How Branded Content Can Become the Folklore of the Future


Folklore is commonly defined as the closely-held beliefs, customs, and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. These are narratives that persist across time, kept alive by word of mouth and the popular media of the era.


Such stories arise from all corners of society, and it can be surprising to learn where exactly a tale of modern folklore originates. For example, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a Montgomery Ward copywriter in 1939, as part of a complimentary coloring book to attract children and their families to the store during the holiday season.


The copywriter—Robert May—couldn't have predicted the far-reaching success of his now-canonical fictional character, but he was certainly aware of the narrative tools at work in the story he was creating. Indeed, the enduring success of modern folklore like Rudolph, or XXX, or Seinfeld's "Festivus" can offer lessons for today's storytellers, marketers, and business leaders, who face the challenge of creating a narrative that can persist across a much more fragmented and turbulent media environment.


SIMPLE NARRATIVES TRANSCEND PLATFORM, FORMAT, OR DEVICE


A signature quality of folklore is that its stories can be distilled to fit even the most limiting rhetorical constraints. While digital marketers may wonder how a 250x300 ad unit could possibly bring consumers into a story, advertisers from Robert May's era were similarly grappling with how to craft a story that people could easily share amongst each other in even the briefest exchange. Execution is vital to any successful marketing campaign, but it may be even more important for brands to first take a step back and consider what story they want to tell: If it cannot be summarized in a single sentence, additional brainstorming is probably be needed.


ONE-DIMENSIONAL CHARACTERS CAPTIVATE ATTENTION-STRAINED AUDIENCES


Folklore tends to contain characters that are either very heroic or very villainous, a stark contrast that more readily pulls an audience into the story and heightens the dramatic tension. As opposed to episodic TV shows or literary novels, which explore the nuance of character development over time, folklore instead uses character archetypes to simplify the conflict, broaden its potential audience, and emphasize the story's implied message or lesson.


MORALLY INSTRUCTIVE THEMES TRANSLATE ACROSS CULTURES AND GENERATIONS


Folklore can only be relevant across multiple generations and geographies if it taps into some kind of universal theme—a moral lesson or honest reflection about the human condition. The timeless message of these stories enable them to not only effectively captivate an audience, but also take on a greater variety of meanings over time. The story of "David vs. Goliath," for example, has evolved far beyond a biblical myth and entered the mainstream cultural consciousness, often cited by sports announcers and business leaders and politicians to describe any kind of "underdog" scenario or seemingly impossible situation.


BRANDED PRODUCTS CANNOT BE THE HERO OF THE STORY


The essential elements of folklore contain an implied "rule" that any brand or marketer should keep in mind: a product or service cannot be the hero of the story. The brand may certainly be an important part of the narrative, a catalyst towards what ultimately happens at the end, but the story must be able to stand apart and appeal to audiences on its own merit. In some cases, the brand may not even appear, as was the case in Robert May's tale about Rudolph, which still succeeded in bringing families into the store.


CONCLUSION: STORYTELLING AS A HEDGE AGAINST TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE


The battle for consumer attention only grows more fierce with each passing year. Online audiences are ignoring, and sometimes outright blocking, many forms of advertising. Digital media continues to be re-shaped by a never-ending cascade of new platforms and devices and technologies, from social media to augmented reality to virtual headsets. How is any one person or brand or campaign supposed to keep up with all the change?


The answer: By putting the story ahead of the technology.


Imbuing the elements of folklore—simplicity, dramatic tension, high morals—into your branded content not only bolsters its chances of breaking through the noise; it also positions your larger brand storytelling efforts to more successfully adapt to whatever new technologies the future has in store, enabling subsequent generations of marketers and consumers to re-imagine your story in new and as-of-yet unimaginable ways.

By Leann Kirwan, Creative Solutions Specialist at AOL Canada