How to Do Visual Storytelling That Doesn’t Suck: Cisco, Zendesk, Kinaxis

So you want to do visual storytelling. First, let’s clarify that it’s not synonymous with video, social images, interactive web pages, or advertising… though it’s often presented that way and used for all of those. Visual storytelling can occur in any medium or marketing channel that permits visual components.

Second, let’s clarify the most important thing that makes a story a story. A story has stakes. If you’re uncomfortable with portraying something at risk, or a longing we ache for—in short, if you’re uncomfortable with emotional content in a business environment, you’re not going to do visual storytelling. You can call it that, but whatever you’re doing won’t be about stories. Stories have risk—of failure, of a bloody nose, of stubbing a toe, of dying unfulfilled. Without stakes, all you have is anecdotes.

Other than that, we don’t really need someone to teach us what a good story is. We all, already know, which is why they’re so powerful. They are THE primordial form of human communication. The only way we fail to recognize, tell, and retell good stories is if we’ve got an emotional block. And one Hell of a lot of companies do have emotional blocks, which is why so many of their ads and marketing campaigns fall flat.

Emotional Flatness Will Kill All Your Stories And You’ll Never Understand Why.

Before we get to the visual part, we need to understand what makes a story work or fail. Consumer brands are the easiest pickings for fails.

  • Kenneth Cole tweeting during Egypt’s Arab Spring Uprising that millions in #Cairo were responding to Cole’s new Spring line. It’s a story, but emotionally shallow. These days, they’re doing much better.
  • Mark Zuckerberg showing off VR by walking over flooding and buildings in Puerto Rico hit by Hurricane Maria. It’s a story, but emotionally stunted. Too much Facebook?
  • Bloomingdales 2015 “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” holiday catalog ad with a man looking deviously at a woman who seems blissfully unaware of his intentions. It’s a story, but emotionally asleep. Scrutinizing their ads for 30 years did not illuminate me as to what drives their campaigns; most of the content has no story.
  • using a man’s death in a parking garage to push a $5 off parking coupon. It’s a story, but emotionally dead in a parking garage.
  • Kellyanne Conway waving around Ivanka Trump’s products in the heat of our nation’s emotional coup, which flushed the already poor performing brand (according to Nordstroms) down the tubes when it pulled Ivanka’s products. It’s a story, but emotionally whimsical if not twisted.

B2B makes less noise when they drop the ball, but it’s much the same.

  • Metlife pulling Snoopy as their ‘spokesperson’ when they turned their focus on B2B (apparently not B2B enough), and giving up decades of their built-up brand cache in the process, because business, after all, isn’t supposed to be fun! It’s a story, but emotionally shut down. And the Metlife example is sort of the point…

Let Your Brand Have an Emotional Life And It’ll Learn To Connect With People.

Seriously, you need to do three things if you want to reach a B2B audience with great visual stories, whether it’s in advertising, video, in social media, or whatever.

  1. You gotta leave your context. It’s gotten old, and it’s too competitive. Know what no one needs? Another financial website with pictures of bankers in suits, another medical marketing campaign with corporate rhetoric and pictures of smiling patients (we don’t all smile), more pharma ads with running, jumping families frolicking in flowers (preferably white, because they can afford the drugs), or another technology firm whose branding is all pictures of servers and claims about how much they “know data”. Really, haven’t we all seen this movie?
  2. The brand tone needs some edge somewhere. Anywhere. You can’t be a suit all the time. It either needs some sex, some swear words, some dancing, a cigarette like MadPipe’s got in its fingers, a bit of pugilism, or something. If it’s nothing, then you’re not marketing, you’re blathering. We are the nation’s #1 blah blah firm and the leading blah blah company, and we provide blah blah and offer blah. Yeah, news at 11.
  3. You need to learn to tell a good story. If all you can do is the standard IF/THEN: “if you’re looking for x, contact us”, you’re not fishing for customers—you’re asleep in the boat with your net dangling in the water, hoping something swims into it that day. It’s so much the way people market, I’d like Band-Aids to run a tongue in cheek (yes fun) campaign around it. “If you happen to have cut your finger in the last 30 seconds (because that’s how long it takes to clot), hurry, we sell Band-Aids.” I can see ad after ad of cashiers trying to ring people up before the bleeding stops.

