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Tell Us a Story (Don’t Sell Us an Advert)

Tell Us a Story (Don’t Sell Us an Advert)

Ben Jura

illustration of storyboards

With traditional advertising yielding diminishing returns, how can brands more authentically share their stories?

The ecosystem of consumer interaction with brands has evolved significantly in recent years. Mainstream social influence culture, the explosion of video content, on-demand services across categories and the cynicism as a response to the increasingly post-modern world, have rendered it increasingly difficult to deliver meaningful advertising to consumers. If brands want to successfully connect with consumers in a meaningful way, they need to tell stories and create content, rather than ads, sharing their values and purpose. Due to the accelerated transition to an ecommerce-dominated shopping paradigm, price and quality have been reduced to table stakes, leaving other criteria like purpose-related factors as key differentiators in this arena.

Spirits brand Pernod Ricard’s North American CEO Ann Mukherjee recently noted: “Purpose could be about fun. Purpose could be about indulgence. Purpose could be about being a rebel. Purpose could be about saving the world. But purpose must be intrinsic to what the brand’s narrative is.”

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Despite a shifting landscape, consumers continue to gravitate toward brands whose purpose aligns with their interests and beliefs, and are still weary of anything perceived as inauthentic. So how can brands communicate their purpose and draw in advocates if traditional advertising is yielding diminishing returns?

The authenticity of any offering made by a brand to a consumer is paramount in determining the effect that it will have and how strong the reaction will be. Reciprocity holds true for brands just as it does for individuals. In a consumer study conducted by Steve Martin of Influence at Work, one-third of customers visiting a fast-food restaurant went to the counter to order their food without distraction, one-third were handed a key chain as a thank you for coming in and one-third received a cup of yogurt as a welcome as they walked through the door. The recipients of the keychain bought 12% more than the control but those that received food bought 24% more than the control. They bought food—engaging with the brand—at the deepest level of all test groups because the brand offered them something that was high in their goal hierarchy at the time (people go to restaurants because they are hungry). While economists may think this a foolish approach, a brand offering a consumer what they want—not in response to a desired action, and without seeking engagement in return—has huge effect. This strategy can work with material items, but information works as well if it is highly desirable to the recipient. The latter approach is often least costly, considering that, regardless of the value of views and engagement, scale is needed to profitably monetize a large audience.


As more and more brands begin developing experiential, interactive or engaging content in an opt-in framework, there are a few ways to approach that will help ensure authenticity. Brands can lean into their expertise to make the useful yet inaccessible, accessible. They can highlight initiatives in an engaging way that are important to both the brand and its customers. Or they can live their purpose and attempt to have their desired effect outside of their primary customer journey, to connect back to the core offering.

Creating expert content could mean developing spaces where customers can benefit from their knowledge. This could be interactive trial opportunities where experts provide guidance (think free fifteen-minute makeovers at Sephora or department stores like Nordstrom who are adding in photobooths for social sharing and digital shop-alongs). Brands can also share information from their unique knowledge base, that consumers might not otherwise have access to. This is what Neutrogena did with their “In the Sun” film about skin cancer.

Free from overt branding and deployed as a public awareness tactic, this documentary film follows Dr. Chi, a dermatologist treating seven families with the goal of educating viewers about misconceptions and methods of safely enjoying the sun. While it may be somewhat self-serving for a brand that does sell sunscreen as a small part of their large portfolio of skincare products, the tone and lack of brand presence helps communicate the brand as genuine and inspirational, especially when viewed in the context of other self-help and educational tools on their website.

For brands who want to create content in support of purpose, highlighting initiatives is another great way for brands to illustrate shared value with an audience. Take Patagonia with its values rooted in environmental preservation; it was possible for the brand to leverage its powerful position to create buzz for emerging river ecosystem restoration groups. The effort was win-win. The film that Patagonia helped to produce won audience awards as SXSW Film Festival when it premiered. It increased awareness of, and advocacy for, an effort to shift attitudes around the impact of hydroelectric power on river ecosystems. It helped an external effort, re-enforced core brand values, and showed the scope of their purpose in an engaging and interesting way.

Having a presence in spaces of shared interest outside of the primary engagement environment, is another strategy to communicate a brand’s purpose. Offering an individual what they are seeking, where they already are, can show that a brand is committed to providing something, beyond promoting their core product or offering. For an individual scanning through HBO Max looking for a comforting escape from the pressures of the everyday, “A World of Calm” might do the trick.

The non-traditional portrayals of animals and vegetation with absolutely no entertainment value or inspiring titillation (by design) lulls viewers into a deep state of relaxation. This may help to generate interest in their app as a way to pursue a similar relief in contexts beyond the environment already adopted. Of course, the deep contradiction in the idea of celebrity narrated, venture-backed “mindfulness” brought to you by the same platform presenting “Game of Thrones” or “Real Time with Bill Maher” may be too much to handle for those already sold on the benefits of meditation. Calm is following a proven strategy of using partnerships to expand their impact and show their purpose to new prospects, but time will tell if this execution is seen as a good articulation of that purpose or not.

Today, brands are both expected to represent something larger than their product or service and are limited by the efficacy of their advertising to tell that story. An Edelman earned brand study shows that 64% of respondents would choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its position relative to values held by the consumer. Additionally, communicating those values and purpose has a greater effect on advocacy than understanding product or service features. Creating shared value content can be one of the most effective ways for brands to show their purpose and whether it’s authentic, not used as a device intended to drive sales and provides something high in the consumer’s value hierarchy at the time it is provided.

Do that and the declining reach of advertising shouldn’t keep you up at night. But if it does, there is always footage of sea turtles sleeping on the ocean floor to help you nod off, brought to you by a curious partnership.

As creative director of Marks, part of SGS & Co., a brand design and experience agency, Ben Jura identifies challenges facing businesses and offers thoughtful solutions that yield quantifiable results for consistent brand enhancement at key consumer touchpoints.