As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time asking my clients and students, “How did your main character manage to do X?” or, “Why did your character choose to do Y?”—not because I enjoy asking questions but because they are necessary to building an engaging story. Unfortunately, many creative campaigns make it into your living room before anyone thinks to ask these essential questions. We ask questions and tell stories to share how and why life changes; your brand storytelling is no different.
People like it when a story moves from point A to point B. We are constantly asking questions while engaged with a story. If your friend said, “I went to Subway for lunch today,” you wouldn’t ask any questions because a statement is not a story. But if they breathlessly relived the moment they were in line at Subway and Tom Cruise walked in, you would immediately have a rush of questions: Why was he at a Subway? What did he order? How did he look? Did anyone else see him? The answers to these questions narrow the possibilities—He’s filming Mission Impossible 46; he ordered a veggie sub; he looked like someone who never ages.
With each question answered, another possibility is shut down. Your job as a storyteller is to fulfill the audience’s desire and provide an answer that makes sense. Whatever the question, the answer rejects all the other potential scenarios. The “how” and “why” are the hook to pull you through a story.
The “Once upon a time” structure is a great example of how to hook an audience and move through a story. It’s not just for kids; it works for all storytelling. Here’s how it works: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___,” and so on.
Pixar has used it in their storytelling to great acclaim, but it has been around for thousands of years. Why? Because that’s how our brains are wired, to accept and be excited by this formula of change—so much so that we expect it in a story even if we can’t express it.
Image attribution: Ben White
Choice and change is how a story moves. Each choice shuts out another one, which leads to a turning point for the character—will they choose A or B?
HP’s recent ad “Little Moments” is a great example of how good brand storytelling works and, in turn, can move an emotion from negative to positive. It features a dad sending his preteen daughter off to school. It’s honest and explores the terrible awkward phase parents and children go through during the dreaded tween and teen years. But what makes it unique is how it explores the eternal questions of this familial dynamic:
It’s a very careful dance, as specific as it is universal. “Little Moments” takes a series of very typical scenes and builds them carefully. As AdWeek‘s Angela Natividad explains in her “Ad of the Day” review, the ad “is a study in tiny cuts, the subtle ways a daughter demarcates her separation from the man she is closest to.”
For the first couple of minutes, we think we know this story by heart (because we do)—it’s the first day of school and a child has outgrown her parents and is embarrassed by showing emotion.
How does the daughter show she’s annoyed? By physically distancing herself as much as possible. We see it from the moment her dad wakes her up, when she brushes past him. Then, in the bathroom as she’s drying her hair, Dad walks in, and she rolls her eyes and leaves the room. When Mom bravely pushes them together for the ever-popular first day of school photo and takes their picture, the daughter slips out from under his arm as soon as she can. Every expression on her face asks the eternal teenage question: “Why are you putting me through this?”
And, at the same time, in a series of small moments and gestures, we see how her dad shows he loves her—from being present the moment she wakes up to giving her space (though his disappointed expressions may show otherwise). He takes every slight on the chin and, risking destruction on the morning minefield, he bravely reaches out by printing out their photo and sneakily slipping it into her lunchbox.
Next, we get to see her out in the world—at school. A sign announces “Welcome Back 6th Grade!” and the viewer has the all-important “Why is she ignoring him?” answered: She’s a sixth grader, not a kid, not yet a teenager. At lunch with her friends in the cafeteria, she opens her lunchbox, sees the tiny photo, and quickly hides it again under her sandwich. Why? Because she’s embarrassed and doesn’t want her friends to see it. She’s past the kid-phase when your parents are your world.
Home at the end of the day, his daughter still not having much time for him, Dad slips into his kids’ room to return a toy. He takes a moment, most likely contemplating, “How can I connect to my daughter?” or “Why am I being treated like a pariah?” and lies down on her bunk bed. He looks up to see a collage of photos she has taped to the bottom of the upper bunk—just the two of them over the years, including the dreaded first day of school photos. This is where all of the negative emotions reverse into positives: She is ignoring him, but she still loves him. The photo collage is a lovely matching “secret” gesture to his sneaking the photo into her lunchbox. It answers the overarching question of the entire ad: How can parents show love as their children get older? The answer is in the photos. Dad has an emotional moment communicating with this daughter via the photos and her careful curation of their story. It’s a moving moment. The ad is clever in that it builds into our expectations of being let down and, just when you think all the “hows” and “whys” are answered and you can’t see another ending, it turns into a beautiful emotional moment.
