Is corporate America hijacking real storytelling?
One of the benefits of living and working in a city like Minneapolis, is the quality of storytelling that lives here. Specifically, the quality of video storytelling in Minneapolis is among the best in the country. Television news photojournalists in this media market are routinely recognized as some of the best in the nation. Having worked in the Twin Cities
media and alongside nationally recognized photojournalists, I can tell you there is a standard that lives in this market that is not seen in every city in America. Consequently, inherent in many Minneapolis video production companies is a benchmark that remains consistent with the media market. Lately, businesses and organizations have been talking about their "stories," or their narrative. These are nice sounding terms that seem like they're taking more of a storytelling approach to their work, but are they?
A commercial for a pharmaceutical product shows a "story" of a family living a wonderfully cozy life before introducing their drug and all of the disclaimers. They suggest following more "stories" on their website. Is this real storytelling? Somehow, this doesn't conjure up the same images as grandpa sitting at the kitchen table telling you about what it was like to raise a family during the depression. It certainly does not qualify as the type of story that will win a reporter, producer and photojournalist an Emmy or Peabody award, does it? In truth, it's still a commercial only with a different angle.
One of the beautiful qualities of this age of digital communications is the emphasis on truth and reality. There is too much information online to pull the wool over the eyes of anyone and there is more emphasis on what is true than ever before. What's more, we as consumers care more about what's real than what is fake (ie. commercials). This is where real storytelling can play an increasingly important role in the marketing and communication of a business story. Instead, old school marketing and communications professionals can not get out of their own way when it comes to their work. Rather than letting a real story communicate its message, the typical marcomm employee or executive smudges up the story with their dirty corporate finger prints in the form of branding, marketing and signage. Too risky? How would they know? It's not being tried and the thought of letting go of old habits is unconscionable! What's worse is these "close to the vest" practices are being passed on to future generations of marketers who intrinsically know better.
Recently McDonald's produced a series of stories about their suppliers that are beautiful and poignant. They are shot impeccably, they are dramatic and wonderful right up to the end, when the company just couldn't keep its marketing and branding finger prints off the work. Forget the fact that the videos live on a branded McDonald's channel and are probably used in McDonald's campaigns. They just couldn't resist commercializing a story that communicated its message so perfectly right up until they had to remind the viewer who they were. By the way, the potato supplier video has more than 23 million views! I can only imagine what it might have if it didn't have the french fries shot and the jingle at the end.
Coca-Cola did a similar thing with it's Let's Go Crazy video that recently hit YouTube. Again, they have you going as the viewer right up until the end. They can't leave well enough alone and have to remind you that they are who they are. One of the top comments says, "I enjoyed it until the very end when everyone suddenly started drinking Coke for no reason." Right on.
I commend both companies for stepping out and trying something different, but what would be really different if someone had the guts to stop and say, "because we produced this, it's a reflection of what we believe and who we are," and leave it at that. If you like that and identify with the message and cause, so be it.
We, the consumers, will have the final word on what messages we choose to believe and identify with. Some of us were raised in a time to pay attention to advertisements and outbound messages, but through online search we are realizing we have a choice and will search for the products and services that interest us. We will align with the brands that speak to us in authentic ways and answer questions, solve problems and help us live the life we want to live. Does that mean commercial advertising is going away? Of course not, but isn't it time to look at a fresh model for reaching an audience? If not, let's agree to call commercials, commercials and let storytelling stay closer to grandpa at the kitchen table than with the suits on Wall Street.
Ed Heil is the owner and president of StoryTeller Media & Communications an inbound marketing and public relations agency and video production company based in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Ed blogs on topics related to inbound marketing, social media, media relations, news media, video production and crisis communications.