While I didn’t make the trip to the City by the Bay for Storyworld 2011, I had the Los Angeles-based Storyworld 2012 marked on my calendar for quite some time.  Needless to say, when Alison Norrington (in her awesome British accent) gave me the opportunity to speak on the “How Brands Build Storyworlds” panel at Storyworld 2012, I was stoked. 

It was actually an interesting opportunity for me because the One 3 Productions team had just recently made its foray into the corporate branding world so, in a way, I was just as excited to learn from more seasoned branding rock stars on the panel (Maurico Moto, Dan Hon, Atley Loughridge) as I was to speak.  But the panel was about how brands ‘build’ storyworlds and since we don’t change our storyworld process when we approach branding, storyworld ‘building’ is a verb I can talk about for days…and days…and days.  I like that verb.

However, once the panel began taking shape, some competing verbs began to infiltrate the discussions.  We talked quite a bit about how brands can ‘benefit’ from storyworlds as well as why brands typically ‘object’ to storyworlds (both of which are worthy points of conversation and debate), but when the panel ended I realized that my beloved ‘build’ verb was unfortunately cannibalized in a flurry of awesome videos, case studies, rapier opinions and subpar audio visual assistance.  The eagle-eyed Christine Weibrecht even nailed us (the panel) over the verb shift.  Darn you Christine and your relentless pursuit of panel title accuracy!  ;-) 

But, alas, this is why God invented blogs - so we can continue transmedia conversations well after panels end.  So, for what it’s worth here’s how we at One 3 Productions go about building storyworlds for brands. 

We use a comprehensive campaign approach, which we’ve coined 360° Storyweaving. An optimum 360° Storyweaving Campaign includes three distinct phases:

  1. The Creation Phase, where we create and design the storyworld and story components around an original concept; 
  2. The Immersion Phase, where we design and plan strategy on how to immerse the audience further into the storyworld through thematic merchandising and media blurring;
  3. The Community Phase, where we build communities through online engagement and interactivity as well as implement social outreach, which springs from the original purpose and theme of the project.

For us, the actual construction of the storyworld takes place in the Creation Phase, so that’s what we’ll focus on in this obnoxiously long blog entry.  Here are the four most important rules we follow:

1. REMEMBER - THOU SHALT NOT SELL

Before we being designing a storyworld for a brand, we remind ourselves of the most important rule of branded entertainment: consumers trust content, not advertising.  Consumers like to buy, but don’t like to be sold.  And not only do they dislike being sold, they can sniff out a sales person a mile away. 

You know how a dog can tell an earthquake is coming?

Well, today’s consumers are the same when it comes to sales and advertising and therefore require that brands create value in their lives in some way (which includes entertainment) before they’ll entertain the selling of your product.  Effective branding and marketing is no longer a one way conversation and the old interruptive approach to advertising is failing.  In addition to the core product or service of the brand, brands are being forced to also view themselves as publishers and entertainers.

What does this have to do with the practical creative design of a storyworld for a brand?

Keeping this rule at the forefront of your mind creates a proverbial bouncer at the door with one directive - any time a creative idea attempts to sneak in that even smells a little like advertising or self promotion, it gets bounced. 

Every time. 

No exceptions.

While building a storyworld for a brand, knowing what ideas not to entertain is the first step of generating a concept that will work. 

For example, when you watch the Terry Tate, Office Linebacker campaign for Reebok, you don’t feel like you’re being sold at all.  Alternatively, because the commercials build value in people’s lives through entertainment, the Reebok brand was strengthened and exposure increased.

2. USE THE THEME AS A CONNECTOR

Granted, from a client’s perspective, devoting a chunk of a brand’s marketing and promotions budget to something that doesn’t explicitly market, sell or promote the brand admittedly seems counter-intuitive.  The objection to this aspect of branded entertainment can sometimes be a difficult one to overcome.  However, when you can shift the mindset of the client and get them to start thinking about their brand on a thematic level by first identifying a brand’s thematic core, you’ll begin to open the client to a wider array of creative options.

For example, Apple began as a computer company.  However, if the Apple executive team would have been uncompromisingly rigid about tying the identity of the company to their major product, they would never have entertained the possibility of creating a music player or venturing into the volatile cellphone market.  Why?  Because that’s not what they did.  They made computers.  But on a thematic level, Apple understood they were actually a company devoted to making people’s lives easier, which is why they opened themselves to a multitude of products and services that were connected by theme or their “brand essence” as Jeff Gomez would say.  Many clients may not know what their corporate theme is, which means you need to help them discover it. 

