02
Apr
18

“Brand Narrative:” Misnomer or Misunderstood?

Of the many branding conceits of the last few years, one of the more elusive is the idea of Brand Narrative. I gather the framers of this term envisioned it as a big picture overview — of everything a brand promises — built up through a coordinated series of communications. The brand narrative would “unfold” gradually, and etch a brand’s attributes indelibly into a consumer’s mind.

Yet the on-the-ground experience of producing ads is too chaotic for this grand conceit to work. Coordinated? Gradual? Clients want quick hits that sell specific attributes right away. Sure, there’s lip service to loyalty and retention. But see what happens whenever you scratch the surface of any request for a targeted campaign.

“Well, we want to appeal to the target, but we don’t want to turn anybody else off in the process,” you’ll hear every time. Inevitably, what was originally sold in as a branded narrative about the lives and loves of a specific group, gets diluted to a generic “Everyperson” story.

Hence the parade of families jumping for joy, sharing teary smiles, hanging with grandparents or scarfing down weenies at a backyard barbeque — while bastardized multicultural pop music swells up in the background.

Obviously, these campaigns and their digital offshoots are thoroughly narrative-neutral.

Flowing past factoids to feelings.
For narratives are anything but the concise, directive, motivating thing an advertiser wants it to be. Narratives are sprawling and time-intensive. Their impact is indirect, intuitive and ambiguous. They build to a climax by gradually doling out details in discrete chapters. Their success or failure has no concourse with the retention of factoids.

And yet, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the narrative approach. It has even been achieved by a small minority of brands willing to explore its impact on the status quo. Yet, especially online, the prescriptive nature of established practice makes accommodating true narrative absolutely impossible.

While building and maintaining a coherent brand narrative involves more than words, the current dismal view of copywriting presents one of the main obstacles. For starters, there are many people who believe “the copy” should be purely functional — a minor support function, like caulking or carpeting. Worse, one of today’s core assumptions is that People Refuse to Read. This despite the hundreds of thousands of books sold each year to eager buyers. This despite the Googling of millions of topics a day by users hungry for articles on every conceivable topic.

It never occurs to many in the field to consider that, just perhaps, People Refuse to Read Poorly Conceived, Droning Manipulative Nonsense.

That’s the same, ideological fervor that allows brand managers to complain that Nobody Watches TV Spots Anymore. They fail to grasp that the amount of air time currently devoted to commercials, not to mention their incessant repetition, outstrips the patience of any audience.

Staging your message like a true storyteller.
Now, what is there about the concept of brand narrative that doesn’t suggest making a series of TV spots that tell a continuous story? Yet taking that approach means giving up an unassailable tenet of 21st-century marketing. It’s the idea that every single communication must contain every single branded message each and every time.

In the end, that anxious demand is the death knell for the concept of Branded Narrative. Because great narratives, down through time, have been about unmistakably original characters, not statistics. Think, for example, of Huckleberry Finn. That is, I’m sure, the thought behind the gecko, the duck, the tiger, the dough-boy and their parallels who have graced TV screens since the dawn of the Media Age.

In these instances, a brand narrative adds dimension to the avatar by taking occasional discursive detours. I’m reminded of an — ancient — TV spot, which featured Tony the Tiger composing his own jingle with his son. I never ate that stuff as a kid and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now. But I remember how effortlessly the kerchiefed tiger wove his narrative into my consciousness.

No boring product details, just a story about a guy who thinks the product is great and integrates it into his daily life.

Yet, perhaps the most powerful aspect of the campaign had nothing to do with “Tony.” What mattered was its long-running association of the product with specific attributes (GRRREAT!). Instead of a new set of brand differentiators every six or nine months, it had a personality you recognized just as surely as your next door neighbor. It got under your skin and, over time, became integrated into your life — as part of your own personal narrative.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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