Editor’s note: Brian would like you to play Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place while you read this.
Let’s face it - when marketers use the term “storytelling” these days, what they’re really saying is something more like, “explain product value through relatable examples” or “founder biography” or “explaining the special manufacturing process” and other such company-focused activities. These stories result in “content” and “collateral” and “copy” and “assets”. These are the things that are supposed to set our businesses apart and demonstrate our value. These are important, necessary parts of our business. However, getting this right is now blocking and tackling - it’s a given that you do this as a modern brand.
Unfortunately, blocking and tackling isn’t enough to actually set you apart. Your stories are getting lost in a sea of other brands’ marketing stories. They’re all starting to sound the same “we do things right, and we do things better, and we’re more ethical, and we care more, and we’re more authentic, and we have found a special way of doing things that you can’t get somewhere else”. You’re probably telling all or part of this story right now - and again, no shame. It’s important to make these things clear as the upcoming generation demands these things as table stakes.
In “On Replica Sneakers and the Value of Art” (Insiders #013), I explored how products achieve value. I concluded with “If brands want audiences to value their products they will no doubt benefit by focusing on the quality and craftsmanship of the product, but they’ll find that others will value the product even more if they invest in telling that story. The story connects you to the artist.” Having spent the better part of a year thinking about it, today I’d say this: not only do brands have to create products and craft stories about said products, but they must also craft art for their products to inhabit. Artful brand. Artful website. Artful packaging and a trophy of a product.
Or, perhaps -- craft art, and then craft products to inhabit that art.
All of the above must be done through a self-aware lens of where their product fits in the world. Heady stuff, yeah. But hear me out.
This past Tuesday, Evan Moore of NBC Universal joined us to announce the launch of their universal cart and the deeper connection of content and commerce. Advertisers are soon going to have to get better at what has been known as “product placement”. This seems like a pathetic term for what has been in many cases a weak attempt to insert brands into popularly-consumed entertainment -- an unwanted slide into your DMs. The problem with a lot of product placement is that it disrupts the nature of the story. The marketers on the job tried to make sure they got their money’s worth of airtime and had no idea what role their product should play in the content. It’s easy to dismiss this as soulless and devoid of craft - so let’s look at some examples.
An obvious example of a botched understanding of where your brand fits come to mind - Heineken in Skyfall. When we see James Bond order a beer instead of a martini so that Heineken could get their brand into a James Bond movie, we cringe. This is inconsistent with James’ very nature as a character and we despise him (and Heineken) for that brief moment. Why? It doesn’t add to the story.
Conversely, in Stranger Things when we Eleven and her Eggos, nostalgia floods our minds and we’re charmed into a furthering of a character. Eggos enhance the story - its role endears us to the character and keeps us engaged in the story. It’s used sparingly as a device to remind us she’s a child. It’s brilliant storytelling.
Consider what Square did with the Cash App. It’s next-level. Square managed to work the Cash App into the lyrics of over 200 musical artists. In fact - go do something right now - search Cash App on Spotify. That’s a TON of songs literally named Cash App. Square made the connection between monetary exchanges and the lyrical content of popular hip hop, and therefore they aggressively targeted getting the Cash App into the hands of those musicians and their fans. It was a natural fit and it paid off. If the 2000s were “All About the Benjamins” then the 2020s are all about the Cash App. It’s a perfect product/creator/audience fit.
Skyfall = hotel art. Stranger Things = fine art. Cash App x Dreezy? That’s the Mona Lisa.
The Passion Economy
Sari Azout of Level Ventures recently expounded on thoughts related to the “passion economy” which Li Jin wrote about at a16z. The passion economy is shorthand for everything we hoped that the influencer economy would be - passionate individuals who create mini-empires around that passion. They run the Amazon flywheel model on their own life and create or leverage channels that spin out of the things they love. This typically means spinning up educational content, sponsorships, gated content, branded goods/merch, and all kinds of other monetization opportunities. (For homework, take a look at Yowie.)
A great example of this that I recently learned about is the parkour group Storror. Storror is… insane (just watch Roof Culture Asia). It’s a parkour crew of seven individuals who came together very early in life to make the biggest jumps and sickest flips and film them. They’ve pushed the boundaries of their sport and have turned it into really compelling content, which has attracted quite the following. They’ve turned this following on to a paid content channel, they’ve launched branded gear, they’ve been sponsored, they’ve won competitions, and they’ve done stunt work for blockbuster films. Their own human story and pursuit of their passion keep us engaged.
It’s no mistake that the passion economy is emerging while content is being fused with commerce.
Artists as stewards of corporate culture
My take: we don’t need to tell better stories about brands. We need to create original stories that have a deeper meaning; laced with metaphor and hidden truth, and build products that fit those stories. This isn’t just the “creator stack” - this is a fundamental change in what kind of person leads our more established businesses. It’s time to look to real artists in our midst - the starving and starving at heart - as the next generation of corporate leaders.
In addition to our traditional hiring metrics such as problem-solving, critical thinking, attention to detail, etc, we will need to assess candidates’ potential for recognition of artistic integrity. These people will need to be principled, creative, thoughtful, wise, passionate, and - at minimum have the potential to - understand why Banksy, Charlie XCX, Geoffrey Chaucer, Cormac McCarthy, and the like actually do matter in the world of modern brand-building.
Instead, we have the brand police - people who are dedicated to ensuring the protection of our brand book and adherence to its mandates. Those in these roles often operate in an unofficial capacity as pillars of culture - after all, the Brand is the most important thing. I see this eroding. The emergence of more fluid brand identities for a new era of ephemerality, where the Brand will take a new shape with each passing season and Brand artists will create chameleon-like visuals that force us, the audience, to re-acquaint ourselves again, and again, and again.
To transcend from corporate storytelling to artistry, we must create work with conviction. Brands who do this will have to take risks, but those who succeed will be joined by a chorus of followers who make this story their own.
As new hires gain prominence in our orgs - some of them can just become marketers as we know them now, but those that rise to leadership roles will need to be artists. These artists will tell new stories -- ones that audiences will want to hear.
And we’ll lap it up, stand in applause, and beg for an encore.