Traditional To Interactive: Complementing Linear Story-telling With Non-linear Applications

  • by May 14, 2007

Great brands have great stories.  Some come from their lore, their heritage or even the mythology that’s been created around them -- like fashion and fragrance brands. As an industry, we’ve become experts at telling these stories in units of :30 and :60 -- standing back, observing the collective gestalt of life, and then mirroring those stories back at the consumer with brands neatly embedded in them.

What you discover when you examine these linear brand stories is that the great ones usually have several things in common.  They start not just with a big idea, but as creative legend Steve Hayden (of Apple 1984 fame) professes, a “big ideal” -- a promise or ethic worth believing in.  This big ideal -- brought to life by stories with compelling characters, conflict, plot, and a narrative arc that consists of a beginning, middle and a payoff at the end -- is the stuff great campaigns are made of.

The challenge in telling each story is to NOT to provide The End per se… but to reward consumers for the time they’ve spent with the story by making them laugh, cry, feel -- or simply smile with the brand, hopefully compelling them to act (buy), but also to look forward to the next episode in the story.

The hard work in linear storytelling comes with keeping the storyline episodes rolling, reinforcing and freshening the narrative each time without leaving the consumer frustrated and hanging like the last episode of “24.” And if you’ve got a big enough brand ideal, well then, the campaign writes itself.   Several brands and their agencies do this particularly well -- GEICO, Nike, Bud Light, and FedEx, just to name a few. These brands always seem to provide us with pithy, campaign-oriented narratives that leave us looking forward to discovering the next episode in the story.  

Yet, while big brand ideals often find their roots in linear brand lore and storytelling, what interactive media allows you the opportunity to do is complement the linear brand narrative with “My Narrative” -- thus reinforcing your big ideal even more.

In today’s world of online “create, customize and share” consumer experiences, it’s the “My Narrative” that allows consumers to participate in and shape the brand narrative in a non-linearmanner.

Take, for example, GE’s Ecoimaginaton story.   With its engaging non-linear “Plant a Seed and watch it grow” online application, GE cleverly extends its Ecoimagination ideal from a linear television narrative to an interactive opportunity for consumers to participate in the story. Nike's  evergreen “Just Do It” ideal isn’t just reinforced with a linear story in its legendary TV spots, but NIKE ID’s “Create your own shoe”  application provides a non-linear online complement that actually allows you to Just Do It… online. 

The challenge, for copywriters with storytelling skills honed in the traditional linear narrative arc, now becomes how to write as cleverly and compellingly in non-linear two-way interactive experiences.  For many writers, it’s just intuitive and requires no major retraining because... well, they’re just good writers.  For others, it means a new model of brainstorming, both with an art director/designer AND an interactive experience designer to bring the complete “interaction” experience to life.

The point is, people make meaning in different ways.  A linear brand story might in some cases serve as a campaign’s anchor, and in others not.   Now that we have the tools and the technologies to embrace both, we need to evolve from overemphasizing traditional linear creative skill sets, to more “through the line” hybrid creative skill sets where writers and designers who can switch hit between linear AND non-linear storytelling will be worth their weight in gold awards.

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