In our second Southpaw Zoom Panel of 2020 we explored the vast landscape that is brand storytelling. Our panel debates whether a compelling story can still cut through and if so, how to do it successfully.

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In our second Southpaw Zoom Panel of 2020 we explored the vast landscape that is brand storytelling. Our panel debates whether a compelling story can still cut through and if so, how to do it successfully.


Southpaw Strategy Director Niki Macartney oversaw proceedings, alongside panellists Mark Evans - MD Marketing and Digital at Direct Line Group; Orlando Wood - Chief Innovation Officer for System 1 Group and author of ‘Lemon’; and Glenn Smith - Southpaw Creative Director.


Macartney sets the scene: humans are hardwired to make sense of the world in ‘story terms’ so it’s no surprise that brand storytelling is used to drive emotional connection and behaviour change. But the world is getting faster and there are limits on the amount of content we can process. Is storytelling heading for a tragic end? How can marketers make a darn good yarn an effective brand strategy?



The panel first considers what makes a good story. Wood believes it boils down to three key elements:





His recent research paper titled Achtung! shows much of that type of advertising has been lost. While still there, many storytelling features have disappeared in the digital age.


There is a correlation between the decline of storytelling with the rise of what Wood characterises as ‘frontality’: product and instruction-focused comms targeted online to people already interested in the brand. That kind of advertising can work in the short term, but misses out on the bigger business opportunity.


“Stories are the things that hold our attention, drive an emotional response, and build big business effects. We need to hold onto them and examine what makes them work.” he says.


Storytelling versus frontality shouldn’t be a binary choice- the best advertising does both - but what’s going on in our brains?


The right brain craves the spontaneity of storytelling, while the left brain responds to the direct messaging of frontality. The trick is in engaging the right brain and delivering unexpected original twists that draw you in.


Smith argues that juxtaposition plays an important role. He says, “Character is the most important element from a consumer point of view, but from a creative point of view, incident gives us the most opportunity to flex. For example, we know Bugs Bunny, his New York twang and smarts. Then he pops up in a bullring (1953’s famous ‘Bully For Bugs’). The juxtaposition immediately hooks us in and keeps us there.”


The lesson: remember character, incident and place to nail your brand story. Appeal to the spontaneity-loving right brain.



Character is king in a brand story and there are few as successful as the four year run Direct Line enjoyed with Harvey Keitel’s character Winston Wolfe.


Various iterations of advertising showed character, incident and place with unexpected plot twists and resolutions, over a long period to build equity and trust in the Direct Line brand.


Pulling the plug on Winston in favour of Bumblebee and co might seem counterintuitive, but Evans explains, “We felt that we weren’t getting the chance to show we were better, or best. We didn’t have a point of comparison.”


What happens when you’re putting years of stored distinctive brand assets in the bin? “It’s a tricky art of creating a disruptive change but making sure that you pull something through. Research is incredibly important. Without it, you might get lucky once, but you won’t get consistent over-performance without checking in with customers.”


Macartney points out that Evans and his team are lucky their new characters are a success. Go Compare’s work with fictional Italian tenor, Gio Compario, is a great example of a brand having to circle back.


Wood builds on this, “Could you evolve the situations for that Gio, could you develop a foil for him? There are ways to perhaps not lose the character, but evolve it.”


Time is a big theme: the need for it to establish and evolve character, incident and place. Do we have to wait years for the pay off?


“I don’t think you need to wait quite that long.” reassures Wood. To get those results, Smith recommends giving the consumer a creative jolt. “Surprise is important. Use character and incident, and the resolution, to be impactful.”


The lesson: time and patience are critical. Sometimes evolution, not revolution, is a better brand strategy.



Make it funny. Easy right? Recent research from Qantar says otherwise. For the last 20-30 years advertising has become more annoying and less enjoyable, with 60% of adverts avoiding humour altogether.


It’s tricky to navigate because, while humour generates mental connections, people are risk averse and worried about offending.


Paddy Power is a prime example of a brand that uses a VO artist and edgy banter across all channels, to great effect.


Humour takes a leap of faith but as Evans points out, “Advertisers want to be part of pop culture, they want fame and recognition. You can’t have it both ways.”


The lesson: Be brave and use humour to build emotional connections people won’t tire of.




The fast-paced, ‘make it and break it’ culture of digital advertising means we are bombarded 24/7 by content from brands, creators, makers, celebrities, and social media’s vast influencer network.


However, cognitively we are limited in how much ‘stuff’ we can consume, so marketers have to respect attention spans. It’s difficult to imagine how stories have time to engage in mere seconds. But some brands have done it very well - the M&Ms characters for example - and of course our old friend humour can help, because being funny is fast and builds brand equity.


The panel considers Gen Z and Gen Alpha who have grown up knowing nothing but smartphones and social platforms. Does the art of storytelling have a home in social media with it’s fast-evolving functionality and blink-and-you-miss-it speed? Wood confirms it: character, incident and place certainly does have a home on burgeoning platforms like TikTok, as much as in traditional tv advertising spots.


Mark elaborates. “As far as I can tell, there are four story types of stories TikTok accesses: comedy, tragedy, rebirth and a bit of quest. TikTok demonstrates that creativity is alive and well, and how stories can be told in a flash.”


The lesson: we can storytell in small, fast digital and social media spaces, but short form itself is not a shortcut to incredible brand storytelling.



One of the most important things is the process: the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. From pitch to campaign launch, setting context and chemistry between client and agency can be transformational to the creation process. But there is less time in creative development these days - and less patience. Why?


Smith reasons, “Sometimes the digital world and the storytelling world miss each other. Digital is about speed. If you look at the language of digital you hear phrases like Sprints, Growth Hacks, Done is better than perfect. So this creates a mindset that things could and should be done fast. You need time to create character equity.”


Evans draws on his own experience, “It’s not a short cut process, the agency and client relationship is fundamental to great creative work.”


Wood agrees. “Talking is really important. Little words and sentences trip out and stick, like The Honey Monster - it came about from groups with mothers saying their kids were their ‘little monsters’.”


The lesson: effort in the process builds brilliant client-agency relationships. Embed patience and time into development. Be honest about the type of advertising you want and you’re more likely to get it.