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Is now the time to embrace immersive storytelling?

storytelling

All brands have stories to tell about their products, customers, employees and leaders. Often these stories are found in text format - perhaps illustrated with a few pictures - in blogs or on the "About Us" pages of corporate websites. But is there is a case to be more adventurous by using video and animations alongside commentary to create stories that are accessible, immersive and genuinely engaging?

Storytelling has always been an important weapon in the armoury of brands. Indeed, some of the world's best-loved television ads are essentially mini-screenplays built around character and plot. But these days, brands are telling their stories on multiple levels. A corporate blog might provide a forum for key members of staff to talk about how they spend their working days or take part in community initiatives sponsored by the company. Elsewhere, the same company's online magazine could feature interviews with contented customers, profile suppliers or provide retrospective coverage of events. Meanwhile, over the PR department, the team might be sending out a press release that not only announces a new product but also tells the story of its development. With luck, it will capture the collective imagination of journalists.

These stories play an important role in helping to distil the ethos, values and purpose of brands but not every consumer - or stakeholder - has the time or inclination to read a CEO blog or even a newspaper article based on a press release. But if the same story is told through video or animation it arguably becomes much more appealing and accessible. Vicky Fagan is Managing director of FJC, a creative agency specialising in visual storytelling for both internal and external communications purposes, with video as the most commonly used format. She says video provides a way to reach those who only have a limited amount of time to engage. "Written stories require attention and not everyone has that kind of attention span." As she stresses, visual storytelling has other advantages, not least in terms of its ability to make an impact. "The stories we tell are often very emotional. They hit highs and lows and take the audience with them," she says.

Input and Output
According to Dave Mullen, Creative Director at creative agency, StoryUK, there are essentially two types of stories that brands can tell. "There are output stories, which you create from the inside out to get a brand message. Then there are input stories that draw on the experience of users." Input stories provide an opportunity for brands to step back from direct marketing messages and instead let their stakeholders do the talking. But what purpose do they serve?

An input story might involve a video featuring staff members or customers describing their experiences of the brand. Although choreographed by the brand, Fagan stresses that the stories should feel real. "You have to be authentic," she says. It has to be believable." What does that mean in practice? FJC works for a range of clients including the British supermarket chain, Co-Op, Know How and First Bus. As Fagan explains, the agency has a particular focus on interview-based content in which members of staff recount their experiences, with the testimonies linked by voiceover commentaries.

As she sees it, the content can't be too scripted. FJC's technique is to do off-camera interviews first, allowing staff members or customers to get comfortable with talking and also excited about the subject. They are then much more likely to talk naturally during the real interviews." That is how you get the honesty," says Fagan. So what does this approach deliver for the brand?" It's all about culture and Values," says Fagan. When the content is for internal use, it is often used to build the culture within the organisation. However, the same videos can be shown - and Fagan cites the example of the Co-op and HSBC (not an FJC client)putting the same stories out on social media and YouTube as a means to publicise their values to a wider audience. "In that way, the brands benefit from transparency," says Fagan. "YouTube is huge for doing this."

That's not the only way to create user videos. Dave Mullen also stresses the importance of authenticity but cites a campaign carried out for Veterans charity Erskine, in which material collected from former soldiers and their families was used to tell the story of veterans living in a neighbourhood through the eyes of a small boy. While the story was scripted, the characters within the script were drawn from real-life experiences. The aim here was to highlight the work of the charity. This kind of story dovetails with conventional advertising. It can certainly be broadcast but also distributed from content hubs, via blogs and through social media.

Visual storytelling is increasingly being embraced by large brands. For instance, Honda in the UK has recently reimagined its online magazine, Engine Room to create a more immersive experience in which video and commentary from events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed motor racing celebration can be put online in close to real time to provide a visual account of the proceedings.

Output
In terms of output-driven, stories, brands can bring a lot more creativity into play. Alistair Campbell is Executive Creative Director at Waste Creative, a "fan-focused"agency working largely on behalf of online games companies..As he sees it, immersive storytelling techniques provide a means for his agency's clients to engage customers through the creation of a rich universe that extends beyond the games themselves. He cites the example of an animated stories series created by Waste Creative for Brawl Star World Champions. "We wanted a way to draw in regular Brawl Stars players to watch more of the esports broadcasts, " he says. " We did this by creating a mystery, featuring the players' favourite characters from the game - an eight-part whodunnit all about someone stealing the Championship trophy. Each episode dropped new clues about who could or couldn't have done it, encouraging fans to create and share their own theories between the monthly episodes."

As he sees it - and from the perspective of the industry Waste Creative serves - storytelling can play a vital role in the marketing mix. "Working with Games as-a-service titles, it's essential. It strengthens the long-term relationship between the player and the game. There is always something new around the corner competing for their time and attention. Content is vital to keep them engaged and stop them moving on," he says. Stories can also be used to reinforce more conventional advertising content. StoryUK created a film for Whisky brand Ardbeg designed to introduce the concept of a whisky distilled for 5 years (a relatively short time for a malt) to a new audience. The film itself followed a B-Movie/horror story format of a "Wee Beastie" loose on the island of Isla (where the whisky is brewed).As a follow on, more Wee Beastie stories were added on the packaging when the drink was sold in multi-packs and on labels.This extended to the labels on each bottle, which could be peeled off to reveal more Wee Beastie content. "They were designed to be peelable, revealable and scalable," says Mullen who adds. "We also intended them to be as shareable as possible."

Cash hungry
Visual storytelling can be executed using a range of techniques, including GIFs, full-scale animation and video in addition to still imagery. The content can then be made available on TV - essentially advertising - social media, blogs, packaging and at the point of sale. But there are constraints - not least cost. Video and animation are great storytelling tools, but they can be cash hungry. Campbell says brands should look carefully at their options for content. "The trick is finding the right option for the opportunity. The reality is that good video – and especially good animation – is not cheap or quick to produce. Our clients' standards are exceptionally high, and they expect the same from us, so we would always rather produce an exceptional still image than a below-average video," he says.

In that respect, it's a case of choosing the right tool. Visual stories can engage staff customers alike and be distributed across multiple channels. Equally, they can enliven blogs, complement conventional above the line campaigns. But when budgets are tight, text and still images may be the most cost-effective for telling a corporate story.

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