches. To launch the Jaguar I-PACE, the brand’s first electric vehicle, we staged a real-time, multi-user virtual reality experience. Jaguar Director of Design, Ian Callum, and Vehicle Line Director, Ian Hoban, were live-streamed into the event via VR to reveal the car.

Gaming, the metaverse and NFTs

The growth of the metaverse, a virtual reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users, has the potential to become an interactive brand storytelling tool.

Some brands are already successfully exploring these platforms by placing the viewer at the centre of the story. BMW Joytopia, a virtual environment, was created for Munich IAA 2021, inviting audiences to explore BMW’s sustainability story of a circular future as their own personal avatar. And Warner Bros. launched an experience in Roblox to promote In The Heights – a virtual model of the Washington Heights neighbourhood where the film is set.

Although still nascent, brands are starting to experiment with NFTs as they can introduce ownership of brands and products in a new way for consumers – especially for premium and luxury brands looking for exclusivity with digital assets, virtual events and online experiences.

To celebrate its founder’s 200th birthday, Louis Vuitton tapped into the worlds of gaming and NFTs. A mobile game called 200 Anecdotes saw players guide an avatar through the founder’s journey from rags-to-riches. Players could collect 30 NFTs within the game, 10 of which were designed by American digital artist Beeple, and while they were collectables they were not for sale.

The skills and techniques of storytelling – to bring to life brands, launches, concepts and journeys – are as vital on new platforms as they were when our ancestors first learnt the power of a good story to hold the attention of an audience. As brand stories are evolving – to meet the changing needs of today’s customers and to reflect our world situation – storytelling is still an essential communication tool and central to creative strategies. The new ways it can be applied offers huge potential for brands and an exciting prospect for anyone interested in sharing brand stories.