Much has been written on the power of stories and their significance for the communities in which they are shared. Stories preserve historical records in memorable and meaningful human terms, transforming what would otherwise be individual insight into a salient collective experience. They are a community’s means of passing from one generation or group to another the lessons and values that are crucial for their survival and success.
To me, the IPA Effectiveness Awards papers—all 1,200 of them, spanning 34 years of UK advertising—are important because they are not just case studies; they are our community’s stories.
Each year, the ebbs and flows of business fortunes are laid out before us in every IPA submission. We read of insurmountable odds, devious insights, ingenious ideas, astounding climaxes, turning points and twists. All culminating in the diligent detective work required to demonstrate how communications pay back.
The key question, though, is not whether we all enjoy a good story; that goes without saying. Our goal must be to see whether we can determine what separates a great story from a good one — and, importantly, whether reading that story has the potential to change us in some way.
Those that we celebrate here offer us gripping tales of survival, resurgence, quest and loyalty, brilliantly well-told and all with an implicit "moral" or learning. So let’s have a closer look at some of the strategic plot lines and lessons that emerge from the winners in 2014. (You can find all the winning case papers for the 2014 awards here.)
The comeback kings
If you want the story of a declining favorite who finds an intelligent way to turn around its fortunes, pick up the Grand Prix-winning Foster’s tale, or the Mercedes-Benz, Garnier, Premier Inn, ITV, Everest or Fairy stories.
These tell how once-market-defining brands have gone on the offensive, returning to communications to reinforce price premiums, fight off competitors, target fresh segments or simply re-engage with complacent audiences.
Set in the prestigious car marketplace is a story about how to behave your way out of a problem you have behaved yourself into. Mercedes-Benz awakened to realise it had become "staid and stuffy," lacking the glamour, ambition and youthfulness of its competitors. With echoes of "Twelfth Night," it assumed the "disguise" of a youthful brand, dressing in the exciting clothes of the younger generation to tempt its target into playing along. In doing so, it enticed people into mass participatory experiences and created the immersion that leads to a new way of thinking.
Ultimately, this makeover helped Mercedes-Benz sustain a considerable price premium to become the fastest-growing brand in the sector. And we learn that, sometimes, you have to "fake it till you make it" to set a behavior change in motion.
In the Foster’s story, we meet an old entertainer, loved in the 1980s but now out of favour. It determined that a brave new "act" could get it on the up again, but it needed to emotionally connect with an audience that was struggling as much as it was. Walking away from the bravado of old, Foster’s saw that it could use its uniquely Australian "no worries" personality to inject some fun and soothe the relationship worries of troubled younger English men. This became the "good call" campaign, helping Foster’s stimulate a growth surge that toppled its longtime rival.
The rebels return
If the tale of the plucky rebel looking for renewed purpose is more your kind of story, why not try the easyJet, First Direct or Only cases?
These stories tell how the original rebel and category reinventor finds itself no longer quite as new and interesting, no longer the cheaper option, no longer the innovator—but not yet the undoubted leader either.
A number of learnings emerge from these stories. First, these brands dig deep into the roots of their organisational and brand values to find the solution to their problem. These are not so much reinvention tales but reawakenings. For instance, easyJet had to refocus its brand while cutting marketing spend and found the solution in "the Luton way"—its long-held culture of efficiency.
Stories underline the power of emotional insight and creative ingenuity, the unpredictability of humanity, the desire to make your mark.
The clothing retailer Only revived its fashionista focus and reinvented the catalog as interactive drama. First Direct attracted new consumers by falling back in love with its original challenger bank stance. As the brand put it, the "unexpected bank" was "reborn." The moral for maturing rebels seems to be that the answer may already lie within.
Second, each rebel story pivots on a strategic turning point, where the brand stops chasing the old-guard competition, puts down its original, functional weaponry and opens up a dialogue that is anchored to its core beliefs. For First Direct, this is its belief in "deviation"; for easyJet, it’s about the joy, spontaneity and human connection made possible by low-cost air travel; for Only, it is "liberation." The moral here is that there is great power in your purpose.
The Trojan horse
Several stories are about brands overturning conventional wisdom and carving out new opportunities with the use of a "Trojan horse."
With Renault, this was Dacia and the concept of the ultra-value car. Top Gear’s negative banter created noise about the launch but, in effect, set up a derisive perception that practically doomed this new brand to fail. Its solution was to wrong-foot the jovial bullies, use their weakness as a strength and celebrate its simplicity by becoming "the enemy of the unnecessary."
Similarly, McCain used simplicity at the heart of its strategy to launch the microwaveable jacket potatoes. It challenged conventional cooking behaviour and an incredulous audience by wielding a simple sensory-inspired "oven-baked tastiness" campaign, creeping up on people at places and times when appetite would be at its keenest.
For the premium toothpaste Sensodyne, conventional wisdom said that the key problems facing teeth were staining and sensitivity. Unfortunately, that meant its Pronamel product tackled an invisible problem people didn’t know they had. Sensodyne had to help people wake up to a new problem—acid erosion. And it did so using the simple credibility of an expert intermediary: the dentist.
Interestingly, all these stories also have echoes of the David and Goliath myth. David chose the simplest of weapons and outmaneuvered his enemy. In our stories, the simplicity of the solutions presented is equally striking. Perhaps the moral here is that a disruptive proposition might be made more deadly with the simplest of creative weapons.
Follow the Pied Piper
Several cases centered on the need to shift behaviors, whether that was Transport for London’s campaign to mitigate the potential travel chaos of the 2012 Olympic Games, the British Heart Foundation’s aim to equip the nation with the skills to perform hands-only CPR, the New Zealand National Depression Initiative’s goal to get people to self-treat rather than ignore the symptoms, or the Fire Service’s need to get people to check their smoke-alarm batteries with more regularity.
These stories draw on a recurring "Pied Piper" strategy. The brand leads the way by showing its audience a new behavioral pathway to follow in a highly engaging way. The Fire Service’s Pied Piper was to link the checking of alarm batteries to the changing of the clocks. For the British Heart Foundation, it was the "Stayin’ Alive" motif that helped people feel confident in getting hands-on in a cardiac emergency.
All the stories that we recognize here help us see the impact of what is changing in our world. But, more importantly, they underline the importance of things that remain constant: the power of emotional insight and creative ingenuity, the unpredictability of humanity, the desire to make your mark and, ultimately, the possibility of triumph against great odds.
We need stories, as they inspire and help explain what is inexplicable in our world, turning individual learnings into shared insights and creating parallels with our own challenges that are strikingly relevant.
Thinking about brand and campaign strategy in terms of character and narrative might be more than a retrospective tool. It could be a revealing exercise during campaign planning, too—helping to suggest the strategic twists and turns required to move the story of the brand forward. The challenge then becomes how to fill one’s head with as many of these brand archetypes and stories as possible, because by doing so you will give yourself a richer palette from which to paint your own plot lines.
So don’t get bogged down in the challenges that you might be facing today. Instead, take a little inspiration and courage from the IPA effectiveness stories, and you, too, may start to see your problem as a great story in the making.
Lorna Hawtin is the convenor of judges at the 2014 IPA Effectiveness Awards and the disruption director at TBWA\Manchester