A Beginning, A Middle, and an End

A Beginning, A Middle, and an End

Once Upon a Time

This week, I’ve been discussing the secret to great marketing; namely, that great marketing is actually great storytelling. Today, I’d like to discuss how the process of your storytelling can affect the efficacy of your message.

All really good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You don’t always have to start your story at the “beginning”, or end your story at the “end”, but you absolutely have to have a process for telling your story.

Let’s look at some interesting television, cinematic, and literary examples of innovative storytelling, that illustrate narrative process, and then see if we can apply those lessons to a marketing plan.

The Greeks were the first to play around with changing up the order of telling a story. They used the narrative technique of in medias res (“in the midst of things”), to jump into a story arc in progress, and then backfill preceding exposition before continuing to the end. Homer’s The Odyssey is probably the best known literary example of this non-linear storytelling technique.

In cinema, there are more than a few examples of in media res and disjointed temporal storytelling. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are two famous examples of a narrative occurring in vignettes, out of order in time. In Pulp Fiction, the vignettes initially seem to be totally unconnected to the larger narrative until we begin to recognize the connective tissue with later episodes.

Season 4 of the television series Arrested Development tells its story over the same time frame, but uses different character’s points-of-view to complete the overall narrative, with successive POVs filling in more information on what is happening in the story.

Christopher Nolan’s Memento, is told from the point of view of a man with no short term memory, who leaves himself post-it notes before going to bed, and tattoos himself in order to try and remember who killed his wife – in effect, rebooting and reliving his life with each new day.

George R. R. Martin’s massive set of tomes, A Song of Ice and Fire (the source material for HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones) is told from the point of view of an army of POV characters, beginning at the death of the Hand of the King Jon Aryn, and backfilling a world and a history through periscopes, flashbacks, prophecies, memories, and unreliable narrators.

And just one more literary example before I (finally!) get on with discussing storytelling process: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas nests six different episodes, across hundreds of years of time, to tell a larger story of human injustice, perseverance, and love. Each story line – preceding the middle of the narrative – ends, with the subsequent episode harkening back to the preceding through some recorded medium (a half-torn book; a record of music; an investigative report; a movie; a holographic recording). Ultimately, the story unwinds the nested storylines, to reveal the larger themes of the novel.

While the jumbled temporality of all of the preceding examples makes each of these stories compelling to read or to watch, they do all have one thing in common: each story began with a plan, and a process for how to tell these stories in entirely unorthodox ways.

The very process of how stories are told, is as much an “actor” in a compelling narrative, as are the stories themselves.

Let’s look at some distinctive marketing examples, where the process of the product storytelling was as much a character as the story items.

Probably the most notable recent high profile example I can think of is the Oreo Social Media Super Bowl XLVII Ad:

During the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII when a power outage at the Superdome caused some of the lights to go out for 34 minutes, the sandwich cookie’s social media team jumped on the cultural moment, tweeting an ad that read “Power Out? No problem” with a starkly-lit image of a solitary Oreo and the caption, “You can still dunk in the dark.”

Powerful? You bet. Accidental? No freakin’ way.

These folks had a plan – and a cadre of people ready to act on the plan. They were monitoring an event they knew millions of people would be engaged in, they had the right people with the right tools ready to act, and they had the permission – and most importantly, trust – of the brand they represented (Oreo) to tell a story on the fly. The fact that they were able to beautifully and forcefully message, in real time, was perhaps a marketing Black Swan event, not soon to be repeated.

Aside from the preparation and planning that this marketing team laid out ahead of time, to fantastic effect, was their recognition that the viewing process of the Super Bowl (and television in general, for that fact) has changed. It is no longer a single screen experience. We binge-and-appointment-watch our favorite shows, while texting our friends and scanning our social media feeds.

Watching is now a participatory experience.

I will relate one more personal anecdote on marketing process, related to my time as CIO at Hendrix College.

In January of 2014, we purchased a new MakerBot Replicator 2 3D Printer, that we intended to use as the genesis for a Maker Space in our Student Life and Technology Center.

But before doing that, we realized that we needed to have a plan in place to tell the story of what the printer was, what it was supposed to do (and mean), and how it would be deployed at Hendrix – as well as to open up a larger discussion of what Maker Spaces are, and what they can mean to the liberal arts.

I gathered together our Media Center, our Marketing and Communications Team, our student workers, and our on campus 3D printer advocates, and we formulated a plan to tell the story of the printer (goofy as it may sound when you write it out like this) – from unboxing the equipment, to staging the printer in a prominent place in our space, to planning a series of articles and webcasts discussing the printer and maker spaces in general, to storyboarding and creating a video detailing the virtues and application of the printer, to inviting local middle school kids to campus, to speaking at local civic groups… you get the idea.

We incorporated a multi-discipline process to craft a compelling story, that was non-linear, and could be repurposed modularly to tell our story in a plethora of channels. The long and short form videos created from the effort are something that I am extremely proud of.

Before leaving the topic on the importance of process in storytelling, let me emphatically say that just because you have a process, doesn’t mean that your storytelling will become rote, routine, or predictable. A stable marketing process enables everyone to be on the same page with regard to messaging, it allows everyone to know “where we’re going”, and – if done correctly – can lead to replicable success, time and time again.

Monday, I intend to discuss how engagement can make the difference between campaigns that soar, and those that leave their brands running for cover.

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