By Mono Ghose, writer-filmmaker
For over twelve years, since I started my brand storytelling and film production company, I have been writing scripts for my client's film and video productions, and to date have written over two hundred film and video scripts. I come from both an advertising copywriting and film scriptwriting background, and believe a curated selection of key features from both disciplines can help to create an impactful story that drives consumer action.
Classic advertising copywriting, and for those Mad Men fans out there who will no doubt understand, accurately and quickly pinpoints the brand's core and unique value proposition which is tantamount to building brand identity. Just like in our daily lives we often struggle to find our unique voice and character, brands are no different. And I believe good film script writing should be dramatic and well-structured with memorable characters.
But how do you fit all of this into a 60 second-or-less video, and do you even need to?
A Story First Approach
I believe you need to tell a good story if you want to build a meaningful connection with your audience. Great stories in any form; book, film, social media or game - will captivate the individual and influence them. Subsequently there is a high propensity for them to recommend the story by sharing it within their network and so on.
Companies that successfully manage to tell stories become brands. Regardless of your size, it means that your company, vision and values are in harmony and your message is being relayed to your customers. It is a wonderful achievement which can reap vast rewards, but as we all know from being constantly bombarded from all angles by bad storytelling, it's extremely difficult to achieve – not only for startups but also big brands.
However, once a brand has found its value proposition and is ready to communicate its message using video, I believe it should implement the following tried-and-tested advertising and film storytelling techniques::
Great advertising is succinct, sensitive and persuasive messaging from an informed brand.
Great film writing, amongst many other qualities, practices good pacing, dramatic conflict and develops impactful characters.
Below, I will describe advice I have given to my clients over my writing and directing career. I have worked with large brands like Clarks and O2 - to ambitious high-growth startups like BioCity - all of which can relate to one common thread: impactful storytelling gets results.
1. WHAT A STORY IS NOT
It is important to point out what a story is not when practising brand storytelling - an arena where you may have a minute or less of screen time. It is not an exercise in New Wave social realist cinema, unless that is your aim of course, but the goal is more likely to engage your customer immediately, keep their attention and communicate your message so that they take action.
Action can be a click, a like, a sale or just an appreciative nod to your brand. The above is an extreme example to show you the importance of a story-first approach as opposed to a style-first approach. The truth is, occasionally at the sharp end of commercial filmmaking - that is the kind of ads you may see in the cinema or during the commercial break during the Champions League final - a brand may put style first and it can work. This is however rare and it's typically from brands with giant budgets, and if they are successful, there's more often than not a strong or even subtle campaign proposition underlying the message.
So for the rest of the mere mortal brands wanting to create a more advanced storytelling narrative that elevates their marketing, the tip is to put story-first; start with a blank page and start writing your most compelling brand story.
2. TELL A GREAT STORY
“How do you just write a great story?” I hear you ask. You can hire a qualified writer and brand storyteller, a respected film production company, or a combination of the above. If you have a limited budget on the other hand, or are just ambitious about writing, why not try it yourself?
Whether you are the CEO or the Marketing Director, you know your brand better than any agency or filmmaker. The point of those creative disciplines, is that it is hard to step out of your shoes sometimes and see things for what they are. So for those who want to give it a try, here is an example and tip to help you simplify things: find the most compelling, or funny, or dramatic narrative for your new product or campaign and write it down.
We recently worked together with a new client to achieve this. Our client wanted to create a short video edit using hundreds of social media photos, Instagram posts and data infographics for a promotional video to be used online and for an important presentation the following week. I asked them what their brand was really about and what their best stories were, and the marketing director said they were stories that came from his members who hailed from over 100 countries. I asked if we could get some members to film and send selfie videos of themselves to us, where they would quickly talk about their positive experience with the brand. We edited these into an engaging brand video, creating a cohesive narrative and managed to personalise a potentially impersonal and static film.
Importantly the insight came directly from the client and their customers but it's the writer's job to cultivate and visualise that insight. A brand can do that themselves if they ask the right questions and think of the most impactful content and the most powerful media channel that helps to best execute that insight.
3. THERE IS NO RIGHT LENGTH, ONLY THE RIGHT STORY
Everyone always says to keep the video short. I say keep the message short, but if that message takes longer to communicate and is simultaneously clear and engaging, then let it run its course.
I've seen great brand documentaries, ranging from 5 to 15 minutes long, which have had great success, in terms of both engagement and views. Inversely, you can have 5-15 second pre-roll ads or teasers that are effective in getting a user’s attention and making them act fast. Typically that is to reach for the skip button, but a well devised organically created short format ad, as opposed to a cut-down from a larger commercial, can get results.
The advice here is: unless you are restricted by media broadcast limitations, let the story find it's own format. It's a brave decision, especially when we are told that shorter is better in grabbing people's attention, but storytelling should be brave.
4. ATTENTION, ATTENTION, ATTENTION.
…and as elusive as the Holy Grail. This is where those film screenwriting techniques mentioned earlier can come into play.
In the age of skip and swipe, consumer's attention spans are discerning and a premium battleground for brands to fight out their storytelling supremacy. How many ads have you skipped, or Netflix films you have stopped after a few minutes because the story hasn't kicked in?
In film we call that kick-off or hook the Inciting Incident, e.g. a shark attacks a swimmer in Jaws or the hero's family is murdered in Gladiator. I'm not saying you need anything as dramatic as these, but something clear and decisive needs to happen very quickly. It should be related to your story and theme, and it should get the story moving.
Here is a relevant example from my own work at Mavericks: in an Adidas narrative-driven commercial I wrote and directed the hero, a boxer, loses in the very first scene (the inciting incident) and over the story of the advert must learn to accept his scars and losses in order to understand what victory is really about. (Watch here)
5. SHOUT ABOUT YOUR SUCCESS!
Don't be afraid to tell the world about your successes, just use the right tone. No one likes a show-off.
The amount of companies I have worked with who don't utilise this sleeping giant strikes me every time. I always ask clients for performance data for their products, services and market research. There are always treasures to be found, and it's about picking the right one to talk about. It should be relevant and fit the narrative of the video.
For example, if you're launching a new product or service on LinkedIn but actually the data shows a spike in sales to millennials through Instagram, you could try to build your brand story on top of this success by developing a well-written branded narrative set in the world of millennials or centred around a relevant influencer. In 2019, brands and agencies will be taking a more omni-channel approach to advertising, because sometimes the most effective channels are the ones we didn’t expect. So be prepared to read the data, react fast and be flexible.
This is something I implemented recently for my client, the global shoe company Clarks, where data showed growth within a new vertical and we pivoted our strategy to incorporate a few new images and videos of influencers wearing their shoes in the right setting - the success was immediate, impactful and has helped to establish a foothold (pardon the pun) within a new market.
So, even though some successes may seem like old news to you, tonally irrelevant or you've just totally forgotten about it, look for the wins in the vault, you might be sitting on a goldmine.
THE LAST ACT
Once you have your story to tell, you are in a really strong position to make it come alive.
The legendary Japanese writer and director Akira Kurosawa said, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece...but with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.”
So now you are ready to hire a good director, a great editor, licence some incredible music and watch your story come alive! It's a wonderful feeling when you finally see those studiously crafted words come to life, and an even better feeling when your customers watch your video, leave positive comments about your brand and engage with it like never before.
It's the result of persuasive messaging and impactful storytelling; a hallmark of the most successful videos and brands who put story-first.
By Mono Ghose, writer & filmmaker