15 July 2010

Narrative Marketing: Brand Strategy as Storytelling

From 2006 to 2007, the British lingerie company Agent Provocateur launched a lavish e-mail marketing campaign with four short films entitled "The Dreams of Miss X," featuring Kate Moss. The campaign promised to be a new concept for e-mail marketing, drawing in viewers (and thus potential buyers) with a more cinematic feel to the online retail experience.

Despite being wooed by the very concept of this type of higher-end video marketing, particularly with a scantily clad Kate Moss, many viewers were turned away by the apparent poor video quality and the sheer lack of characterization in what should have otherwise seemed a strong narrative concept.

Agent Provocateur has made a name for itself in redefining the world of intimate brands with its branding approach in providing edgy, yet luxurious design with a boutique feel. The brand's prominent use of storytelling techniques in its marketing campaigns has helped to establish and augment this feeling of desiring the undesireable, i.e. sumptuousness with an edge of danger. Their successful campaigns featuring Kylie Minogue and their UK cinema commercials, including the iconic "Love Me Tender" Valentine's Day campaign that was a YouTube sensation, prove the success of this type of narrative marketing.

Obviously, video marketing has exploded in the four years since the Agent Provocateur campaign. Video is now ubiquitous, particularly in online advertising and on retail websites. Yet, the use of narrative, i.e. storytelling techniques, in marketing and brand strategy strangely is not as pervasive as one would think, particularly not in luxury brand advertising.

There has been a lot of buzz about narrative marketing in the past decade or so as a way for companies to distinguish their brands in an age of social media. By narrative marketing, I would include the following characteristics:
  • strong, consistent unifying concept or main idea;
  • a "plot" or storyline--i.e. a course of action or series of events--that can be developed across different media outlets;
  • intriguing "characters" or actors (whether a person, product, or idea) to carry out the action; and
  • a simple, pervasive means of implementation or strategy to express or tell different parts of the narrative in various forms across the product line and through media/advertising/communications.

Yet, in the retail sector, the brands that use this type of strategy to define, communicate, and sell their products tend to be more niche, purposefully appealing to a small, designated market segment.

For example, British cycling brand Rapha, which sells high-end cycling clothing, as well as a full-color magazine, art work, and other accessories, is centered around the pain and beauty of cycling. Rapha's brand concept is unified around recounting the history and glorious suffering of the cyclist's experience as an epic narrative.

Each Rapha clothing label contains a meticulously-written narrative of a legendary cyclist or event in cycling history, which gives the product an exclusive feel, as if the purchaser is himself or herself an active participant in the ongoing cycling story.

Rapha have now extended their narrative into the world in an applied sense with the opening of cycling cafes in London, New York, and elsewhere (see a recent Financial Times article on these cafes), providing cyclists with a brand experience and lessons in the history of the sport as they grab a coffee after a long ride.

Many international retailers make use of video storytelling in a trailer fashion to market upcoming or new products. Many also do indeed try to make use of narrative techniques in their marketing and branding.

However, few larger brands, especially in the luxury sector, have been able to do this consistently. This is perhaps because of the problem of diffuseness and the need to distinguish between product lines. But, it could also be simply that the principle behind narrative marketing does not make sense for all companies. Traditional marketing techniques, putting advertising and communications behind the brand label and letting the brand sell itself, work wonders for big names like Tiffany's, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton.

This is not to say that a picture, the central focus of all print advertising, cannot itself tell a story. But, the ability to tell and link this type of story to a product as a part of a cohesive marketing strategy can be a difficult thing to do, particularly to relate this story across all aspects of your business model.

The proliferation of online media offers almost endless possibilities for marketing and communications. Yet, focus, clear presentation, and a simple message are critical. Consumers are inundated and thus can grow easily bored. Many good ideas are lost, albeit unintentionally, in an ever-escalating mire of images, words, and concepts. There also is a lot of sloppiness at all levels of marketing and advertising, and a lack of core attention to good writing and consistency of concept. (Word nerds: how many typos a day do you find on commercials and throughout the web?)

Despite all of this advice, the key thing about marketing and communications, of course, is audience. I am a literary person, so adore the idea of narrative marketing for its use of storytelling techniques. Yet, this approach obviously is not appropriate for all audiences.

So, now I ask readers---What draws you to a brand or an advertising concept? An attractive visual or a material incentive (such as a sale)? Are there any brand marketing campaigns that you find particularly memorable? What drew you to them?

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