Mind the gap: creating a need for stories in content marketing



It’s possibly the most famous headline in advertising. And it’s not without irony that such a succinct summary of one particular VW’s story has spawned almost as many words of deconstructive analysis as Hamlet. But last week, for me, this ad was placed in a new context.  One that gave it a sharp and zesty refresh.

On Thursday 5th Feb, Brand Republic hosted an insightful half day session titled Telling Your Brand’s Story Through Content. The opening speaker was John Yorke, Managing Director of Company Pictures and former Head of Drama at the BBC and Channel 4.  Having written or commissioned TV classics as diverse as EastEnders, Skins, Shameless and Wolf Hall, it’s fair to say John knows a fair bit about spinning a yarn, and last year he condensed his wisdom into a fascinating read on stories and why we tell them – his book Into The Woods.  In his talk at the Brand Republic Session, John bravely and successfully distilled Into the Woods and pretty much his every waking thought on the history and purpose of storytelling into 35 minutes. And you thought Lemon was concise? Pah. Waffling in comparison.

In that 35 minute fly-past John covered story archetypes, their ingredients, Hollywood’s three act structure, Hegelian dialectics and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal fountain.  Along the way he also touched on the VW/DDB lemon ad and how it functions.  He didn’t trudge over the usual ground of its convention-busting negative headline, or the bravery of acknowledging a perceived weakness.  He concentrated more on the immediate cognitive impact of the word and picture juxtaposition, and how the dissonance between them is instantly processed by the human brain. Specifically, he spoke of how the ad takes advantage of the Kuleshov effect, otherwise known as the law of associative coherence.  That’s the brain’s default way of interpreting two seemingly unconnected things – to assume a connection and attempt to infer meaning. Or, crucially, to search for the story that connects one thing with the other.

In other words, we humans are hardwired to process and understand the world through stories.  We use them to impose order on an otherwise random eruption of events, images and actions. Our brains are creating stories every minute of every day in order to understand what’s going on around us. And without those stories, we just can’t function. So, if stories are such an essential component of our psyche, cognitive neurology and culture, it would seem a pretty good idea to use them in marketing wouldn’t it?

Once you embrace that realisation that audiences want and need a story, its impact on our selection of marketing channels becomes highly significant. It makes content marketing potentially the most potent of the marketer's weapons, unrestrained as it is from the restrictions of paid media timeslots and platforms. It's a liberatingly creative discipline in which to tell stories, or at least in which to create the story-gap that the audience wants to fill. Lemon is a great example of the thinking applied to one of the most restrictive of traditional media - press.  And if the story-gap even works there it’s reasonable to assume an even more powerful effect of audience engagement when the approach is transposed to a multi sensory medium like online video. But in an age where the captive audience is increasingly a thing of the past, a decent story and an understanding of how to tell it are now just an entry level requirement for any brand seeking to attract and grip an audience.

That’s especially the case on platforms like YouTube.  Our Creative Director for Content, Jim de Zoete, blogged last week about the importance of dramatic openings in the online space, where a plethora of tempting distractions are merely a click away. You have to grab your audience by the throat in about 3 seconds.  In the case of our Hyundai work, our opening frames present a man lying flat out on the ground, with a man and a boy standing over him, looking panicked, with the boy saying the line ‘You’re going to prison’. It’s a scene that immediately creates dissonance for the audience: "Er, why’s this film about a car starting with a decked man and talk of prison?".  It then tempts the audience to infer meaning: "Oh, maybe they’ve knocked him out". And ultimately opens a story-gap we’re desperate to fill: "I wonder how and why they did that?”.  All that occurs within the time-frame of a few pulses from a synapse or six (or something medical like that anyway), and Bob’s yer uncle, the audience is hooked, evidenced in Hyundai’s case by TrueView completion rates of over 60% versus industry averages of below 16%.

So, creating the gap works. To do it successfully, try my magic story-gap-creating formula: Perceived Dissonance + Law of Associative Coherence = Tell Me a Story Please, Mr Marketing.  It worked for VW back in 1960. It’s working for Hyundai in 2015.  Though I’m just hoping that my formula isn’t applied universally. The world doesn’t need too many Dadaist opening scenes or Dali-esque dreamscapes introducing content for everything from a pint of Guinness to a tub of Ronseal.  Why not send me your weirdest suggestions for an arresting opening image or scene? The winner receives a lemon. And a restraining order.

Michael Reeves, Business Development Director, Content.