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Staying in touch: Brand storytelling for a changing world
By Caleb

Every generation feels like they’re living through the most pivotal changes in human history, but this time it’s real. Okay, every other generation probably said that too but here we stand amongst global climate change, LGBTQIA+, Me Too, and BLM movements; we’re in the nucleus of a viral pandemic! And we won’t mention that orange guy. These global events have an impact on conversations, culture, and… content. Nowadays, audiences are hypersensitive to social trends. Staying on top of this requires content creators to have a keen sense of relevance. So, to hit our mark with branded entertainment, we first need to master the art of ‘reading the room’.

Modern missteps

Just recently, DC’s Injustice 2 ran an in-game event and, as a way of celebrating LGBTQIA+ culture and marking Pride Month, they challenged players to repeatedly fight Poison Ivy. For those of you who don’t know Batman character profiles (we forgive you), Poison Ivy is a popular bisexual villain. Fans on social media had plenty to say.

This mistake is not something localised to the, now annual, phenomena of Pride Month marketing. There’s the infamous Kendall Jenner x Pepsi collab from 2017 that none of us will forget in a hurry. And, the 2012 “BIC for Her” campaign. Yes, they created pens specifically designed for women. They were pink. They were more expensive. They asked Ellen to give them a shout-out on her show and …. let’s just say, it didn’t go how they’d planned.

You might sideline these marketing missteps as one-offs and think that we would all do better. But surely, there were a lot of people in these boardrooms – signing off each brief, concept, storyboard, script, draft, second draft. And they still made it to air. 

So let’s talk about relevance in entertainment advertising – how do we stay in touch and foster authentic emotional connections with audiences?

The law of candour

Dettol’s latest campaign is an attempt to position their products (specifically sanitiser) as “helping protect what [their consumers] love”.

The UK iteration of Dettol’s “Helping Protect What We Love Since 1933”. Source: Ads of the World.

Commissioned through global ad agency, McCann, it is at the apex of the relevance conversation. Why? Because, as the COVID vaccine rolls out globally, hand sanitisers are no longer flying off the shelves and being hawked for 100 Bitcoin a bottle. So, what did they do? They attached fear to things of value – specifically a family business, judo, and football. These doco-style stories all boil down to one proposition: we (Dettol) protect what you love. 

The problem here is that collective conversations around the global pandemic have shifted towards the idea that freedom is possible, the world will open back up, and we will feel safe again. This doesn’t serve Dettol. They need us to stay scared and stay buying their products by the litre.

Rather than trying to stoke the embers of fear to retain their relevance (i.e. profits and power), they could instead subvert audience expectations and lean in to candour. What if Dettol was to celebrate sales plummeting due to decreased pandemic demand? The refreshing feeling a creative piece like that could generate has the potential to spur a new wave of loyal Dettol customers: consumers who connect with brands that tell it like it is. That would be how you read a room, craft a relevant story and foster genuine emotional engagement.

Join conversations they’re already having

Unless your brand is really leading the charge culturally-speaking (and we would argue that few are), you should stay connected to the conversations that already exist in the zeitgeist. Your ideal customers will have a set of world-views, opinions, pain points, and motivations. Your messaging needs to address that. If BIC considered this back in 2012, I doubt that they would have found women desperately seeking a pen that was designed and priced for dainty hands. 

“BIC for Her” ballpoint pens. Source: Amazon.

Let’s fast forward to 2021 – BIC’s current play is a collaboration with mindfulness app Smiling Mind, “Smiling Mind Creates”. This campaign focuses on bringing together art and mindfulness through the work of three Aussie illustrators – Yan Yan Candy Ng, Emma Leonard, and Ben Sanders.

Sure, mindfulness is in the zeitgeist, and it’s technically a match to the BIC brand considering they make pens. But is it too late? Have they missed the boat on adult colouring-in? And, further than that, will their consumers see through this as a desperate grab for relevance from a manufacturer specialising in cheap plastic products?

Dissolve the faceless brand

Big corporations rarely offer a tangible sense of grounded, grassroots personality. That’s why so many companies seek out relevant personalities to act as brand ambassadors – they’re trying to capitalise on their influence. It’s celebrity endorsement 101 and it’s not going anywhere, but it is pivoting. 

This brings us to Victoria’s Secret’s recent attempt at clawing back to relevance; this time without their male-gaze goggles strapped so tightly to their marking approval process.

The VS Collective – Adut Akech, Amanda de Cadenet, Eileen Gu, Megan Rapinoe, Paloma Elsesser, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Valentina Sampaio. Source: PR Newswire.

The “VS Collective” rebrand is scrapping their well-established “Angels” branding in favour of more progressive ambassadors. Alongside representing the company, they will also act as an advisory board. 

This is all intended as a signal to consumers that they ‘get it’: they’re changing, and they’re no longer in service of the damaging representation of female sexuality that they peddled (and even led) for decades. Sure, they’re following all the rules, but it might be too little, too late.

The constant state of change

The most relatable stories are always the ones that agree with our worldview. Instead of debating with customers about the virtues of your product, these stories find ways of articulating something we already fundamentally agreed with. Better yet, the story makes us feel smarter for thinking that way in the first place. This can only be done when you know who you’re talking to and what they care about.

Ask yourself – what does my audience actually need/desire/care about? Where are their pain points and how are they evolving? We’ve all heard that this modern world is a ‘high-speed’ one, but people often forget that this means everyone’s in a constant state of change and evolution.

Finally, always question your position (and proposition!)

If you’re falling short and grasping at relevance, perhaps your position – or at the very least, your leading proposition – is on its way out. Maintaining brand relevance is all about moving with trends rather than attempting to capitalise on them after the fact. 

But even before that, you need to make sure you actually offer market-fit products. That way, you’re solving problems people actually have. This is far more ideal than inventing new problems you’ll have to spend a lot of marketing $$ convincing people of.

If you consider the actual value and position you hold for consumers, you’ll have a far easier time creating branded entertainment they will respond to. 

To all marketers, creatives and storytellers: good luck out there and stay tuned for more articles like this in the future!

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