Recently, I was invited on stage by CNN to be part of an AdWeek Europe panel of experts. The topic: The Art & Science of Emotional Storytelling.
The discussion - featuring Joe Devlin, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and Pippa Scaife, Commercial Director from Great Big Story, and myself - attempted to map out navigation points across the topic.
What arose from that discussion, was a vision for how Emotional Advertising may look in the future. Here's the summary:
The modern hyper-networked world means the Niagra of information that washes through us on a minute-by-minute basis can be barely be processed by mere mortals. Humanity has attempted to make sense of it by applying an age-old coping mechanism: STORY.
We like chronology. We like tension and release. We like seeing our reflection. It helps our comprehension of that data deluge.
To illustrate, on stage, Joe recounted an experiment: Two sets of medical graduates were given a series of patient details to memorise. Set #1 possessed simple bulletpoint facts about the patient. Set#2 those same facts written into a narrative. The recall and understanding of those facts were much greater in Set#2, precisely because in scientific terms, stories do a better job of encoding longer term memories and associations.
In the modern media landscape, Snapchat and Instagram are prime examples of how, today, we increasingly wish to consume our media via ‘vertical narrative’. Similarly thanks to Youtube, we can learn of a brand’s CSR programme through the pre-rolled tale of an African child benefiting from a new school.
Thus brands have long-known there is greater ROI in building brand messaging over time vs short term sales messaging. Notably, Dove Beauty Sketches is a great example of the dramatisation of those messages.
But things are about to change.
Brands and their content marketers are going to have to face up to challenge on 3 fronts. I call them: CYNICISM, ALGORITHM, DYNAMISM
The term ‘brand storytelling’ has become somewhat derided thanks to its pretentious overuse in the industry [and abuse in LinkedIN profiles]. Also, thanks to the assumption that any brand with a set of values is worthy of a 6-minute ‘viral opus’, as a discipline, it has experienced a devaluation of late.
This comes at a time, when new research suggests Gen Zs are even more brand cynical than their Millennial predecessors. They are more likely to scrutinise a brand’s true motives, and demand legitimacy and sincerity from any company attempting hitching their flag to a virtuous hashtag. Moving forward, brands will have to ensure they are belt and braces on their CSR and internal working practices to avoid accusations of ‘greenwashing’ - as Pippa said on stage that ay.
Second, at the same time as it might be in increasingly difficult to avoid the pitfalls of bad storytelling content, the irony is it’s set to become ever-more important.
Within a few years we may be at an inflection point when algorithms release us from the drab, functional decision making of choosing our washing powder, and automatically drop items in our virtual cart. In order to get brands and products mentally short-listed at all, we may have to turn to more brand-led storytelling in order to lodge ourselves in consumer’s minds; literally bypassing the algorithm to target the heartstrings.
Alternatively, if citizens move to prevent companies from gaining access to our data for targeting - in effect ‘smashing the algorithm’ - then storytelling that draws on a mix of universal values and its contextual placement may become a way forward, too.
The birth of new canvases that afford consumers access to more immersive, sensorial encounters - VR, AR and the latest Sensory Reality - will require brands to plot out how to their values live in a haptic world: how does a brand behave not only in sight and sound, but in touch and smell?
More, as technology allows us a more discerning analysis of human emotion, thanks to facial tracking with platforms such as RealEyes, we will become endowed with the ability to optimise our content towards certain emotions and sensations, knowing from data that certain phrases and faces can elicit surprise, sadness or joy. We may even use a tool like Synthesia to re-engineer an actor’s lines or vocal tone at a moment’s notice to meet that requirement.
So how can brands prepare for this sea-change?
First, invest in the legitimacy of your claim. Do your work, have your proof points, ensure they are on screen. Second, start thinking now about how those values transfer into innovative canvases. What do your values feel like - literally? What extra inputs could be recreated to encode understanding of your messages? Last, think about testing your content with advanced new tools. Ascertaining the quality of your TV ad via the traditional traffic light system may not cut it for much longer.
In short: Fight the cynicism. Use the algorithm. Exploit the dynamism.
Phil is a Global Innovation Director, Media Futurist & Conference Speaker with 18 years’ experience from London, Dublin & Auckland. His key skills are evangelising about the future, simplifying the complex, energising clients and hastening the inevitable. He is also Co-author of - and speaker for - PHD's book 'Merge | The closing gap between technology and us’. Phil holds an MA, Politics and Media from the University of Liverpool.