Ultimately, it’s an ad for the HP Sprocket, a tiny printer that prints photos from your smartphone, but where the product is placed (and when) is barely perceptible. It effectively turns a tired trope—that teenagers hate their parents—on its head, and because of that, it is memorable.
As story authority Robert McKee says, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” But your character alone can’t be the story. Let that sink in. Just because a character is intriguing, unless something happens that reveals their strengths or weaknesses, they won’t be fully realized. Now we’re back to asking how and why a character is capable of achieving something. If the audience has more questions at the end of your story, then they are not going to be emotionally satisfied. Sure, they may be intrigued, but that’s not always enough.
A recent Volvo XC90 ad, “Wedding,” features a dad writing a speech on his daughter’s wedding day. People have been posting their interpretations and no two seem to be alike. It raises a few questions: How is the dad related to everyone else in the commercial? Where are they going to/from? Why are they riding together? Why are people removing their wedding rings?
The ad opens with a Volvo parked in front of a lighthouse, followed by a close-up of a bearded man in a dress shirt sitting in the vehicle writing in his journal, pensively staring out into the distance as he speaks aloud, practicing a speech offering his philosophy on marriage. We get the story via a voice-over as he first remembers dropping his daughter off at summer camp and how confident she looked leaving, and how sad he was to see her go. The speech offers a pretty clear answer to why he is in the car scribbling furiously: “The reason I’m telling you this is that there will be moments in your life that you’ll never be ready for. You will just not be ready for. Your little girl getting married being one of them. I’m still not ready.”
The moodiness is delivered via the cinematography—beautiful coastal scenery, images of a Volvo expertly taking the curves in the road, different characters all leaving or arriving at the same place. However, the cutting back and forth between characters and time leaves a lot for the audience to piece together. Suddenly, we are in a Volvo with two other men in suits, bouquets of flowers in the back of the car as the dad’s voice-over offers advice on marriage: “You see, in the beginning, when you’re first starting out, everything’s exciting, your potential is unlimited, exploding with possibilities simply because the person sitting beside you right now. You found a guy like Jacob. Good man.”
We leave the men in the car and cut back to the dad still writing the speech parked next to the lighthouse. As he says, “It won’t always be easy . . . sometimes love won’t be enough. You’ll have to make the decision to not give up on each other.” We get a close up of a woman, hands in her lap, fondling a wedding ring, then, a man flipping his wedding band between his fingers.
The Volvo leaves a mansion where, presumably, the wedding has taken place and takes to the windy road. The dad’s voice-over continues: “That won’t always be your first instinct, but I promise you, it will be worth it.”
Back in the Volvo, we see all of the characters are now together. A woman is driving, the same woman who was fondling the ring in the earlier scene recognizable by the dress she is wearing. The passenger is looking at his camera where we see the dad and a bride. The woman driving chooses a song and the dad puts his wedding band back on.
Within the last minute of the ad all of the questions come together: What is the dad’s relationship to the two guys in the car? Who is the woman driving? How are they all related? While brand storytelling should raise questions, too many can lead to confusion rather than intrigue. At the same time, the story just goes in a circle, as does the dad character. Has anything happened to him to explain this change? Nothing onscreen. This leaves a major “why” unanswered—Why this story? It’s left a lot of people confused as to what the ad is about. Marriage equality? Divorce? Death? It’s a lot of story, and instead of narrowing the possibilities, it widens them. Of course, subtlety and creating conversation might be the point, but there’s a fine line between thought-provoking and confusing, and if the only thing connecting your story is the product, that’s a problem.
If you don’t clearly state the question and at least hint at a satisfying answer, you leave the audience with an emotion, but no understanding of how they got from point A to point B. Stories are like sharks; they need to keep moving to survive. For your brand storytelling, it’s up to you to make sure you are asking the right questions that resonate with your audience. But it’s important to remember that too many questions can lead to confusion rather than intrigue. The audience may be one step ahead in their expectations, but they can too easily be left behind if a brand message gets buried in a narrative. Just as important as pulling an audience in with the “how” and “why” is the feeling you leave them with at the end of your story.
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Featured image attribution: Caroline Hernandez