Malcolm Poynton, European Chief Creative Officer and Nigel Vaz, Senior Vice President and European Managing Director at SapientNitro, explain ‘storyscaping’ – a new and participatory method of creating environments where consumers can engage with brands
At the heart of all communication lies the story. The human mind is hardwired to respond to those archetypal narrative structures which help us make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and our role within it.
Advertising and brand communication is no different, but the technology which underpins it, and the way we think about the people telling us those stories, have changed dramatically in the last decade. For most of the twentieth century, this was a closed, controlled, one-to-many relationship. Now, say Malcolm Poynton and Nigel Vaz at SapientNitro, that process needs to be rethought so that it’s more participatory and communal. ‘Storyscaping’ is their term for this aproach. So how do they define the concept and how does it differ from what we think of as conventional brand storytelling?
The end of the full-stop
“The notion of connecting brands to consumers has turned storytelling into a refined art,” says Poynton. “And I’m talking here about telling a complete story in 30 seconds, with a full-stop at the end. That, essentially, is what storyscaping challenges. It says, look, our world now has this incredible landscape which includes both the physical and the virtual spaces where we live. Any story now needs to be ‘scaped’ across all of those spaces and places where people engage, enabling them to move in and out of the narrative itself.
“What it shouldn’t be is something which I almost think of as ‘story-yelling’: Here it is! Do this! At the heart of storyscaping lies a very simple idea, and that’s to replace the full-stop with the comma. Because the story should run across – and around – all those physical, emotional and virtual spaces where we interact.”
“There’s an interesting parallel here with how consumers view television now,” says Nigel Vaz. “New TV technology is about getting people as close as possible to the emotion – getting people to feel as if they’re participating rather than just watching. Television technology now asks you to lean forward and participate. Storyscaping operates according to a similar idea. Think of all the investment in 3D viewing technology in movies – it’s about giving you a fully-rounded view. Storytelling provides a very one dimensional view. As the name suggests, it’s about someone telling you something, while you sit there and listen. Storyscaping is an idea about participation, involvement, engagement. If I were to summarise it, I’d say it’s about bringing the story to life. You’re in the story, participating with it, as opposed to sitting back and being told something.”
“I don’t know if you recall the last episode of ‘Lost’,” says Poynton. “But there they asked people to contribute socially throughout the season to give the writers a steer on the plot. We can all provide ratings and reviews online now. We can all contribute our own video and images to a brand’s story. All of that stuff is content which is not contained in that highly refined, 30-second segment associated with twentieth century brand advertising. We live now in a different world.”
Breaking the deal
So, the notion of being immersed in – in some cases even inhabiting – a story is key. “The word ‘storyscaping’,” says Vaz, “is inspired, not surprisingly, by landscaping, which is an artform designed around the participation of somebody within a physical space – you feel the different textures and so on; you interact with it. To return to advertising, that’s something which is very difficult to convey within 30 seconds. It’s hard for me to tell you my whole story in that time. And conventionally, at the end of that 30-second spot there’s a full-stop and either you heard me or you didn’t.”
Underpinning this change, points out Poynton, are the different ways which we, as consumers, now engage with devices.
“Here’s an interesting point,” he says. “If you grew up in the 1980s, think of the first time you saw a video game on a TV screen – ‘Pong’ or whatever it was. For my generation, that was one of the first instances where a TV was no longer a TV. And now that we have the red button, now that we can timeshift and fastforward – what’s happened is that, by choice, a lot of people have broken their deal with television. Previously, that relationship was based round the idea that you, the brand, can tell me, the consumer, something, and in return I get my fix of entertainment. Again, that’s not really a world we really live in anymore.
“To pick up on Nigel’s point about interactivity – now when you’re out in the world with your mobile devices, that previously passive relationship with TV becomes an experience with a brand. Anytime you contribute a video or a post, you’re contributing to the story of that brand. That helps stretch it and take it in a different direction. Perhaps, like ‘Lost’, it even changes that story. And that’s the point at which it becomes much more rich and participatory.”
“Think of point-of-view filming,” says Vaz. “Remember ‘The Blair Witch Project’? It was the POV which made that film so striking and different. You’re more than an observer. You’re in it. The point with storyscaping is – and to use the landscape analogy again – you’re in it. This isn’t just a story about you. It’s a story about you and something else, however that may emerge and whatever the form of interaction may be. Think of the BA ad during the London 2012 Olympics where the airplane went down your street. That was a brilliant idea, quite simple to achieve, and it puts you right in the middle of the BA story.”
Benefits for brands
A conceptually rich approach to communication though this may well be, but what are the tangible benefits to brands? What can storyscaping prompt or elicit in users which more traditional approaches can’t?
“Well,” says Poynton, “as I say, we’re all used to those 30-second TV spots. Now, consider a brand which then takes its shop or service online. On the one hand I’m getting all those TV messages about a brand which appeal to my emotional sense. Think of a bank and those big, emotional stories they tell in 30 seconds. Then I log-on to that bank’s website and it feels like a totally vanilla, transactional site. I wouldn’t know it was the same brand that was appealing to my emotions via TV. I have one experience of my bank on TV. I have a different experience in the branch and I have another one online. And in the case of a bank, where I might very rarely actually visit the branch, it’s the experience online which is really shaping my conception of the brand. So, these things need to be connected – igniting and engaging people in the story, through an organising idea which illustrates and illuminates what a brand is in an entertaining way.”
So what might that mean in practice? Poynton and Vaz sketch out the following scenario, which reflects their own work on Foot Locker’s sneakerphile community site, Sneakerpedia. (Read our full feature on that project here.)
First comes the viral video – a piece of content which ends with that seductive comma, inviting users to share. The story’s picked up on social media platforms where it might be gamified and then pushed out to the social graph. That results in the birth of a social community who in turn help guide and shape the brand’s story.
“What’s happening there,” says Poynton, “is people are coming to the brand and participating. And to create that storyscape might cost less than three 30-second ads over the course of a year. There’s an upside in revenue, but it also allows a brand to identify trends, respond to those trends with new products and see how different markets operate. It makes a business much more efficient, but it also provides a much more rewarding experience for the consumer, who is, after all, actually helping create that story.”
Article by Jon Fortgang