When Coca-Cola realized they weren’t just a soda company, but were in the happiness business, The Happiness Factory was spawned.  When Hiscox realized they weren’t just a corporate insurance company, but rather a champion of small businesses and entrepreneurs, it freed their minds to create the scripted, original series Leap Year. No longer was it a stretch for these companies to brand out into other areas because thematically the other areas were related and could actually be used as introductory brand touchpoints for consumers/audiences.

So, when the client gets nervous when you begin creating something that doesn’t explicitly advertise their brand and begin shouting, “Where’s the tie-in?” You can look at them cooly and let them know their storyworld and their brand are riveted together by a strong, clear, meaningful, unbreakable theme.

For example, we designed a campaign for an independent film distributor and did not build the storyworld around films.  You see, films were their main product - it’s what they did, but we showed them that ‘keeping alive and celebrating the independent creative spirit’ is why they were doing what they were doing.  Independent films were just the method they were using to prove their brand essence to the world.  

Then, when we introduced story opportunities involving independent musicians, independent restaurant owners, and independent shoemakers through the lens of the theme, they were infinitely more open to it than they would have been if we wouldn’t have identified their thematic foundation and simply walked in and said we were going to market their film company by telling stories about musicians, restauranteurs and shoemakers.  They saw the connection and believed consumers would as well.

As with the previous step, you may ask how this helps you creatively.  

Think of it like this: puzzle masters never start a puzzle by trying to figure out the middle. Puzzle masters worth their salt start on the edges; they define their borders.  The brand’s theme will become your border and trust me when I say that every creative decision you make will (or should) spring from your theme.

The brand’s theme will define a very clear narrative space for you to sink your teeth into and allow you to carve out a more focused project by informing every single creative decision you make. A thematic foundation and creative border empower you to refuse anything that falls outside its scope. If something doesn’t reconcile with, strengthen or continue to prove your theme, it’s not allowed. 

Trust me. Adhering to a strong thematic message will help you from straying off the path. It’s like when you go hiking and every now and then you see a sign that says KEEP ON THE PATH. Some may say those signs are infringing on your hiking freedom. I say they’re helping you not be eaten by a mountain lion and you should thank the guy who put them there.

Don’t keep getting eaten by a mountain lion.  

Identify the brand’s theme and keep the path creatively.

3. THINK SETTING, NOT CHARACTER

Once your theme is established, ask yourself, “What is a concept that will allow the theme/message to flourish?  What is a setting that embodies and represents what the brand stands for or the message that the brand is trying to communicate to the consumers?”  

A good creative trick is to make the theme of your branding campaign be either the major flaw of the setting or the crowning jewel. Go extreme either way - no in-between.

For example, a cosmetics line may decide their theme is that “all women deserve to feel beautiful.”  If this is the theme, then maybe consider a concept that focuses on a setting where beauty isn’t supported or celebrated at all. This would set up your potential protagonist with a problem to fix and hence a very strong goal and need.  Or, alternatively, you can set up a very visual concept that highlights and accentuates beauty to an ideal level and then try to threaten that somehow.

Keep in mind, though, that at this point we’re not thinking of specific characters or personalities - just broad concepts and settings.  Yes, great stories need great characters. Yes, you can’t have a great story without them; however, right now we’re not developing stories yet. We’ll get to the story part, but not just yet.

When designing a world where the brand stories will be set, you need to primarily think about three elements: 

  1. Character Groups
  2. Location
  3. High Concept

Character Groups.

Again, instead of individual characters, the first step to a viable setting is to start brainstorming character groups. For example, rather than focusing on a math teacher character, focus on math teachers as a whole. 

Why? A great character is an essential component of a storyworld, but doesn’t by herself form a storyworld. That’s why it’s a world. So, the activist cow isn’t a storyworld for the Chick-Fil-A brand.  Neither is Kobe Bryant for Nike.  Neither is the Old Spice guy for the Old Spice brand.  Those are (or at least should be) simply single characters within potentially more expansive settings.

So, when you think in terms of character groups instead of single characters, you don’t just think of the Chick-Fil-A cow, you think of a pack of activist animals of all kinds.  You don’t just think about Kobe Bryant, you think about a group of elite “superhuman” athletes, which could include other basketball players, baseball players, boxers, cyclists, etc.  Immediately, you open your storyworld to a significant amount of new, interesting characters and thus new, interesting stories all tied together by one, strong theme. 

What’s wrong with Kobe Bryant being your “storyworld” by himself?  Well, what happens when Nike designs a zillion dollar branded entertainment campaign around Kobe Bryant and he blows out his knee and is forced to retire?  What happens if he gets wrapped up in a scandal?  The whole campaign and subsequent storyworld suffers, if it survives at all.  Again, what if Kobe is just one character in a rich storyworld that includes other “superhuman” athletes?  If he gets taken out of the picture, the storyworld and the campaign can still survive.  

