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Storytelling Content Creation

Find the Inciting Incident for Your Business Story

6 Minute Read

When we hear “inciting incident,” it brings to mind old detective films or the action-adventure genre. Yet it’s necessary to every story. The key elements are deceptively simple: an event, random or caused, that happens to the protagonist and radically upsets the balance of forces in their life.

It can be as simple as deciding not to go to work and the chain reaction of events from that one decision. Or it may be a more harrowing event. However, for business storytelling, derring-do is not always the best option. So how can a company or brand create an event that fits their aesthetic and voice?

First, decide what is the best option for your brand. Should it be a hero-led action story or something that directly reflects your company message? Or, better yet, can it be both? Here are a few questions and ideas to consider before you build a campaign.

What Makes Sense for Your Brand?

There’s no one-size-fits-all for every brand, and many have gone outside the box to either find an unlikely brand protagonist (think the GEICO Gecko ads) or to build an adventure reflecting their brand’s message (think Nike, Adidas, Red Bull). The 2017 Kia Niro campaign, “Hero’s Journey,” starring actress and comedian Melissa McCarthy, has fun with a literal take on “the call” to action with a twist of humor.

While driving her Kia Niro, McCarthy receives a mission directive via her phone to save the whales. For her first mission, she is excited, zooming into the ocean on a small raft, waving her arm in victory as others cheer her on. But then a whale jumps over her boat, landing on it and flipping her off. The next call is to save the trees, then the ice caps, and finally the rhinos—each with more unfortunate pratfalls for McCarthy. The final message of the ad: “It’s hard to be an eco warrior, but it’s easy to drive like one.” It pokes fun at itself and the idea of what real eco warriors do (i.e. save the planet) versus simply driving a hybrid vehicle.

However, the adventure can’t be the only story. There has to be another message to underscore it or you just have a series of cool images. Jaguar’s “Good To Be Bad” and follow-up “Master Plan” campaigns, which link British villains to Jaguars, come up empty.

They have all the gloss and excitement of a devious thriller, but it’s all flashy filler, no content. Though actor Tom Hiddleston states that “It’s time for a new plan, a new boss,” nothing seems to change except that an engineer (played by Nicholas Hoult) is called to create a new line of Jaguars that look pretty similar to the old ones. It’s one-note, all confidence, all “good to be bad” with no “good” to fight. There’s no real protagonist, connection to the audience, or any change.

Where the Kia ad uses an unlikely hero, Jaguar uses a set of seemingly exciting and devious villains and then does nothing with them.

Upset the Apple Cart

Whatever happens must radically upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life. Your inciting incident can be a huge cataclysmic event or something on a smaller scale. For a brand, this could be a social message. Think of great literature and films that focus on social norms being upset—any E.M. Forester film will fit the bill, or even Jane Austen. In these works a tiny breach of the social norm causes an avalanche of reaction and, ultimately, change. That’s good storytelling. It brings us into a world where we accept its social conventions and understand when they are being upended. But how can it apply to brand storytelling?

A good example of social messaging is the recent Axe “Is It OK for Guys…” campaign. It challenges social norms around masculinity by dramatizing the stress men feel with even the most mundane sounding Internet queries.

The ad opens with a black screen and in white caps: “72% of guys have been told how a real man should behave.” We hear a series of questions: “Is it OK to not like sports?” to “Is it OK for guys to take a selfie?” In the background we hear the echoing sound of a heart beating and a series of rapid images reflects the stress these young men are feeling when they type their queries.

The ad takes on larger social messages about masculinity (many of which can turn toxic if not undercut). It’s an effective campaign, but risky for a brand best known for playing into these same insecurities. Either way, the message itself upsets the balance in terms of what Axe’s audience expects from the brand and reaches out in an authentic way by dramatizing a series of questions, which are in themselves micro-stories.

Engage Your Audience

Another example of unique brand storytelling directed at a specific audience is the athletic clothing brand Outdoor Voices’s #DoingThings campaign. Aesthetically, Outdoor Voices has a very minimal color palette. Eschewing the bright punch of colors and aggressive athleticism associated with typical athletic brands, their campaign mimics the same subtlety of their messaging:

At Outdoor Voices, we live by the simple tenet that Doing Things is better than not Doing Things. We don’t see a start or finish to activity, but believe it can be a fun, sustainable part of everyday life.

While it may seem this is anti-inciting incident, it’s a direct attempt to connect their brand story to their audience. Seeing women in blue hats doing yoga all over New York City generated interest and buzz about the brand during the official Doing Things Day initiative as Instagram was flooded with images of people, well, doing things.

Outdoor Voices #DoingThings Images

Outdoor Voices successfully connected their brand storytelling with activity—a variety of activities, in fact. The event is going about your daily life and doing something. Is it a dramatic hero’s journey? Not in the traditional sense, but it is for this brand. It’s universal and simple and changes how we think of athleisure branding. More importantly, it is true to their brand’s message of what founder Tyler Haney describes as “creating experiences and products for people to enjoy doing things together.”

If your “incident” doesn’t engage the audience and pull them into the story, then you haven’t done your job. It’s just like in film where all the pyrotechnics and car crashes in the world can’t make up for a sub-par story. If you lose track of your message or story, don’t expect your audience to find it. Keep it simple and it will connect.

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Featured image attribution: Matt Cannon

Shannon’s love of reading, writing, and the arts has led to many career adventures. When posed with the question “What can you do with a degree in English?” she presents her career as Exhibit A: everything. From her first job as an editorial assistant at the Harvard Business Review to news text editor at Ford Motor Company, to marketing director for bestselling author and story authority Robert McKee’s international seminars, Shannon has honed a unique set of skills. Whether it’s planning an event, a press release, magazine profile, media campaign, newsletter or ad, synthesizing and sharing information effectively and thoughtfully is second nature. In between careers, she squeezed in an MA in Film Studies (University College Dublin, Ireland) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Virginia Commonwealth University). Shannon’s writing has appeared in Virginia Living, RHome Magazine, WORK Magazine, Style Weekly, the Detroit Metro Times, and other publications.

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