It’s Time For The Advertising Industry To Rediscover Storytelling

Storytelling and archetypes - powerful tools for brands

I recently began reading The Hero and the Outlaw, by Mark and Pearson, and found myself thinking about archetypes and the power of storytelling. People have always loved stories. We’ve used them to entertain, to educate and to provide comfort in an often confusing world. The power of the narrative, in whatever form, affects us on a deep level – whether it be emotionally, psychologically or even spiritually.

Now, when the term “modern storyteller” is used, it is often in reference to those denizens of Madison Avenue, the ad agencies. And yes, there have been many brilliant ads that were able to pack the elements of narrative into a 30, 60, 90 second (or sometimes even longer) film. Some of the most famous examples include:

Apple’s “1984”

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Coca-Cola’s “Thanks, Mean Joe!”

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Or, more recently, this brilliant little film for Johnnie Walker, “The Man Who Walked Around the World”

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All great one-offs. Nothing wrong with that, but couldn’t ads be used differently? Couldn’t they be woven together to turn a 30 second spot into multiple chapters of a deeper, richer story? I don’t mean something like simply utilizing a character in a series of ads, like Keystone’s “Keith Stone,” that’s just one joke being told a couple of different ways. Allstate got a little closer with their college football-themed ads from a season or two ago featuring the Bergwood character. But again, this lacked much emotional depth.

Which brings us to two slightly more recent efforts that have certainly staked a claim in the marketing Hall of Fame: The Geico Caveman and Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. While rich, vivid characters have been created in both cases, it lacks the deeper emotional punch of the great narrative archetypes. You could watch just one ad from either of these two campaigns and enjoy it on its own. Equally, you could watch all the ads from either campaign in random order and they would be just as enjoyable.

No, a truly powerful story has a beginning, a middle and an end. For a really well reasoned presentation on the power of storytelling, check out this number by James Mitchell that was posted by BBH Labs yesterday. As part of his presentation, James highlights perhaps the single greatest use of “longform” storytelling in advertising history. The Taster’s Choice coffee ads (in England this was Nescafe Gold Blend).

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Check out this AdAge article from 1994 on this campaign. The campaign (story, really) ran for several years and Taster’s Choice was able to “increase its dollar share of the $596 million soluble coffee market by more than 3 share points, leapfrogging past Folgers and Maxwell House into the No. 1 position.”

A testament to the power of the campaign?  As I was thinking about writing this post, I bookmarked that article two days ago, before I read James’ presentation! A 20-year old campaign was the first I could think of as an illustration of

compelling stories, even in long form, will hold the attention and interest of people

storytelling via traditional broadcast advertising. BMW’s innovative online film series, The Hire, comes close, but that really is more a series of short films that TV adverts.

What makes this even more puzzling is that we now have so many other tools through which to tell these stories. Narratives started in a Super Bowl spot can continue online, or through Twitter feeds, Flickr accounts, text messages, etc. Who is the advertising industries version of Nick Bantock, the creator of the Griffin and Sabine story? I can only imagine what he could do using digital media in the service of a brand.

Wouldn’t the Corona ads be more interesting with ongoing characters woven into them? Rather than using celebrity endorsers, or their puppet likenesses, couldn’t Nike create a scripted storyline that continues for the length of, say, the baseball season, culminating at the World Series? How about a series of ads for a TV show that act as a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, featuring secondary characters who provide a different angle and unique insight into the show? Mad Men would be perfect for that. Or better yet, how about 30 second spots from the perspective of a zombie for The Walking Dead?

We can keep chasing after shiny new toys like Augmented Reality or 3D or we can remember the basics. People like, want and need stories.

Celebrity Endorsement – Does it help build a DINU?

The Sunday New York Times business section featured a pretty lengthy article on the trend of celebrities and brands. Nothing real new here, but the article painted the tactic in a fairly positive light, and backed it up with sales statistics.

I agree that for certain brands, and certain celebrities, tie-ups can make a lot of sense. I liked what Totes did with Rihanna. Rather than take advantage of her hit song, Umbrella, simply by using it for a commercial, they worked with her to design umbrellas.

Now, this is a good match today, but will Rihanna always be known for the song (how long will she be known at all?). I’m having a hard time thinking of really long term deals between companies and celebrities. Arnold Palmer and Pennzoil. Michael Jordan and Nike. But has a musician or actor been aligned with one brand for a decade?

Conversely, look at some of the success brands have had creating their own celebrities: Jared (Subway), Mr. Whipple (Charmin), Madge (Palmolive). Or even characters: The King (Burger King), Ronald McDonald (McDonalds).

Do you need to borrow celebrity cache? Ask Starbucks, Google or Red Bull.

Celebrity endorsement can be used effectively, but you have to understand what your goals are. Is it long term brand growth, or short term gain? Does a celebrity make sense not just today, but could you see being with them in 10 years?  Perhaps you’re better off creating your own icon, one that you can control and one that won’t also be promoting several other products. Do you even need a celebrity at all, or is it better to let consumers project their own emotional cues onto your brand? Ideally you want to build a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe for your brand. If you do so correctly it’s more likely that you will create your own celebrity or that celebrities will be attracted to you and use your brand, not because you paid them, but because they are consumers too. And that’s much more compelling for other consumers.     

