I’ve been involved in a number of interesting projects in my long career, but perhaps none more so than IBM’s Internet initiative in the mid-late 1990s. In the Fall of 1995, Lou Gerstner, - IBM’s then Chairman and CEO, - made the decision to embrace the rapidly growing Internet as the centerpiece of IBM’s strategic vision and created the Internet Division as a cross-company group to lead the initiative, with me as general manager.
At the time, a lot was happening around the Internet. It was all very exciting, but it was not clear where things were heading, and in particular what the implications would be to the world of business. A key part of our job was to figure out the business value around the Internet, and to then extensively communicate it to our customers and the wider marketplace. Working closely with Ogilvy & Mather, IBM’s marketing agency, we came up with our Internet strategy, - which we called e-business. Our challenge was not only to explain what e-business was all about, but also to leverage e-business to help re-build the IBM brand, given that the company was just coming out of a really serious near-death experience.
Ogilvy created an award winning campaign, bringing e-business to life with compelling stories over a variety of communication channels, including memorable TV vignettes that nicely captured what it meant to do business over the emerging Internet. The campaign succeeded in closely associating IBM with the Internet, repositioning the brand with the future rather than the once glorious past that almost caused its demise only a few years earlier.
My personal experiences with e-business, - and subsequent ones with Linux and other initiatives, - have sensitized me to the importance of storytelling in business and marketing, especially when introducing a disruptive innovation in the marketplace and/or needing to revitalize a troubled brand.
I was reminded of those exciting times when reading a recent article, The Power of Immersive Media, by Frank Rose, Senior Fellow at Columbia’s School of the Arts and author of a number of articles and books on digital culture, including The Art of Immersion.
Digital technologies, - mobile, cloud, social, Internet of Things, big data and analytics, AI… - are transforming just about every aspect of business. In particular, surveys show that these technologies are transforming the overall customer experience, and their application to marketing and customer service offers companies the largest business returns. In addition, technology is now amplifying the impact of storytelling on the customer experience.
Storytelling has played a central role in human communications since times immemorial. Storytelling predates writing. Oral narratives were used by many ancient cultures as a way of passing along their traditions, beliefs and learning from generation to generation. Over the centuries, the nature of storytelling has significantly evolved with the advent of writing and the emergence of new technologies that enabled stories to be embodied in a variety of media, including books, films, and TV. Digital technologies are now expanding the scope of storytelling.
“Today, storytelling is colonizing realms of commerce, such as branding and retailing, that traditionally have had little to do with the actual telling of stories,” notes Rose. “Marketers who understand the immersive potential of stories have a considerable edge over those who try to connect with their audience in less sophisticated ways…”
“The current taste for immersion is largely a by-product of the digital age. Video games and the Internet have taught people to be active participants rather than passive observers; just looking is no longer enough. People expect to dive in, and companies as disparate as Disney, Facebook, and Burberry have been scrambling to oblige them.”
New technologies aim to enhance the illusion of immersion by eliminating barriers between people and experience. 3D technologies have tried to more closely involve the audience with the picture on the screen. More recently, head-mounted virtual reality (VR) displays like the Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens aim to provide a startlingly realistic immersive experience. According to Rose, the Internet of Things is another form of immersion that surrounds users with electronic devices in their real-world physical setting. “Retail stores, for example, use RFID tags and other devices to respond to shoppers directly, immersing them in a manufactured reality as detailed and sometimes as surreal as any you would find in a headset.”
Technology can help, but it’s far from sufficient. Technology, - no matter how advanced, - will not necessarily result in a satisfying immersive experience, as evidenced by the mixed success of 3D. “Even with VR, the immersive quality of a story depends less on technology than on the artistry with which the story is told and the technology deployed. We become immersed because that artistry taps into an aspect of human nature that goes far beyond the mere desire to be entertained.”
Technology, - video games, the Internet, social media and possibly VR, - has been conditioning people, especially younger generations, to immerse themselves in stories. These technology-enriched stories are now as relevant to the marketing of brands and products as they are to media and entertainment.
“Storytelling is key, but as with any key it only gets you in the door,” writes Rose. “What people really want is to merge their identity with something larger. They want to enter the world the story lives in. The most compelling of these environments are rich with detail, but the stories they carry are often implicit, communicated by subtle cues and left for the audience to piece together.” A few key qualities are required to successfully engage the audience:
- Suspension of disbelief. “All stories involve a partnership between author and audience: As the author tells the story, those in the audience conjure it up, even - if current neuroscience theories are correct - running a simulation in their head. For the simulation to work, all the details count; they either reinforce our belief in the artificial world or diminish it.”
- Authenticity is critical. “If the story world does not reflect the genuine identity of the company, it will be as obvious as an ill-fitting wig.”
- Social engagement opportunities. “Audiences today… are becoming active participants in the storytelling process rather than passive consumers. They expect to share their involvement online, and smart marketers will come up with innovative ways to encourage them.”
- Varying levels of depth. “Story worlds can’t be hermetic; they need to be porous enough for people to pass in and out of them at will. A fair number of Hunger Games fans are only going to want to see the movie - and many Burberry customers will be happy just to purchase a trench coat. They should have that option.”
“The time when brand marketers and entertainment executives could dictate what people see, hear, and think is long past, if it ever existed at all,” writes Rose in conclusion. “Now they invite people into their world and hope enough will stay to make the effort worthwhile. ‘Fantasy,’ Tolkien wrote, ‘is a natural human activity.’ But like Tinker Bell, it can survive only so long as people believe. When the spell is broken, the audience snaps back to reality. The job of the 21st-century marketer is to make sure that does not happen.”