Brands, Be Brave

February 27, 2015 | By Kenneth Chu, Director & Editor

Sooner or later, in this world, a media maker will cross paths with a brand. This brand will have a message that it would like to express to society and more often than not, it seems as if online video is increasingly the form of choice. We media makers will generally oblige the form without question, and perhaps because the money is simply there. But in retrospect, how well do we serve a message and really maximize it within a given form?

I ask because the difficult juncture is this: when a brand message becomes a multi-faceted or even a mixed one, are we too quick to assume its full burden can successfully rest upon the shoulders of a single 16x9 “brand film,” or might there be a more impactful choice of medium(s)?

Rare, if not imaginary, is the silver bullet in an online world. Also rare, but increasingly apparent and admirable to me, is the brave brand. Amongst the modern, clean, sweet, quirky, earnest, or cool brands that meet us everyday online, what makes a brave one then?

Real bravery implies not how loud we beat our chests but an ability to make a tough choice. In our case, the choice begins with knowing the types of messages a brand and media maker may set out together to express:

What

A “what” message is essentially a “hard sell,” naming a price and for what. Brands have certainly found effective expressions of “what” through product demos, where a list of features comes to life, or through product testimonials, where other customers make a more personal sales pitch. Even the coupon is a miniature, yet direct expression of “what.”

How

The aim of a “how” message is to educate or explain how to use a product. Different than a product demo, which I view as more superficial and behind a glass window, so to speak, I believe that “how-to”, product review, and tutorial videos dig one layer deeper and let us inside. The focus is on real-time usage, step-by-step instruction, and overall utility.

Why

When a brand is able to dig even deeper within itself for motivations that transcend its product and aspirations shared by other human beings, we arrive at a “why” message. In expressing a deep “why,” brands have been able to craft cinematic stories and moving image-based experiences that take us willingly for an emotional ride.

What I see happening more frequently online and in my own commercial experience is the attempt, perhaps unbeknownst to both brands and media makers along the way, to address a mixture of “what”, “how”, and “why” messaging in a single “brand film”.

To be more specific, I write to underscore that the “why”, or whatever emotional story could be told, increasingly bears the burden of a direct commercial offering (“what”) or having to instruct (“how”). The video attempts to do too much, and arguably, ends up not doing very much at all.

Life goes on, but we eventually find ourselves back at the difficult juncture, where I’ve come to realize that we may choose better, bravely so:

If we want to tell a story, then double down on what a story is meant to be.

Or if we want to teach something new, focus on being clear not clever.

And if the goal is the “hard sell”, then let’s make the buying easy.

Bravery then, in this context, is knowing the true purpose of your message and committing wholeheartedly to its truest form, whether that be a single medium or a cohesive combination.

Brand film. Infographic. Podcast. Listicle. Interactive. Printed words…

These are all forms with their own strengths and weaknesses. How well do we know their strengths, and how willing are we to play to them? Could they collectively create a more impactful and alive experience? I believe it.

The truest strength of video, or the moving image, is its unique potential to present an emotional story, to explore the “why”. The form was invented for the purpose of representing human experiences vividly, and an entire history of cinema continues to prove its unrivaled ability in this department.

One way to begin to fulfill that potential is by creatively asking ourselves:

If we couldn’t showcase the product, what story would we tell then?

For example, we could tell a story about an overweight kid seeking his greatness, rather than about how the latest technology in his shoes work. We can also vividly perceive anew the all-too-familiar experience of a young woman coming home to her semi-embarrassing family, but loved ones still, rather than the fact that her sweater is on sale. Could you also imagine rocking out to music with the same iconic impact if you were interrupted by messages telling you that the inanimate object playing the music “holds 10,000+ songs” and has a “battery life of 7+ hours”?

Those are just a few examples of brands bravely using the video form, but sometimes the brave choice by a brand is knowing when it must venture out of a 16x9 rectangle, and onto a more flexible digital canvas.

Recognizing that brands need to achieve more than a perfectly distilled “why” message, we media makers can utilize the various mediums to guide an audience through a cohesive, new experience. As one basic example, a short “why” film can excite our emotions, which can then be directed towards more grounded needs, such as an interactive demo or video tutorial (“how”), and a promotional microsite to make purchases (“what”).

In doing so, we can maximize our digital canvas, not in vain but in service of something much larger than ourselves.

All of these choices you may view as basic content marketing, with which I don’t disagree, so why do I elevate them into acts of creative courage?

There are two independent thoughts that come to mind, and together, they lead me to believe in the notion and significance of a brave brand.

The first is an everyday thought expressed by writer and native Californian Joan Didion:

It is the media that tells us how to live.

Take a look at our everyday lives. I believe this to be true. Do you?

With that in mind, the second is from Jerry Greenfield, one-half of the pioneering Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, based in Burlington, Vermont, who presented this longer view to a class of business school students:

“It’s become clear that business is really the most powerful force in our society today, and it’s a relatively new phenomenon. If you look back historically, religion was the most powerful force, then it became government or nation-states, and today it’s business… and the interesting thing is that all this influence that is wielded by business is done in the relatively narrow self-interest of business, which is to make money. And that’s really the big difference with business as this most powerful force because religion and government have always had as part of their purpose looking out for the common welfare, for the public good.”

Consider those thoughts together, and you might feel a new weight or responsibility in our choices as media makers and brands.

“There’s a spiritual aspect to business,” Jerry adds, “just as there is to the lives of individuals.”

For the business and individual alike, it will always be a tough yet admirable occupation to know what you truly wish to say, and then to honestly express it amidst the swirling pressures throughout our society today.

Media makers, know the medium(s).

Brands, be brave.