FBR - Beyond storytelling: The narrative universes of brands

Beyond storytelling: The narrative universes of brands

Pablo J. Vizcaíno

Publicado el
18 de Abril de 2016
For some time, marketing has suffered a fever of storytelling, it being one of the prevailing trends in the sector

The narrative perspective of any product or service is one of those intangibles that we assume at the time of telling a story, recognizing something, or choosing between different options.  If we talk about the Batmobile or Batcave, we are – without being aware of it – picturing a dark street in Gotham City.  A similar effect causes us to ask for a vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred, or spend Christmas waiting impatiently for a loved one to return home for the festive season.   It’s certain that Batman, James Bond or “El Almendro” would be very proud of us as consumers of both leisure and confectionery.

For some time, marketing has suffered a fever of storytelling, it being one of the prevailing trends in the sector.  As old as fire (not in vain was the campfire the centre from which to indoctrinate the tribe in the first vestiges of human life in a community), it has regained its value as a tool to convey a commercial message to the mind of the consumer.  The story is like a Trojan horse to overcome information overload (an overload which is ever more pronounced), the fragmentation of the media (which faces both sender and receiver), and the context of the crisis (which has modified sales, purchase, and consumption patterns). 

One fact, that while it is true, never ceases to be a no-brainer, is that advertising has a strong narrative in all its forms and mediums as stated by Jean-Michel Adams in ‘L’Argumentation Publicitaire’.  The housewife who wants to wash whiter in the original TV commercials from the 50s and 60s and the viral current tear-jerking stories we share on digital platforms have the same narrative trait in common, since both use the same age-old communication technique, rather than seeking to (re)sell the concept of storytelling to our clients.

David Ogilvy in ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ has already advocated exploiting Harold J Rudolph’s theory of introducing the story concept in graphic advertising.  Through the inseparable relationship of image and text, photograph and headline, a story will be created in the consumer’s mind.  “The reader will look at the photograph and will be curious to know what has happened.  Then they will read the headline and need to go to the main body of the text in order to satisfy their curiosity,” says Ogilvy.  For example, one of the most celebrated instances in the history of advertising:  The Man in the Hathaway Shirt (1955) for Hathaway.

The success and impact of the piece led to Ogilvy being chosen to communicate the benefits of the brand over many years due to his creative design.  A conceptual and strategic turning point which became a constant.  A story that no longer referred just to the product, but one in which the product was overpowered by that superior entity, the brand itself, thus creating one of the first narrative universes of modern advertising.

For this reason, and as the title of this article states, another heading should be added to the usual ones: territory (the definition of the area where the brand will be promoted), keyword and assets (which word and graphics activate the brand in the consumer’s mind), positioning (the place it occupies in the consumer’s through the design) or tagline (that position expressed in words).    A landing area consistent with the leading edges of the branding, so that any story the brand wishes to tell to its various audiences is in line with the manifesto of the said brand.  It is not just storytelling, but also providing the whys and wherefores of those stories.

The narrative universes are part of the construction of worlds – worldbuilding – also known as conworlding.  They are the result of the process of constructing an imaginary world, normally associated with the world of fiction in general.  Although coming from the worlds of literature, science fiction, and video games, their applications are very diverse today, this technique even being a part of the creation of health therapies.  Of course, marketing (as a basis of communication) has ridden the wave from the first moment, although what it really did was to give a name to something that was already happening unconsciously; telling stories in a unique and relevant form. 

The theory of the construction of worlds is deeply rooted in anthropology.  Laura Milanovich, in ‘Cultural Anthropology for Writers’, indicates the existence of 12 signals to work with to create a single, coherent, relevant narrative universe – the same characteristics brands are seeking when they being managed – through different codes: verbal (how contemporary is expressed in this universe), written ( how the elements of grammar, orthography etc are used and combined), numeric (how signs are used to measure and quantify), graphic (how they embody, evoke and communicate without using the previous codes), artefacts (the objects characteristic of this universe), audio ( what sounds are used and with what cultural significance), optical (the use of colour and light), kinesis (gestural movement and body language), touch (significance and uses within the culture), time (how it is judged and how its passing is marked), space (the management of dimensions and movement within the scenario) and smell (what smells are there).  

A creative work that goes hand in hand with the narrative roles which make the brand.  If we have been able to denote all the above, always depending on the actual needs of the brand, creating our story is only a task of cutting and sewing to clothe this universe.  And all this, if so, through storytelling.  This is the art of storytelling according to Antonio Nuñez, one of the national leaders in this area.  Fog, Budtz, Munch and Blanchete that are four elements that make up any story: message (the theme; the idea to be communicated by the story), conflict (if there is no conflict, there is no story; it is what sets the story in motion), characters (we need at least one to be the story’s hero) and plot (flow, progress and sequences in the story).  A practical analysis of a well-known narrative universe will explain the above.

At the end of the 1990s, a black and white advertisement lasting merely seconds appeared in our lives and which was christened “Martini guy” by society.  Through the archetypal lover (see the previous issue of FBS INSIGHT), the plot concerns seduction where an attractive young woman abandons her older lover when our “Don Juan” serves her a glass of Martini (the brand is, in this case, the trigger for conflict), causing her to fall at his feet and run off with him.  The message – conquest achieved through the product – is clear in both this and all subsequent Martini campaigns, until a couple of years ago, when the brand changed course.

This was the plot that Martini communicated through a single, coherent, relevant narrative universe, telling the same story over and over again, year after year.  “A story of seduction and conquest that the brand has been recounting with minor variations over decades.   A hackneyed, simple story reminiscent of Marcello Mastroianni in that dreamlike scene from Fellini’s 8½,” says Raúl Rodríguez, a lecturer in semiotics at the University of Alicante. 

If we analyse the codes explained by Laura Milanovich in her history of the Martini campaigns, we will be able to trace the narrative universe of the brand, and even George Clooney who stars in the advertisement.  The mountainous Mediterranean landscape, the recreational lifestyle with all the characters in a perpetual state of dolce far niente (pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness), as well as their movements – unhurried and succinct – are some of the most characteristic features of the Martini story within its narrative universe.

The proper management of these narrative universes is, therefore, a guarantee of consistency over the life of the brand.  A line drawn to communicate emotional stories and aggressive offers, but always to be carried out from the brand’s own DNA.  It is the only guarantee to avoid repeating “Once upon a time …” when you want to attract the attention of the audience.

1. http://www.directmarketinginstitute.com/HathawayShirtAd.htm

2. http://www.anuncios.com/campana-creatividad/mas-anuncios/1020162008001/martini-recurre-al-espiritu-hollywood-campana.1.html 

3. www.martini.com

Pablo J. Vizcaíno
Sobre Pablo J. Vizcaíno: (Albacete, 1983) Doctorando en comunicación publicitaria por la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Máster en Estrategia y Marketing de la Empresa por la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, Licenciado en Publicidad y Relaciones Públicas por la Universidad de Al...
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