Branded Content is ineffective without Story

We’re in the “content” era now. That’s good. That’s progress.

Unfortunately — for despairing marketers and bored audiences — most content that gets blasted into the digital sphere these days fails to command engagement.

Randomly cobbled-together elements or infomercial-style ad formats undermine a promised “rich and emotionally engaging” experience. The result: a message that is none, making it impossible for the brand to create emotional bonds with audiences.

An excellent and frequently presented example of content that really touched people via powerful storytelling, and which at the same time allowed the brand to play a subtle but effective role is Google India’s Reunion Video. Few brands have managed achieve this.

I admit, creating a great and resonating story is difficult. Very difficult, in fact, and no matter how simple and effortless the finished piece appears to be.

So how do I go about it?

For one, I shouldn’t cast the brand as the Hero — or the hero’s magic wand, it simply doesn’t wash. Instead, the brand needs to be carefully blended into the protagonist’s experience, facilitating her decisions while allowing her to attain her goal by herself. That way, the brand shows its relevance in peoples lives, but without drawing attention to itself in an on-the-nose fashion. The effect is much more powerful because I allow the brand to own the protagonist’s emotional experience.

Then, I need to evoke a visceral sense of emotional relevance: by offering cues that help the audience project their own experiences onto the protagonist. The story and its emotional experience will become that of the viewer: the audience draws their own conclusions as to what happens in the protagonist’s mind — validated by their own experiences.

It is always very difficult to trigger a sense of motivation towards the brand. This I can only achieve by planting visual and narrative cues that activate subconscious “frames” in the viewer, for example frames related to category-specific needs, or indeed mental frames that the brand commands.

And, finally, how do I tell the story? Storytelling is a science, refined and perfected by humans over millennia. While there are, of course, many ways to tell a great story, certain structural laws and principles help amp up emotional engagement by pulling people into the story. One of those ‘story laws’ is the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey, rooted in mythology across all known cultures, contains 12 milestones — as any professionally trained screenwriter will tell you — but I don’t really need to use all of them. Length and theme of my story require flexibility, yet a few structural events I should perhaps play around with:

The Inciting Incident, for instance: an event, however small, that disrupts the protagonist’s present ordinary world, and which forces her to become an active hero.

The Mentor: a person, object or insight that inspires the protagonist to go ahead, set a goal and seek a way to achieve it. It’ll push her across a certain physical or, more often, mental threshold.

The strategic placement of Tests: here the protagonist proves her mettle by overcoming challenges — a satisfying emotional experience is never achieved by a smooth, uneventful ride. Here she’ll also identify her Allies and Enemies.

Eventually, the protagonist will achieve her goal. And when she emerges from her journey, it is important to insinuate that she has undergone some sort of transformation. Usually, she’ll have learned something that sharpens her view on things.

And the brand? Woven subtly but effectively into the fabric of the protagonist’s experience, the brand will become the facilitator of that journey and its result, and it will have become the medium of the protagonist’s overall emotional experience.

Let’s conclude:

  • Content will be vastly more engaging if we apply storytelling principles. The Hero’s Journey offers great structural inspiration and guidance.
  • We must plant cues that stimulate the audience to project their own experienced feelings onto the protagonist — instead of the protagonist telling the audience what to think.
  • I activate emotional motivation by triggering relevant mental or subconscious frames, via visual and narrative elements.
  • In the end, I must have the protagonist emerge emotionally “transformed” from the story experience.
  • And let’s not forget about weaving the brand into the protagonist’s journey in a subtle, organic but meaningful way that focuses on the brand’s core values or benefits: here, plot points and structural elements offer great “seeding” points for integration instead of a forced or on-the-nose appearance that undermines emotional persuasion.

The same applies to pre-testing the effectiveness of your content: it makes no sense to use standard advertising test designs, whether qualitative or quantitative, to evaluate the effectiveness of branded content.

Instead, we need to use evaluation benchmarks that are tailored to professional principles that define the craft of storytelling.

As I said, it’s not easy. No journey is. But you know it’s worth the effort when the resulting branded content elicits strong emotional reactions from your audiences.