Storytelling and ‘The Social Brand’
Those who are familiar with my work will know that I’ve been lucky enough to call myself an ‘Airsider’. I was a member of the Airside studio for nearly 6 years, and in that time I witnessed at first-hand the studio’s unique cross-discipline approach to design.
However, in recent years I’ve noted how Airside’s motion work has seen the studio increasingly looked upon as a storyteller, and I find this label incredibly interesting, since it hints at the growing importance of narrative in design.
A brief look at Airside’s showreel acknowledges the studio’s emergent role as a storyteller; to many of its clients Airside has become something of an interpreter — a translator: using the craft of storytelling to clarify abstract ideas, distill unfathomable data, and in many cases find intrigue and entertainment in even the driest of subjects.
Witnessing the economic climate that’s seen this type of work commissioned, I believe it’s the sudden downturn of the early millennium that’s made storytelling a paramount concern for business. Faced with some of the most competitive markets of the last 50 years, businesses have suddenly realised they need to claim the attribute that defines them, a reason for the public to buy — a story.
Looking over Airside’s work, a great example of this ‘purposeful storytelling’ can be found in Airside’s information film for Vitsœ, keepers of Dieter Rams’s 606 Universal Shelving System, where Airside has condensed 50 years of Vitsœ’s core philosophy: ‘live better, with less, that lasts longer’ into just over 2 minutes.
However, it’s not just Airside who can be found telling stories. Open your Creative Reviews and your Design Weeks and you will see how narrative is pervading design: influencing everything from branding to the next generation of product design — storytelling (and consequently narrative) is seemingly everywhere.
But why? Well, aside from the economics of the recession, I believe the emergence of storytelling is concurrent with the rapid developments surrounding branding and social media, and crucially, how these two fields are becoming increasingly related in the search for ‘engagement’.
The term ‘engagement’ is one of those buzzwords that all too often gets bandied around when a company has little to say. But in the next few years, I think engagement will really come to mean something, as the creative industry re-examines how it engages with an audience that’s undergone a seismic change.
Over ten years into this new century, we’ve all seen how social media has changed our association with information. We’ve been enabled to freely share, comment and create everything and anything conceivable — we’re no longer passive consumers of information. But what social media has also given us is a palatable narrative.
This is by no means a new concept — we’ve always had a narrative. Everybody is the lead in their own personal story. But now the technology exists to capture and document this narrative with frightening efficiency — it has contextualised our existence in a way other people can dip in and out of, perhaps even ‘live’ within. How many of us have experienced someone’s day-to-day routine on Twitter or trawled through an ex’s Facebook account?
Intriguingly, everyone who opts into social media now possesses an extra level of context. Tweets, Flickr streams, status updates — these are all slices of time that go to create what you could call a digital familiar. A virtual you, playing out their life intermittently, one upload at a time.
But we’re not the only ones who are capable of doing this — brands can also exist in this digital space. By adopting the same technology they too can possess a narrative, and like us, they too can become a social entity.
A brand that’s capable of being viewed a social entity is a real sea-change moment for branding. It heralds an era where business can finally exist in the same social channels we occupy, and crucially, interact with us at a ‘human’ level. This is the beginning of a new type of brand — a ‘social brand’ — a curious entity that’s capable of engaging with an audience on a personal level.
I believe this level of engagement will give ‘social brands’ a phenomenal advantage over traditional, more remote, brands because the social narrative that defines this new breed of business also implies humanity — and nothing is more engaging for audience than humanity, even if it doesn’t really exist.
Implied humanity is something that Airside knows only too well, having been in the business of giving abstract things character and life for nearly 15 years.
Airside has given countless brands a face, metaphorically or otherwise, because there’s simply no better way at emotionally engaging a client’s audience than with something human. But humanity doesn’t necessarily begin and end with character, humanity is a sum of many other facets; something as abstract as humour can also convey warmth, since there has to be someone responsible for it.
Airside is well versed in all these techniques, but looking over its lengthly back-catalogue, it’s the notably the Stitches and Meeghoteph that demonstrate how incredibly engaging something can become when given implied humanity.
The Stitches were the woolly offspring of Airside’s Anne Brassier, a campion of all-things woolen. Each Stitch she created was a hand-knitted individual, released into the world with a fully realised personality. Crucially, each Stitch was adopted, never bought.
But as the Stitches entered the wild, Airside began to notice they were writing blogs and apparently traveling the world, as well as engaging in some rather questionable behavior. Online at least, the Stitches were living lives of their own.
Similarly, Meeghoteph’s interactive booth found a similar emotional connection with it’s audience.
Meeghoteph was an ancient alien God, confined to a booth, who visitors could interact with at the Big Chill Festival. However, hidden behind the booth’s curtain you would find an uncomfortable Airsider, operating Meeghoteph with a set of hidden controls.
With this set up, Meeghoteph could engage festival-goers in conversation, and being a festival, Meeghoteph’s booth was privy to some very colourful conversation indeed. But crucially, some of the festival-goers had a very different Meeghoteph experience. Although some saw him as a bit of fun, many saw him as a confidant, a friend or even a shoulder to cry on. As the festival wore on, people begun to bare their soul to the animated character — bizarre when you consider Meeghoteph’s visitors never once saw a human face.
It would seem that humanity, even if it’s implied, is an incredibly effective enabler for audience engagement — and ‘social brands’ inherently understand this. With the idea of ‘humanity’ so highly valued, it was only a matter of time before Facebook and Twitter, networks built around human engagement, realised their worth to ‘social brands’.
If a brand could now possess character, these social giants wanted to be the first services to give them a voice: hastily creating innovations to give them a narrative on their networks, smoothing the way for users to share promoted content.
But as social networks have become stronger, they’ve become more volatile. The very networks that propagated ‘social brands’ now have the ability to destroy them. In fact, it’s a wonder ‘social brands’ have managed to get this far. Since perversely, for image-conscious businesses, social networks are relatively un-policed environments, where brands have little-to-no control over what’s said about them.
This is a sting felt keenly by BP in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, where a slow and inadequate response gave rise to an incredibly popular (175,400 followers and counting) spoof Twitter account, registered to satirise and ultimately condemn the company. Aptly, by making themselves more appear more ‘human’, ‘social brands’ made themselves easier to criticise, even attack.
Ultimately I think it’s this fragility of the ‘social brand’ that will see storytelling emerge a major force in design.
This is because storytelling is as much about controlling narrative as it is about creating it. To some extent this already happens within our existing design work, but as our channels of communication and consumption merge with those from business, storytelling will become the key skill employed to effortlessly intertwine a brand’s narrative with yours.
But this storytelling won’t be restricted to the web or social networking, it will permeate every discipline, anything that faces an audience.
As technology progresses ever further ‘social brands’ will seek to reject unpredictable third-party social networks and occupy the real world in ever more ‘mundane’ ways. They will commission their own interfaces, their own networks, and seek to become an invaluable texture that permeates your life.
In fact, if you look closely you might spot this already happening: television programmes are starting to carry hash-tags; newspapers are becoming ‘interactive’; shoes can tell you how fast and far you’ve run, and broadcasters are asking you to inform the news — it’s storytelling at a micro level.
This is the new landscape I believe the create industry is about to enter: a heavily interconnected world, where the traditional creative disciplines are going to be increasingly intertwined and harder to see. As the voice of business becomes harder and harder to distinguish from your friends and family, I’ll wager that storytelling and narrative manipulation will be found at its core.
Storytelling’s power in design is only beginning to be explored — what that means for the future is for us to find out. However, one thing’s for sure — storytelling’s about to grow up.