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Life is a story - The power of experiential storytelling

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Humans need storytelling. Starting with the first cave paintings and carvings that told the stories of hunting and gathering; myths and legends that united people into societies; the invention of the written word, manuscripts and the printing press.

We now find ourselves immersed in a multitude of competing narratives across diverse platforms from theatre, music, film, TV, comics, video games and the internet. That’s not to mention the steady growth of the advertising world creating stories that resonate with an audience.

The power of those stories to educate, enchant, seduce and bring us together has been a constant through centuries of development of the stories’ delivery and share mechanic. The story comes first – the mechanic second.

At a time when a strong narrative and story has become more important than simple facts and expert opinion when selling ideas, we need to focus on crafting powerful stories for our audiences. Within the political realm, we have always witnessed the power of the slogan in elections – and increasingly it is that simple short story that creates an emotive connection with the voting public. Which story is more persuasive? “Britain deserves better” vs “You can only be sure with the Conservatives”; “Yes we can” vs “Country first”. “Make America great again” vs “Stronger together”; “Get Brexit done” vs “It’s time for real change”. The best story wins every time.

Brands that tell stories create strong emotional ties with their audience. Look at the John Lewis Christmas ad. Around 10 years ago they decided to tell a simple heart-warming story each Christmas. It didn’t need to feature any products, it didn’t need to promote an offer or service, or respond to competitors’ efforts. A simple tale, beautifully presented. Win the hearts, and the minds will follow. This is why Coca Cola reinvented Father Christmas, and why the launch of the John Lewis advert continues to mark the beginning of Christmas in the UK. It has become a tradition.

But this all started decades ago. Following the wonderfully persuasive stories behind Victorian miracle cures and fantastical inventions, marketing and advertising gradually moved towards the sophisticated delivery of fulfilling people’s dreams. Then, when TV arrived in the majority of households, the Mad Men could focus on the TV advert – a mini-movie with a high production value that created a moment of fantasy and escape for the audience. The perfect storytelling vehicle.

That was pretty much it for the last 50 years, as brand stories lived visually via billboards and mini-films. 

Then technology opened up more opportunities – ones that involved the audience, immersing and interacting with them. Video games, internet-based stories and finally VR and AR have led to true escapist opportunities.

Alongside this progress above the line in brand experience, we, as live storytellers, have been looking at turning events into true experiences, combining physical with digital, and amplifying across multiple media. Inspired initially by museums, who in the 90s discovered that they didn’t need a collection to tell a story and pushed the boundaries of immersive storytelling. Then by retail, who realised that their bricks and mortar spaces could be used to entertain rather than just sell – Niketown was an early example. And theatre, which has always been immersive (since the days of “he’s behind you” at the pantomime), now uses technology to transport the audience into the story. 

So, why is this storytelling aspect important for brands? It enables them to tell their stories in increasingly involving and dynamic ways. It also allows them to connect with macro global trends and stories in authentic and impactful ways. Immersive theatre enables us to take people to new places, to inhabit other characters, see through different eyes and to feel the sensory experience of unique moments. The emotional power at the fingertips of brands is incredible.

And why is it important for brands to have a story and to tell stories? We are drawn to stories if we believe in them. In a way, TED talks are about the art of telling a story – and there is, of course, The Moth community which invites anyone to get up in front of an audience and tell a story – a personal one. I fondly recall the famous serial TV ads for Gold Blend and Renault in the 80s and 90s, which developed characters and a narrative arc over each instalment. We cared about these fictional characters, and just as John Lewis discovers each Christmas, caring leads to a feeling of warmth towards the brand.

It has been suggested that there are actually just seven story types or scenarios which cover every story ever created. This means that the audience understands the expectations of the story, something that’s key for brand messaging purposes. There needs to be a coherence in the tale told – a structure. We need a beginning, middle and end. We crave a twist or denouement, or a satisfactory conclusion. We love to have our expectations challenged, but do not like to be left bemused or feeling that we missed something. It is critical for brands to understand the life story of the audience too, as they are telling stories that need to resonate with their beliefs. Brands need to connect and become part of the wider conversation, part of the lives of their potential consumers. They need to give something meaningful beyond a product or service and stand for something. There is a true art to this kind of storytelling.

This is where tapping into the diverse opportunities offered by technology enables brands to create communities, fans and believers. To expand the story to a global audience, well beyond the boundaries of a live experience. Technology enables us to literally project a vision into the minds and hearts of the audience, and the memorable story will mean the experience is shared.

Don’t think for one minute that “it’s all about technology” though! At Avantgarde the thing that gets us up each morning is coming up with new stories and then ways to tell them. This is always at the heart of what we do. It’s about creating narrative-based experiences – emotive, powerful and unforgettable moments that together create a memorable story that’s talked about, shared and remembered beyond an initial Instagram post. 

Things get really interesting when it is not a passive experience, but instead an actively engaging one. A story that interacts and blurs the line between performer and audience, stage and auditorium. Look at the likes of Punch Drunk and Secret Cinema, along with You Me Bum Bum Train, Boomtown, Shangri La at Glastonbury and Burning Man, for visceral inspiration. These are REAL experiences. 

One thing that comes through embracing this theatrical approach to storytelling is we suddenly realise that we have been chasing the technological rabbit down the hole for so long now, that just maybe we’ll see a new Luddite revolution – a blood, sweat and tears movement – the call for spit and sawdust, creaks, flickering lights, half-heard whispers. The unexpected, uncertainty and the uncanny… but that’s a whole other story.

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Steve Austen-Brown is Creative Director at Avantgarde London, where he has worked since 2010. He originally trained as an architect and has always been fascinated by strong narratives and stories that define the consumer journey. He believes that a simple premise, however unexpected, always leads to an involving and memorable experience.

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