Give Your Campaigns a Pair of Balls And Have Some Fun—Yes, Fun With What You Say to Prospective Customers.

Look, this only works if you’ve got the sack for it. If you’re zipped up all the way to your chin, and can’t let anything hang out, just don’t pursue it. And if that remark’s racy enough to make you cringe, it was aimed at you to make the point. You don’t have to be Oscar, though that would be fun…

Racy Ads

But if your team is still using the word “professional” as an outdated hammer about what are essentially superficial and trivial aspects of business, this isn’t for you. Business has evolved to be more colorful than ever—that includes B2B, as we’ll see.

Good storytelling is for adventurers who get a little beer on their chin, a little sauce on their shirt, a little blood on their sleeve—even if it’s just Hollywood blood. Break some rules. Not the inviolable ones—don’t run a campaign to interest women in science by asking them to fix a hair dryer, IBM (they’ve done better work, of course). And that’s the rub—your campaigns need to be led by someone who knows the difference between really important rules and trivial rules about tie width and hair falling over your collar. To put it mildly, to heck with professionalism—you need a proud dose of amateur—to assign your creative direction to someone familiar with the equipment of humor and human motivation. If they can’t consistently make you bust out laughing or get you to go “wow” or “that’s cool”, at least in some medium, they can’t reach your audience. You’ve heard me—that’s the test of whether you’re going to win more than you lose.

I’m not a fan of Getty’s litigiousness and licensing policies, but I like good stories. And this is damned clever. For one thing, they used their own tools to show what you can do with their own tools. So kudos for that.

Side note about winning and professionalism: It used to be that sportsmen considered it an insult to be labeled professionals—it was beneath them—”those guys get paid for the sport; we do it because we care about it, know it, and love it”. Amateurs were awesome purists. Now, of course, lucrative golf prizes and massive NFL contracts have drowned out that narrative. The film Ford vs. Ferrari alludes to the original ethos, however. It’s about how the professionals at Ford kept mucking up their racing program, and it took a group of amateurs to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race for them (which neither Ford nor another American car company has ever won since). The suits—the professionals—kept coming in and fiddling with the program. Told he can’t use the best racer for the job, Ken Miles, because he’s not the right corporate image, Carroll Shelby says in the film: “Money can’t buy a true racer.” In other words, people who win races aren’t “professionals”. They live for the speed, not the appearance of speed.

We’re not teaching semantics here, so I don’t care if we just redefine the terms and leave them their current relative statuses. It’s just as good to say professionals connect with the audience; amateurs ramble on about appropriateness, fret about being embarrassed, and obsess over long your hyphens are while your audience dwindles. After all, hey, if no one notices you, at least you don’t look bad. However you slice it, you either give your campaigns some balls, or it’s just going through the motions.

Ready to say screw that? Then let’s get down to some truly great examples:

Cisco Took a B2B Product (There’s No Other Use For It) And Made it About Valentine’s Day

We should bow before this. Bow before Cisco in 2009. It’s a router for data centers, and you recognize that PEOPLE buy routers for data centers, and PEOPLE respond to stories that acknowledge they have whole lives—and that means lives outside the office.

The suits would tell you that it’s stupid to associate corporate routers with a consumer holiday. They’d probably fire the marketing director who came up with the idea. Roars of laughter. B2B belongs in this box, B2C in the other. Routers have nothing to do with romance. It’s an absurd connection. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why it works. Eat your hearts out, you suits!

Similar romance theme. National Australia Bank, to defeat the stubborn perception that Australia’s top 4 banks were in cahoots to stifle the competition, declared a public, messy ‘break up’ with those 3 competitors through a full-on campaign in every channel they could—from billboards to blogs and twitter (remember, visual storytelling doesn’t equate with video—we’re just using video here to illustrate our points). Best ‘Dear John’ letter, ever, NAB! Hat doffed for this…

And for so many things. “Can we target out competitors?” the suits ask. Look, man, that’s why the term competitor was invented. Otherwise, we’d just call them people who seem strangely attracted to the same things we are.

Romance? Zendesk says “I like it when he gives me the business.”

