Once upon a time…..what creative writing taught me about brand storytelling

Writing has always been my passion. I was the only kid in class who actually looked forward to essay assignments and my love for the craft is the main reason why I chose public relations as a profession.  A few months ago I decided to enrol in a creative writing class to see if I really could have what it takes to create a best-selling novel or an awesome screenplay that might bring Tarantino knocking at my door. The weekly discipline of having to write on command, about anything I want, has been a game-changer – like any other muscle in the body, the creative side of the brain needs regular stimulation and knowing that I need to produce something readable (Aloud! In front of the rest of the class! And critiqued!) in 2 hours sure makes you focus. While I knew I would find the class enjoyable and fulfilling from a personal perspective, it also reminded me of how important good storytelling is to brand communications.

Some of the key principles of writing a damn good yarn are also useful guiderails when trying to come up with a killer brand campaign:

Create characters that people care about

What makes anyone want to read a book from cover to cover or watch a film to the end? It’s the characters – whether we love them or hate them, if a character is well-written, and we can relate to them, we want to follow them, commiserate with them, laugh with them, and ultimately see what happens to them at the end of the story. All characters belong to ‘types’ so consider which character archetypes or even stereotypes would work well for your brand and campaign. Whether They will already familiar to your audiences so they’ll help your campaign to resonate and have a deeper engagement.

We recently created a campaign for Asia Pacific Breweries which focused on the Karang Guni as recognisable characters in Singapore who are already synonymous with recycling household goods – perfect to help drive awareness of and engagement in our consumer-facing recycling campaign.

Strong characters can also help to re-tell a good but well-worn story in a way which is more meaningful to a modern audience. Our recent work with Glenfiddich re-told the brand’s ‘spirit of experimentation’ story using real-life characters who brought credibility and impact, reframing perceptions of the drink from ‘the brand my dad drinks’ to a brand that stands for innovation.

It’s all about anticipation and escalation

It sounds obvious but it’s also very easy to wander aimlessly or get side-tracked when you’re creating brand campaigns. Following a story arc (or giving your story a beginning, middle and an end) can help give your campaign structure as well as a tried and tested way to engage your audience through introduction, anticipation of what might happen, a crisis or climax point and a resolution at the end. The arc works just as well for a 3minute video or 3month launch campaign as it does for a 3hour film.

Genres breed familiarity and engagement

All writing belongs to and is written according to the rules of a genre; and each genre has its own conventions and reader or viewer expectations. It can be a realistic genre such as a detective story, a romance or a historical tale; or imaginative, such as fantasy, horror or science fiction. With imaginative genres you can have the most fun as they can include elements which don’t exist in the real world such as talking animals or flying cars. The great thing about all genres are that they make a story feel ‘familiar’ as the audience already knows what to expect. Plus, you have a rich tradition to draw from, with a readymade shortcut to plot devices and character types – brilliant for providing context to a brand storytelling brainstorm!

A traditional genre can also be subverted or challenged to change perceptions or elicit an action or emotional response from an audience. Think of the traditional genre of “Handsome Hero Wins the Girl’ and how this has been turned on its head by the likes of Beauty and the Beast or Shrek. Our recent work for Axe addresses how sometimes toxic tales of masculinity can prevent men from being who they want to be. The campaign looks to change the narrative around the product from ‘spray the product, get the girl’ to telling stories using actual Google searches which highlight the anxiety young men feel about adhering to and straying from, societal norms around masculinity.

Consider what type of genre might work well for your brand campaign and fits with the brand’s personality.

If it’s not believable, it doesn’t belong

Once you choose a genre, stick with it! Any imaginary world is ruined when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable.  Readers approach stories wanting to believe them and the same is true with consumers. They too have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the genre that governs that story, is believable. So our goal as brand storytellers isn’t to convince our audiences to suspend their disbelief, but rather to give them what they want by continually sustaining their belief in the story. it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your audience.

Hold their attention right to the end

A great story ending is just as important as a strong beginning. It can be surprising (a twist in the tale), convey a final irony or elicit an emotional reaction from your audience as seen in this video created by MullenLowe for our client Lifebuoy soap. Your choice of genre and character archetypes can often direct you towards the most suitable conclusion for your campaign, as well as the personality of your brand.

In a fast-moving, ever-changing industry like communications it’s good to know that some things remain constant and a great story will never go out of fashion regardless of the channel or technology we use to tell it.