Part of what continues to fascinate me about advertising is the rare opportunity to define a brand—to make tangible the intangible—using mere words and images in a “strategic” or “brand essence” film. It’s a slight honor to own the task. Typically, you get all the trappings of a TV shoot, but with less money, less time, more attention from the client and no category in which to enter the finished piece in an awards show. But it pays the bills, and really, the value’s in the learning and doing the thing itself; in other words, in the writing.
Before anything is filmed, before anything is edited, before the celebrity VO steps up to the microphone, before the audience of skeptical regional sales managers settles in to watch what you’ve created—there is nothing. There is the blank screen.
Lucky you. There’s a story about Hollywood that says the reason everyone hates the writer is because the writer gets to see the film before anyone else; same goes for defining brands. If you’re writing (doesn’t matter if you’re a copywriter, art director or a designer), you’re privy to the idea way ahead of everyone else.
My memory is foggy. I think the first strategic film script I wrote was at Heater|Easdon, back in 1995 or 1996. We did a lot of new product development for Anheuser-Busch. They’d send us a case of unlabeled bottles filled with…something. We’d get a briefing from a brewmaster over the phone, then come up with a name, logo, label, tap handle, neon sign and some kind of script for a video about the new beer.
We were creating brands from almost nothing. Oftentimes, our success seemed to have more to do with luck or synchronicity or personality. And maybe skill had something to do with it. Reminds me of the brand-making process seen in Mad Men. There’s a heroic appeal to being The One Who Figures It Out. But the truth is, you probably owe a thousand people equal credit for helping get your head, your heart and your hands in the right place at the right time.
The strategic films we created for Volkswagen during the “Drivers wanted” era were rarely made from nothing. More often than not, we had too much information. Skill had as much to do with reading, researching and editing as the writing. For example, you might sense a connection between Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American and interviews the planners made while researching Jetta rejecters. You’d sense there’s a headline or a sequence in there, somewhere. Then you just kept writing until they appeared.
The other distinction about any strategic film I made back then and those I do now is the Internet. Well, not really the Internet per se, but the significant changes in media, business models, measurement, access to data, consumer empowerment and all those other factors that have come to define the business and advertising worlds post-Internet.
In my experience, strategic or brand essence films made to define a brand pre-Internet were done so with a very important, but tacit understanding: The brand is in charge, the brand is primarily communicated via words and images, and the brand has something very important to tell its customers. This understanding very much affected how you put down the words.
As plenty of other pundits and authors (including myself) have pointed out, we’re not in Kansas anymore. That old point of view is probably one you want to avoid. Today the brand likely isn’t in charge, there’s a lot more to the story than mere words and images can tell, and the brand’s customers might actually have something more important to say about the state of affairs than the brand itself.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write the script. Defining brands is still incredibly important and film is still a wonderful and very effective device for communicating what a brand is all about. You might not end up creating just a film, however.
What’s changed now is the scope of the writer’s assignment. It’s not strictly about communicating what the brand means metaphorically anymore. Creating a brand film can be an opportunity to affect how the brand operates in the real world. In many ways, the writer’s task when defining a brand now is in setting down principles for manufacturing, customer service, distribution policy, pricing as well as communications. It can be a conduit for improving relationships between a brand and its customers.
We live in an age of such transparency that to create a brand’s strategic film that glosses over how products are made and transported, or how service is delivered is to invite investigation and potential ridicule. To try and define a brand without involving its evangelists in the process is risky. To ignore the opportunity to try and define, fix, alter or improve the company itself in the process of creating its brand is to abdicate responsibility for that brand.
In many ways, the process of writing brand films today can and should be a broader act.