Content, stories, Kurt Vonnegut and a few pints of lager

Or what happens when brand storytelling meets brand values

There are perhaps few more overused words in marketing and advertising this decade than “content” and “storytelling”. Both can be powerful, both are commonly misused, and both are intricately linked. The last part is often forgotten about.

What makes good stories is what makes good content: bringing in an audience, building empathy, using drama to sustain attention. So to look to writers for guidance on making content — or for the purposes of this post, to inspect Fosters’ Helluva Tour series through the critical eye of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story tips — seems like a worthwhile use of time.

To recap: Helluva Tour is a banter-fuelled road-trip from the UK to Australia, available on Channel 4’s “All4” platform, and trailed on Peep Show. Each episode shows our four friends facing a challenge — perhaps frightening, sickening, that kind of thing — but totally overcoming it and all having just the best time. Novelist, short story writer and playwright Kurt Vonnegut is widely known for Slaughterhouse Five.

My issues with Helluva Tour start at the beginning. “We’ve never met each other before, but we’re all getting on really well”, we’re told in the introduction . There’s no doubt in this video: everything’s going to be fine. Which runs rather against Vonnegut’s council for would-be short story authors. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Stories capture our attention through building empathy, and challenging it through jeopardy, intrigue, and making “awful things happen”. Alas, such qualities go against the values most brands want to communicate: and for this reason, those stories are uninteresting. Good storytelling and brand storytelling are not inherently compatible. The vanful of LOLs heading Down Under failed to capture my attention (and yes, I am in the target market) precisely because I knew nothing particularly dramatic was going to happen from the moment we heard the group was “getting on really well”.

This isn’t to say brands need to be cruel. A great success of content in modern times is DC Shoes, with a million YouTube subscribers, who recently notched up 20m views in three months (and counting) with a film of a dirt bike riding across the open waves. (It’s pretty great). DC don’t torment their stars: they just understand the needs and wants of their target market — the 21st century marketers’ answer to Vonnegut’s plea: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

At Flying Object we often ask ourselves, “why would anyone watch this?” To that, we should add — “why would anyone keep watching this?” It’s not a question that advertising has traditionally had to answer, reliant as it was on paid interruption and super-short formats. In the new world of content, we need to learn from the storytellers, if we want anyone to listen to what we’re saying.