Monday, 13 July 2015

My Luncheon with the Houston iMA

Last Thursday, I attended a luncheon hosted by the Houston iMA on Brand Narrative Architecture. The speakers were Daniel Cohen and Michele Price, both avid story tellers and marketing strategists. I attended this luncheon hoping I would learn something that would help me with my day-to-day copywriting struggles. Lucky for me, I learned a lot! Equally lucky for you, I'm going to share some of what they taught me!

Their presentation, "The Story on Stories", started with a brief run-through of a few people who got the ball rolling on storytelling and how humans tell stories both with language and symbols. The first was Sir Richard Paget, a man who was interested in the science and origin of speech. Mr. Cohen had everyone say aloud a series of words like:




He then posed the question, "What happens to your mouth when you make the 'st' sound?" I looked around and saw everyone, myself included, repeating the sound quietly to themselves with a quizzical look on their faces. We realized that as we made those sounds, our teeth touched and our lips pursed out, elongated the shape of our mouths. Mr. Cohen pointed out that our mouths stretched to become longer, much like the words we were saying. Stream, strike, stride, they all meant something long. For example, to stride means to take a bigger step; physically the action is longer, just as your mouth's action to produce the word. He then pointed out that much of the English language works this way. Words tend to represent the sounds it takes to make them. (A rather interesting idea if you ask me!)

We moved from here to talking about the 3 barriers of communication:

Language as reality 

Language as hierarchy 

Language as perfection

Which all boiled down to the human's constant struggle to find the right words to convey a message. As any copywriter knows, this can be rather frustrating. So then, how do we tell a story that will convey our message? Well, there are a few tools to help. There's the "Dramatistic Pentad", which is just a fancier way of breaking down your who, what, when, where, and why.

I would go into more detail about this but I want to get to the meat of this story and that story's arches, which no one could explain better than Kurt Vonnegut.

Many of you have probably seen this at least once, but sometimes a refresher course is necessary. Vonnegut has such a great, simple way of explaining exactly what people are looking for in a story.

At this point in the presentation, we began analyzing major ads that were complete busts and why. We compared each of the flop commercials to where they lay on Vonnegut's 'Shapes of Stories' chart and how strong their call to action was.

First Study: Nissan 

As far as the story arch goes, it's not terrible. He starts off in a tough(ish) situation, gets a cool car, picks up a girl, and rides off into the sunset. Sounds like a pretty great day, right? The main reason this ad was not successful is because of the lack of call to action. The company's logo is only presented once for almost 3 seconds at the very end. There was ample opportunity throughout the :60 commercial to include it in at least one other place (see below) but, for some unknown reason, Nissan thought it best to just throw it in there at the end. This commercial was so unsuccessful that all of their competitors saw a rise in market share and Nissan saw a fall.

Second Study: BMW 

This commercial showed a serious lack in storytelling. If you refer to the chart, the driver started out in the good fortune and wealth area and, by the end, had only seen a slight increase in happiness thanks to his fresh cup of coffee. Essentially, there was no story here. The call to action wasn't all that impressive either. Though their storytelling hasn't improved much, BMW has at least started adding a little humor to their ads. 

So what can we take from this? No matter how much time you have to tell your story in, at least tell on! Map it out in advance, determine your plot lines, and make sure that by the end of it, something has changed (bigger than your character getting a cup of coffee). Finally, make sure that your story has calls to action in the right places, not just thrown in at the end like an afterthought. Here are some commercials I think did a really great job at both telling a story and sending a message:

 Let's break this down real quick. Story arch: Normal, yet attractive, man is just about to shower when all of a sudden he's on a fancy boat, holding concert tickets, then flush with diamonds mounted on a white steed. Whew! That's quite a jump from where we started. BRB, buying Old Spice.

This commercial is just flat out hilarious. First, we see our character and we have no idea where this commercial is going. Is the commercial for Viagra? Gelato? Perfume? No. It's a commercial for the new pumped up Fiat. In my opinion, the call to action is so perfectly timed, it couldn't have been done better. 

The story here is clearly perfect; in one minute, we see an entire journey! But the call to action? That's a little more subtle. Budweiser has been employing a "Best Buds" theme in their marketing efforts for some time now.  Though we don't see the Budweiser logo anywhere else in the commercial, the theme is represented by the horse and puppy duo. Because of its intriguing story, the logo or product name doesn't have to show up every 10 seconds, ultimately giving it a stronger call to action.  

So, what do you think about all of this? What's your favorite story arch to use? What challenges do you face as a copywriter? Tell me in the comments below or tweet them to us @Swagger_Media! 

P.S. I happened to be the lucky winner of a ticket to the HiMA Interactive Strategies Conference in August, so be expecting a nice juicy blog post after that as well! 

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