The pandemic ushered the era of hero-fication of everything, with brands scrambling to show their whole-hearted appreciation for nurses, doctors, teachers, delivery drivers, waiters and supermarket cashiers. While this initially served to boost morale and show appreciation, the unintended consequences of romanticising workers’ struggles have been largely ignored.
This kind of worship narrative has fuelled perceptions of invincibility and put incredible pressure on essential workers to deliver at any cost, often without systemic protection and support. In fact, it has not prevented hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers globally from fleeing their jobs, nor has it helped with the rise of mental health issues and burnout they experience (up to 74% of primary care physicians in high-income countries globally have experienced emotional distress since the start of the pandemic and up to 57% report burnout.
The hero-fication phenomenon has also permeated across the consumer goods category, with marketers and CEOs scrambling to communicate (and often fabricate) their brands’ higher purpose in the 'new world order'. The trap of self-importance has left many brands unable to live up to expectations, in a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.
The result? Like any Marvel fan worth her name knows, as expectations of our heroes reach beyond what’s humanly possible, contempt is only one tiny misstep away from worship. So perhaps it’s no surprise aggressive behaviours towards nurses and service workers have been on the rise in the past couple of years. For consumer brands, projecting unrealistic virtuousness has left them exposed to “colour-washing” accusations and, sometimes, outright boycotting, resulting in only 34% of consumers thinking companies are transparent about their commitments and promises.
Breaking the hero narrative with 'quiet storytelling'
There’s a place for some brands to be aspirational and embody an elevated role in consumers’ lives. For example, the hero narrative might work for a brand like Nike, whose archetype and ethos matches and delivers on that ambition. But for most brands, there’s an equally powerful, and often more authentic way to evoke genuine emotions that connect with consumers - let’s call it 'quiet storytelling'.
Quiet storytelling hinges on those universal insights that capture the validity of everyday experiences. By finding a realistic role for consumer goods among the mundane challenges, little joys and modest achievements of everyday life, quiet storytelling has the power to evoke nods of recognition - which is frankly more than most brands can hope for their products and ads to achieve. It eschews melodrama and self-importance, instead relying on subtlety and authenticity to forge sincere connections between brands and consumers.
Looking back at some of the pandemic era ads, Facebook’s “Never Lost” was among the few pieces of work that dared challenging the cultural norms of advertising of that time, parting with the mainstream toxic positivity and hyperbolic themes of invincibility, courage and defiance. While other brands told stories of resilience, Facebook talked about the simple comfort that can be found in people’s faces. The ad’s universal longevity wasn’t achieved because it attempted to 'empower' people, but because it simply made everyone feel seen.
Similarly, as we tread the choppy post-pandemic, pre-recession waters, there’s hope for a shift towards a more nuanced type of storytelling that validates people’s lived reality. In Singapore, the "We See You Care" campaign by the Agency of Integrated Care for caregivers, set itself to challenge the trite 'unsung heroes' narrative.
There was a simple insight hiding in plain sight; a study showed that far from feeling invincible, Singapore caregivers had been left feeling invisible, with more than half of all caregivers not even recognising their own role of care. It was therefore imperative that AIC strategically detach from the hyperbolic narrative of the past few years, and instead shed light on what caregiving truly looks like in the day-to-day.
Only through portraying caregivers’ lived experiences in a realistic and inclusive way, could caregivers begin to naturally identify themselves and feel validated in even the simplest, most routine acts of care that often go unacknowledged.
Tapping into the ordinary to resonate with disillusioned audiences
Data shows that 75% of brands could disappear overnight and most people just wouldn’t care. What’s more, 71% of consumers worldwide have little faith that brands will deliver on their promises. For consumer brands navigating this age of cynicism, occupying more tasteful and unassuming roles in people’s lives can be an opportunity to resonate with increasingly disillusioned audiences.
One brand that seems to understand this consumer shift is Ikea. In the “Proudly second best” campaign, a series of one-take films with no background music nor dialogue, Ikea portrays the simple truths of the parent-child bond, fundamentally recognising that, in the grand scheme of life, a ‘Bolmen’ step stool doesn’t matter all that much. The products advertised are convincing because they avoid becoming a caricature of some vague aspirational promise.
Another recent example, Cadbury’s “Garage” ad, portrays a father-daughter moment in a remarkably ordinary setting. The short ad succeeds in evoking fuzzy feelings in a subtle way, without relying on big gestures or resorting to teary tactics. With no background music and no frills, it’s a prime example of how a shift towards realistic portrayals of both consumers and products can lead to beautiful and effective work.
Apple, perhaps, is the brand that has best mastered the art of quiet storytelling, showcasing how brands can tap on simple, universal themes to deeply move people. Instead of dwelling on grandma’s passing, “The Surprise” commercial focuses on the simple joys of family and the power of technology in bringing people together - a testament to the idea that brands don’t need melodramatic narratives to carve a role for their products and convey emotion.
Examples of quiet storytelling are still far and in between the crass noise of brands shouting for attention. Shifting away from cheap emotional manipulation and performative grandeur, can be the opportunity to stand out and inspire unaffected sentiments that build more sincere relationships between brands and consumers. Some key takeaways:
- Beware of falling into toxic positivity: people are tired and disillusioned. Rather than trying to 'empower' consumers with empty rhetoric, a shift towards realistic, inclusive portrayals of people’s lived experiences can lead to more sincere connections between brands and consumers.
- There’s power in small gestures: consider people’s everyday challenges, most of us are not out here saving the world. Breaking the cultural norms of advertising can look like putting the mundane into the spotlight, making people simply feel seen and embracing the ordinary as an act of rebellion.
- Explore quiet storytelling to stand out: in the crowded marketplace, brands have the habit of shouting like crying babies demanding attention. But just like with babies, constant shouting can become background noise, so maybe a better way to stand out is to communicate with purpose and authenticity.
Ludovica Damonte is a strategy director at The Secret Little Agency.