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?

07 July 2010

The Death of a Poet (and Why You Should Care)

8 July 2010 is the 188th anniversary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

While most people hopefully may encounter at least one of his poems (perhaps
"Ozymandias") over the course of their lives, it remains a question for many adults as to why they should continue to pay attention to the work of a writer like Shelley and literature in general once they get out of school.

To this end, why should anyone in 2010 care about the death of a poet who died almost 200 years ago?

Many stories surround
Shelley's death, largely due to the dramatic and exaggerated account of the poet's body being found with his brains oozing out his ears with a copy of Keats' works in his pocket in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron by Edward James Trelawney (a figure who is nearly as interesting as the poets themselves).

To add dimension to Shelley's story, as any undergraduate level course or book on Romanticism may tell you, he authored at least two poems ["Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude" (1815) and "The Triumph of Life" (1822)] centered around a poet who ultimately meets his death in a boat.

While reading biography into literature is the downfall--and indeed great fear--of many critics, Shelley's works and his life nevertheless have an odd (and often deliberate) parallelism. Some of this biographicalness, if you will, is self-styled authorial fame-seeking (of the famous
Byron portrait in Turkish garb I'm-an-exotic-artist-adventurer-way). But, some of this biography-in-literature, of course, reflects the strange irony by which life frequently imitates art.

For my own interest as a researcher, Shelley's works represent a relatively rare example of self-taught interdisciplinarity in writing. That is, he is a writer who finds unique ways to adapt ideas from other disciplines, in this case, music, into literature with no practical training but sustained exposure as a listener and reader.

To address the question I posed at the beginning, people should care and occasionally try to read a work or two by a dead writer (yes, even a dead British poet like Shelley) due to the odd, enlightening, and frankly fascinating things you can learn, even about writers (like Shakespeare) about whom you've read a million times. So, in short, read out of simple curiosity.

For instance, in March 2010, The Guardian reported that a researcher had unearthened a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont (Shelley's half sister and mother of Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra) that directly contradicted everything else that she had ever written about Shelley and Byron. This newly discovered memoir, written when Claire was an older lady, called Shelley a "monster," partially for his treatment of women. This "revelation" sent many scholars into a tizzy, defending Shelley and all of Claire's previous support of the poet.

For my part, I was fascinated by the continued interest in the Shelley circle and by the fact that it remains possible to read something new about them. That said, I was far from shocked by Claire's accusations, both because she was old when she wrote the document and because it is hardly surprising to learn of an act of misogyny in the 19th century.

In an age where knowledge and language have descended with purpose into ephemerality, multiplicity, and truncation, there suddenly seems room, almost inexhaustibly, for people to rediscover literature, history, philosophy, and good writing. Even while it seems as if the very fabric of language and books themselves is being unravelled. After all, aren't writers the main source of #quotes on Twitter?

The advent of electronic media obviously has created a revolution of substance in terms of archiving and preserving history and literature as well as educating people through the plethora of information now at one's fingertips.

Yet, as I'm sure others have observed, I think that we see a quieter revolution slipping in with the concept of knowledge as direct marketing. In a sense, when we Tweet, post a link, or write in a blog, we're directing people to ideas or something in a targeted fashion because we find it relevant, important, or interesting. This adds purpose to the acts of navigation and reading, among a chaos of information now available in an instant.

In this way, I find blogs, Twitter, and other information resources comforting as I observe old ideas becoming new ideas to someone as he or she reads them again or for the first time. Thus, Shelley's death has the potential to become a significant event for anyone who may not have ever had the chance to read "To a Skylark" or "Ode to the West Wind."

What do you think? Even if you've been exposed to the poetry of this era, how do you think literature remains relevant in an age of social media? Can social media actually improve learning and student learning outcomes in this way?

This is the third in a column appearing regularly about literature and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.