You’re not telling a story if you don’t have a plot driven by conflict and characters people can identify with. Just ask any great storyteller, from Aesop to Stephen King.

Yet, many self-proclaimed brand storytellers are doing just that. Yes, they’re entertaining. But because they’re not telling a story, they can’t expect the same level of emotional engagement.

Here are two cases to illustrate my point: Cocoa Cola’s Open Happy animation about a red balloon and a commercial for the Pan Am Games, coming to Toronto this summer.

Another feel-good commercial

coke adIn the lovely, bouncy Coke piece, a red balloon peeks through apartment windows at happy gatherings, often fueled by coke, though there’s no rum in sight. I assume it was inspired by the Academy award-winning film, The Red Balloon.

But in that 1956 story, the personified balloon hung out in Paris with an endearing young boy. It hovered by Pascal’s window because his mother would not allow it into the apartment. Because they were friends, this never felt creepy. Over a half hour, a story unfolded of intimacy, adventure and soaring to new heights.

In contrast, the Coca Cola balloon simply spies through windows on strangers. Maybe Stephen Harper and the other politicians trying to normalize citizen surveillance are co-sponsoring it.

Plus nothing happens in this vignette. There is no plot. There is no hero, unless you count an inanimate peeping tom. There is no story.

While Coke sticks to its feel-good commercial tradition, the Pan Am organizers seem to be chasing opening credits.

Only a first chapter

I first saw the Pan Am ad, when it was unveiled at a local IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) seminar on brand storytelling. Like the Coke video, it was visually stunning and propelled by music, Ready or Not, no doubt inspired by the Fugees’ interpretation of the Delfonics original and their video about troops invading.

There is lots of action, as athletes run, swim, ride and otherwise race to Toronto. It could be the opening scene to a blockbuster story. On its own, it’s simply a mood-setting introduction.

There is no plot. There are too many characters to make it possible to identify with anyone.

Will they extend this opening battle cry into a story? Stay tuned. Or not.

Fire-breathing dragons

I’m not the marketing god who names new trends. But I am a communicator who takes seriously the need to avoid misleading labels. I know that you need dragons, not dressed-up dogs, if you want scary fire breathing.

Don’t assume you will reap the rewards of storytelling if you’re not telling a story. If you want to know how, you can read one of my earlier posts on basic storytelling structures and making magic. Or watch this quick presentation, Once Upon a Brand, that I will deliver at the Toronto IABC Rapido event tomorrow. To practice, take one of my storytelling workshops.

We all grew up reading fairy tales and watching movies and television. We continue to watch, read and tell stories. We know what storytelling is and is not.

I applaud how content marketers are injecting creativity and fun. Just don’t call them stories.

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