Let’s call it “narrative hedging.” 

The same dynamic even applies to fictional characters like the Old Spice guy in The Man Your Man Could Smell Like and the driver in BMW’s The Hire series. What if the actor can’t come to terms contractually or gets booked for a movie and doesn’t want to do commercials anymore?  The campaign is done.  Sure, you can try to swap out characters, but if it’s not planned or coordinated from the beginning, it typically feels like a cheap knock-off version of the original. 

What about a character like the Geico gecko or the Chick-Fil-A cow?  Obviously, they can’t be injured and they, because they’re completely fictional, will always come to contractual terms and will never turn down commercials to do films.  However, what if the audience simply stops responding to the character the way they did initially?  Is it easier to ditch a whole campaign or simply pivot and focus on one of the other characters already established in your storyworld?  I say the latter.

This isn’t to say, however, that all your commercials, ads or brand extensions have to include a whole host of characters.  Of course not. You can have single characters carry singular stories and even dedicated sections of the campaign; however, from a creative and strategic design standpoint, you want to build your storyworld with lots of characters in mind and then choose which one(s) best fit your specific messaging for a particular campaign and focus on them. This way, though, you have a host of characters in your bullpen ready to be pulled into your campaign whenever you need them.

Location. 

Once you have your character group, you need to think of what kind of location will house them. Is it a town? Is it a world? Is it a building? Is it a galaxy? This is extremely important, because this will create the “world” aspect of the “storyworld” and give your characters context and allow both your characters and audience room to explore.

In the pure entertainment space, you see this quite frequently.  In the Harry Potter series, the people groups are wizards, witches, students, teachers, etc., and the location is Hogwarts. Batman has Gotham City. Lost has an island.  However, you also see this materialize in your branding campaigns as well.  

For example, the SportsCenter commercials have great character groups - athletes, mascots and SportsCenter anchors - but they also have created a perfect location to house them and have them interact: the ESPN office building.  Similarly, the Terry Tate, Office Linebacker campaign expertly utilized the fictional Felcher & Sons office building in its campaign.  The Progressive commercials have that weird stark white insurance shop. The Happiness Factory campaign has the world that exists inside the soda machines.  All great locations that house great character groups made up of great characters. 

Some campaigns even have great settings and don’t even realize it.  The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign, for example, admittedly has a great character in the spotlight, but after the Isaiah Mustafa’s character is played out, couldn’t they continue to explore a crazy world where shower walls fall down and you’re on a boat and then you fall on a horse, etc.?  If you just think about that world for a second, you realize that the world itself could be mined by a host of other interesting characters, giving the concept more shelf life and longer legs. 

That really is one of the major benefits of building out a location-based world for your brand - campaign life.  When you pitch a television executive a concept for a show, you will always get the question of whether it can be sustained for multiple seasons. Shouldn’t marketers and brands look through the same lens and be invested on how to scale a concept to something that can exist and continue to be mined for quality creativity for multiple years?

I say ‘yes.’ 

High Concept. 

The high concept is the creative mechanism you’re going to push your setting through to propel it from being just an idea to being a commercially viable idea.  To put it as simply as possible, a high concept is a concept that is immediately interesting to someone; one that has obvious potential and can hook someone from the gate.

Why use such a pure Hollywood concept for a brand storyworld? In my opinion, to make the next generation of branded entertainment more impactful, we need to incorporate more Hollywood concepts.  Something like forming high concepts into your brand campaign will start to mold it from just a branded entertainment property into a legitimate entertainment brand.

So, how do you generate a high concept for your brand?

All you do is start putting together opposites. 

Why do you think the Terry Tate, Office Linebacker is such an immediately interesting concept? Because crazy Ray Lewis linebackers and boring office workers are such opposites.  A colorful, fantastic civilization made up of whimsical flora and fauna and the inside of a soda machine?  It’s a great concept because of the inherent irony.  In the same vein, when the Copenhagen Philharmonic performed Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” on a crowded metro train, the irony sold the piece.  Why?  Because you expect classical music to be played in a musty theater, not in a subway. 

The more you can build in opposites between your character groups and your locations, the more ironic your setting becomes and the more commercial your overall campaign becomes.

4. DON’T LET THE BRIEF KILL THE CREATIVITY

Listen, I totally get how clients will give you a brief and want things in half the time and for half the cost.  Budget and KPI’s will always impact your creative choices; however, that doesn’t mean you can’t approach your branding campaigns with the same creativity Disney approaches their franchises or Dreamworks approaches their concepts.  

However, if you keep these rules in mind when you’re developing the storyworld for your brand, you’ll be more equipped to rapidly deploy ideas for your client and, who knows, you just might create a campaign that will endure for years to come.