Eyecube Interview: Grant McCracken, Author of Flock & Flow

I’ve been reading Grant McCracken’s website, This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, for a while now. There are a lot of blogs that cover marketing, culture, advertising, etc., but I read Grant’s because he truly has a unique perspective. It’s rare that I read something on his site that I have read somewhere else. That’s because he’s a cultural anthropologist and comes at these things from a different angle. He’s also written several books, most recently Transformations. I’m working on that one, but just finished Flock and Flow – Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. It’s a really thought provoking book that had me contemplating not only the work I do, but how I position ‘my brand’ as well. Grant was kind enough to engage in an email conversation with me regarding the concepts in Flock and Flow:



eyecube: Growing up in California in the early 80s, the “Preppy” look wasn’t huge, but at around the same time the skateboard culture was. And in New York the hip hop culture was also just on the verge of exploding. Clearly these were three trends, all coming out at around the same time, that would have massive influence on pop culture. So, if two decades ago it would have been tough to pick just one trend to ride, can a company do so today or must they hedge their bets?


Smirnoff uses the cultural shorthand of the Preppie – Green Tea Partay



Grand Master Flash signals the dawn of rap/hip hop – The Message



Skateboard culture begins in SoCal with the original Z Boys of  Dogtown 



Grant: Hedging bets is the name of the game.  The corporation should be tracking all of these.  Hip Hop has come and gone, waxed and waned, all of this should have been captured by the big board [a company’s internal tracking mechanism].  As these trends demonstrate, the days of one big trend are over.  It’s now about managing the perfect storm of contemporary culture as best as possible, and getting early warnings of change as soon as possible.


eyecube: In the book you talk about the music industry and looking for signs of the next trend, which is often a rejection of previous trends. What does the music industry do now with the emergence of mash-ups? If I can listen to a song, produced by someone outside the music industry, that blends 80s hair metal stalwarts Motley Crue with current UK grime princess Lady Sovereign, how can the music industry possible know which way to go? It seems like the traditional swing of the pendulum is gone, in fact the whole pendulum has been blown up.


Southern California 80s hair metal meets 21st Century UK Grime – Lady Sovereign v. Motley Crue


Grant: More evidence that the days of one big trend, “just-go-ask-the-temp-what’s-cool” are over.  And this makes a good listening system all the more important.  Anyone of these little trends could rise up to be a major player.  And these days it will happen fast. So early warning is the name of the game.  Edge finding is the name of the game.  Having a rough idea of what’s “out there” helps us understand what it is we’re facing when the Nor-easter comes ashore.


This question also raises the issue of content creation and relay, and the brand as a content creator and relay system.  It’s essential for brands to take both parts.  They need to create content that consumers can repurpose.  This is one way to remain in the game, to be part of that when consumers take content and use it for their own purposes, there will still be characteristic grammars or signature for how things can be “repurposed.”  And brands can’t do this unless they have their ear to the ground. 

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Geico – Multiple Personality DINU

Who doesn’t love Geico ads? You know, the ones with the celebrities and the consumers? Or maybe the ones with the talking lizard. Or the cavemen. Or the older ones that looked like fake Fox reality shows.

(Click on the links to view some of my favorites) 

Wait a second, that’s four distinct concepts, all done with a startling level of depth and consistency. Isn’t Geico breaking some serious marketing law here? You can’t possibly create four different campaigns, and then run them virtually concurrently, speaking to the same audience. And yet, Geico must be doing something right, Warren Buffett is a big investor.While the Gecko may be the most ubiquitous, the Cavemen have really developed into a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe (DINU). From a super-clever website, Caveman’s Crib, to an ABC television show, these guys became part of pop culture (try typing roast duck mango salsa into Google). 

Most companies would be pretty excited with a hit like this. But Geico has another powerhouse with the Gecko. Now, I understand when a brand like Nike creates multiple advertising campaigns. They are speaking to a variety of audiences – women, young kids, skateboarders, weekend warriors, etc. But the Geico customer is a narrower group. And from a tonality standpoint, are the different Geico campaigns that different? Are there people who love the Cavemen, but think a talking lizard is dumb? Are there people who like fake reality show spoofs, but find the idea of the Four Tops singing in your bedroom absurd?

I see the benefits for Nike in creating multiple DINUs. I could even see it for Geico (one for men, one for women, one for first time drivers, one for 50+…). But that’s not my take-away from the current Geico ads, they all seem to appeal to a broad audience and it seems to be working. Puzzling. Are they an exception that proves a rule?

The Continuing Emergence of Cricket

I’ve written about cricket a number of times over the last month, and it seems the sport is riding a wave of unprecedented popularity. More proof?

A feature article in yesterday’s NY Times, and now a survey showing that cricket is the favorite sport in Australia. Accoring to a Roy Morgan Research survey of 50,000 Aussies, 47% say they watch cricket on television (hat tip to Sportcal).





Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Cricket probably isn’t the right play for every brand, but the sport is so distinctive that it should be a good fit for someone, and the sport’s supporters are so loyal you have a good chance of grabbing their attention.