A New Era Of Brand Storytelling

Chris WrenAugust 24, 20174974 min

The idea of a branching narrative isn’t new in entertainment. Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s put readers in the hero’s seat and in game-like fashion, allowed them to select from multiple, unique story lines. When the movie Clue went to theatres, it was distributed with multiple endings. But with Netflix’s Puss in Book series from Dreamworks animation, interactive storytelling is taking on new potential by way of the platform.

The storyline finds Puss stuck in a book of fairy tales. To escape, he must master several challenges — and viewers have a say about which ones. Should Puss venture into the world of Sinbad, or Snow White? Should Goldilocks’ bears be friendly, or grumpy?

“I have a six-year-old daughter who talks to these shows all the time,” said Netflix director of product innovation Carla Engelbrecht Fisher during a recent interview with Variety. But while shows like Dora the Explorer or Blue’s Clues encourage viewers to shout out answers, they don’t actually give kids a chance to interact. “It’s a faux two-way conversation,” Fisher said. That’s why she jumped at the chance to build truly interactive TV shows with branched narratives. “We are putting viewers in the driver’s seat,” she said.

In a Rolling Stone interview, Fisher further adds, “Creators have been telling stories in non-linear ways for a long time. If they’re telling stories in different ways, what we’re asking is what kind of stories can Netflix do that no one else can do? We’re not tied to the formats of cable networks; our ecosystem is built entirely for interactive devices.”

Netflix is the first major platform to enable this sort of two-way conversation between audiences and the media they consume. And while it will almost certainly facilitate deeper emotional engagement with a show and its characters, there are also questions and reservations: Will it work with adults? Does a loss of control take away from what the storyteller intended? Will the shared experience of a show be changed when individuals direct outcomes? Obviously, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer, which is as it should be.

But there’s also a deeper conversation about ethics we should expect to see more. Branding Strategy Insider’s very own Geoff Colon debated the issue of screen time and touched on the various tricks and game strategy that’s applied to hook us all a bit more. Tom Goodwin just wrote a smart piece and how our Smartphones are 2017’s version of a Tamagochi. Then, of course, there’s the brilliant TED talk from Google Insider Tristan Harris on the manipulative tricks tech companies use to capture attention. Interactive storytelling is only possible when the audience is hooked. What’s the right amount of hook?

One tech company is diving even deeper into ethical considerations, specializing in ‘emotional AI’ called Affectiva that uses the concept of “reactive narratives” to change storylines based on facial recognition. If the system senses a viewer is interested, it keeps going with the default storyline, if not, it changes the course.

While much of this is still fringe and experimental, we should expect to see some brands take creative approaches to using platforms in new ways. Just as Netflix is innovating with the concept of a show because they aren’t tied to formats of cable networks, how might a brand look to the platform to leverage some degree of interactive story? What kind of brand partnerships might be available between platform (Google, Hulu, etc.) and product? And what kind of partnership makes the most sense given the platform and its unique audience?

As with all innovation, it’s easy to get blinded by the most spectacular attributes and potential, but it’s also possible to start small by incorporating some fundamentals.

Here are some important takeaways for brands:

  • Expect to see more resistance to the endless competition for attention as we become more aware of the tricks being used to keep us captive to our small screens. While simple self-discipline can allow anyone to reclaim their time, for some, self-discipline is not in great supply. Brands should look to balance a mix of purposeful engagement (don’t just monopolize a customer’s time, link activities to lead them to a specific action) and real-life connection through events, experiences, in-store happenings.
  • B2B brands, what if your content did more asking than telling? Instead of (or in addition to) the expected White Paper or eBook, imagine how interactivity could guide critical influencers and decision-makers down pathways through scenarios that made them feel as if the story was changing for them; reacting to their individual needs and circumstances. By threading key variables along a timeline, you may be able to create an experience that shows how their decisions contribute to helping their organization compete to win.
  • There’s great potential for non-profits and social good initiatives to leverage reactive narrative to call attention to important and sometimes controversial issues. By using branched storylines, you may be able to gently guide audiences that might be resistant to a particular point of view, to seeing a new possibility.

The Blake Project Can Help: The Strategic Brand Storytelling Workshop

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