Use the Force: The End of the Key Message?

Published: 14 July 2014

With multiple platforms and multiple audiences, we need to get smarter about narrative.

Higher Education has been getting in on the act, with bus banners around London in recent months inviting us into the cutthroat office of Phil, a buffoonish corporate cliché.

Once upon a time this job was (apparently) easy. You’d come up with some key messages, put them in a press release and briefing pack, and sit back as the glowing coverage and confident broadcast appearances stacked up. But times have changed and I’m sorry to report that the twilight of the key message may be upon us. Yes folks, it’s time to say goodbye to those ‘lines to take’.

In this multi-platform age, fragmented audience groups access information from a variety of curated and freeform sources. Few reputations are going to be served by regularly parroting a few quality indicators. At the very least, they will quickly get boring, and at worst they will not survive contact with social media. Instead, today’s reputations need to be forged in the fires of ‘immersive narrative’.

The immersive narrative concept (or transmedia) is based around the idea of a single story experience being told across multiple platforms, with points of interaction empowering audiences to play an active co-authorship role. The idea is that storytelling engages audiences at a level more profound than when simply projecting a bank of information. Few of us can remember all of the facts and figures we were taught at school, but everyone can easily recall the plot of a favourite childhood film.
Take Star Wars.

Back in 1977 rebellious young film maker George Lucas came up with a rip-roaring yarn about a boy from a space farm heading off to rescue a princess and destroy a terrifying space station. By the time JJ Abrahm’s new instalment opens next year, this simple story will have been advanced by millions of fans interacting with computer games, action figures, comic books, cartoons, novels, wiki sites, Lego bricks and so many other spin outs. The active audience engagement and reputational equity generated by the Star Wars IP is hard to value, but Disney did when the bought the property for £2.5bn in 2012.

So what is it about Star Wars that has resonated with audiences to such value over so many years? And are there principles we can apply to corporate communications that don’t involve lightsabers and Death Stars?
I think there are three key elements to think about. First, world-building. Part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars is the variety of settings and the richness in which the overall universe is realised. Who wouldn’t like to go for a drink in the Mos Eisley Cantina or sit in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon? Second, characters. Star Wars has a rich mix of heroes and villains we feel compelled to either root for or hiss at. Any narrative with a Han Solo and Darth Vader is bound to resonate. Finally, a simple plot. The rag tag crew of good guys are darting around the galaxy thwarting the plans of the baddies , leaving a trail ofredemption and good deeds.

All well and good for genre entertainment franchises, but surely these principles can’t be applied to more sedate corporate environments? Well more and more companies are finding that they can.

Ad breaks across last weekend’s TV regularly featured this spot from mobile phone operator 3. Now, while it’s not quite the sandy dunes of Tatooine, there is some small scale world building going on here. In just under a minute 3 are taking us into a heightened version of our own world, where sheepish corporations face up to embarrassing revelations as a hedonistic populous has fun in the sun. We’ve got a compelling, potentially sympathetic, character in the shape of the exasperated spokesman who’s been pushed in front of the camera. And we’ve got the beginnings of a plot, as the embattled corporation attempts to reign in the fury of selfies it has unwittingly unleashed.

This alone would be a very clever advert, but the full scope of the narrative becomes apparent with a dig around the web. There’s the crisis centre microsite, where we can access the travel selfie disorder brochure. There’s the #holidayspam twitter feed, inviting us to contribute pictures and ideas. And there are of course more videos, developing the plot and giving us more of an insight into 3’s hapless talking head.

All to promote a new data plan for international calls.

Higher Education has been getting in on the act, with bus banners around London in recent months inviting us into the cutthroat office of Phil, a buffoonish corporate cliché. Of course, we might want to check out the courses on offer at the London School of Business and Finance while we’re there. And who can forget Bear and Bunny, the whimsical cartoon characters who took to TV, Twitter, and the high street last year to get us to buy Christmas presents from John Lewis.

These are still early days for immersive narrative and there are many contexts in which the concept still needs to be tested. For instance, can we apply story-telling principles in a B2B setting? Will narrative devices cut the ice in a crisis situation? And is it possible to build reputations with characters with which it is hard to sympathise?

There is no doubt though that communications professionals need to explore ways of developing deeper relationships with all types of audience. Effective storytelling is an exciting New Hope.

Mark Fuller
Associate Director

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