Kinaxis Compares Bad Supply Chain Software to a Bad “Ex” Who Stalks You

It’s an episodic campaign:

The Kinaxis story arc works, because it’s playful about the end-user’s pain. “You can’t ever do that!” You can just hear the suits putting the kibosh on the idea. “Our customers take x very seriously.” Yeah, and the problem is you take it TOO seriously. Whatever is serious begs for humor because, as people, we need to exhale. Whatever we can’t laugh about, we make worse. You hear me? You’re either creating fun around a thing or, by prohibiting that, you’re making it worse. Zendesk agrees:

The point: if supply chain doesn’t have to be boring, NOTHING has to be boring. Heads up, Intuit! Even bookkeeping and accounting are fair game, so lose the suits! One more Kinaxis video:

For more of these episodes, and Kinaxis’ SuiteMates series, about a pair of ERP Consultants who go to prison, see their Youtube channel.

Meanwhile, my favorite logistics video is by Fleetmatics, the fleet tracking software firm based in Dublin that became Verizon Connect. We all have a friend or colleague who carries himself just like this guy. Richard, this is so you, buddy!

Knife Maker CRKT Asks Customers to Self-Identify With a Set of Values

“Our customers are different,” is what the suits always say. “They just want information and nothing else.” Your customers are NOT different; they’re human, and they have more things in common with the rest of us than differ. Human messages will reach them. And maybe, like CRKT, if you know who your tribe is, deep down, you can get them to opt in.

Squarespace Found a Celebrity Customer and Made Him Their Everyman

What’s great about this, too, is it not only walks prospective customers through the user journey, it takes the “trust me, I’m a celebrity” factor away completely, by letting Keanu Reeves make fun of himself (he’s clearly smart enough to understand every jab that’s been taken at him). The self-deprecation carries the story off tremendously. Suits never thought up something like that.

And yet, here’s the German government sponsoring a video for clean energy firm Epuron. Yeah, the German government.

“We couldn’t do that,” the suits are whispering over in the corner. If you agree with them, just stop now—there’s nothing more to see here. Because you’re really going to be uncomfortable with this…

HP Scares the Hell Out of Its Audience With Techno Suspense Movies

In an entire episodic series, the’ve got Christian Slater playing cyber criminal “The Wolf” and Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad playing “The Fixer”. And they are freaking scary.

Put aside for a moment that HP wants to be thought of along with cyber security, can they do this? Can they scare the beejeezus out of their audience? These are LONG stories. Moment after moment ticks by and they just keep amping up the fear, to Wes Craven proportions. Here’s the point: it no longer matters if you think you can do this kind of thing. If you’re NOT doing something like this, anything, to break down the artificial wall between business and life, you’re being outclassed by everyone who is.

Ouch, I know.

GE Sends a Snowball to Hell to Make a Point

Another episodic adventure series. This is designed to pair GE’s name with concepts like cutting edge materials and technology, scientific advancement, and…. wait for it… an emotional quality…. cool.

People are tired of not being cool. I mean the people on your sales and marketing committee but also the people in charge of product and implementation. And we ALL have the possibility of being cool. We can all be Indiana Jones or Batman or Crockett and Tubbs. Another in the Impossible Missions series…

It’s Not About Brand Tone

We don’t have to mainly crack a smile or be action heroes. We can be documentary style for instance (again, speaking about tone, not video format). This is a good story, because there are real stakes, not contrived ones. And it’s not funny or absurd, scary or action-cool. It’s somber. But that’s the point: it’s full of emotional depth.

You could argue, “Oh come on, now. Philips is just capitalizing off of something and looking for an issue they can claim.” Even if that were so, it works. A good story can leave you completely aware that someone is selling you something, or intentionally manipulating you (think of jump-scares in a Hollywood horror flick—think they’re accidental?), but if it’s good enough, it still activates all those neurons that tell you to let go and be immersed.

So none of this is really to pick on the suits, or to tease any companies that aren’t telling great stories. It’s meant as a bit of provocation, to suggest there’s a bit more to do here than just come up with good ideas. Good ideas have a way of getting shot down in committee. There’s a culture to address. The broader culture, which we can embrace with our marketing, messaging, and storytelling, and the culture of ‘fit’ which the suits lobby for, where everyone where’s the same uniform and no one gets out of line. Oh boy, you really want to get out of line, if you want to reach today’s audience.

For more videos like these, see my featured lists for B2B stories and B2C stories. See a variety of non-video visual story examples. Porsche is superb at short, simple, visual stories. Telling stories is a chunk of what I do with MadPipe, so you can learn about that on the Messaging page.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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