How brands are using fictional tales to foster real-world engagement

Once upon a campaign, a big, popular brand was tired of having to choose from the same old marketing channels. The latest social media sensation was too hot. Television was too cold. But then the brand tried using fictional storytelling to entertain and engage consumers, and that was just right.

Social media and television aren’t exactly stale porridge, no matter what Goldi-brand thinks. But content marketers are increasingly turning the page to fiction, producing short stories, novellas, comic books, and graphic novels to boost engagement and enrich brand reputation—which is, at its most basic level, a story unto itself.

Advertorial fiction is not exactly a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, preppy clothing brand J. Press created a cult fiction craze when it tapped Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami to write microstories that accompanied its magazine advertisements. General Electric dabbled in fiction decades earlier with a series of 1950s- and 1960s-era comic books—which recently inspired a collection of brand-sponsored science fiction stories. Microsoft’s advertorial yarns range from a tongue-in-cheek 2007 illustrated children’s book titled Mommy, Why Is There a Server in the House?  to the newer sci-fi anthology Future Visions (see below). Sometimes the best branded tales aren’t even stories in the traditional sense: One of GE’s most successful fictional pursuits is an otherworldly serial podcast called The Message, which hit No. 1 on iTunes last year and spawned a brand-new sequel, LifeAfter.

“The impact and value of creating a great story, one that really resonates, is immeasurable,” Linda Boff, CMO at General Electric, told Inc. “Audiences want to know who you are and what you stand for. Sometimes that means being the main character in your own play, and sometimes it means showing up subtly as to not distract the audience from the enjoyment of the narrative.”

The moral of the story? Brands that successfully harness the power of fiction just might live happily ever after. Now curl up with one of the following recent brand fiction examples.

Microsoft’s Future Visions

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, computers that can see: It may sound a bit Brave New World, but the line between science fiction and science fact blurs in this short-story anthology.

 “The idea was to bring authors in,[and]to expose them to what some people might think is science fiction,” says Steve Clayton, chief storyteller at Microsoft. “There is a good track record of Microsoft Research turning things that maybe seem like science fiction into reality.”

For the 2015 project, Microsoft invited nine well-regarded sci-fi authors—and one graphic novelist—behind the curtain of its research lab in Redmond, WA, sparking creative inspiration for fictional tales about what the future of technology might look like. The result? A 239-page tome, available for free digital download via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others, that proves fact and fiction can sometimes be one and the same.

ANA’s The Next Best Thing to Being There and Coach

Japan’s largest airline recruited the expertise of authors Kevin J. Anderson (whose writing credits include installments of the Star Wars and Dune sagas) and award-winning author Mike Resnick to pen these sci-fi short stories as part of its multiyear ANA Avatar XPRIZE project. Selected as a top prize concept at the recent XPRIZE Visioneers conference, the campaign is focused on creating real-world, physical avatars—basically humanoid robots that can channel human experience instantly around the globe via full VR body suits. Fittingly, both stories star an avatar as a main character, lending a glimpse into what might be possible in the future.

AT&T’s Freak Week

As part of its yearlong influencer experiment, Hello Lab, AT&T is sponsoring Grace Helbig—a YouTube darling whose following numbers more than 3 million—to co-author this futuristic novella about a high school student stuck in a global warming-induced alternate reality. Using #WritingWithGrace on the story-sharing platform Wattpad, readers submit their own 500- to 1,500-word chapters, with the winners earning their own place in the narrative.

“It’s a great way to connect what we do with an incredible new form of storytelling,” says David Christopher, CMO of AT&T Mobility. “This digital generation’s creativity, empowered by wireless networks and smartphones, is changing the way we create and consume entertainment for the better.” 

GumGum’s Internal Error and The Data Knight

GumGum, a computer vision platform for marketers, recently ventured into the fictional realm with Internal Error, a satirical novella about a new college graduate who plunges into the working world as a marketing intern at a big-time tech company.  Penned by comedy writer Brock Wilbur with art by Charles Chaisson, the book is a send-up of everything from millennial stereotypes to marketing strategies to technology worship. GumGum also created The Data Knight,  a comic book with renowned comics writer Alex de Campi, colorist Leonard O’Grady, and artists Darick Robertson and Tony Parker. It features a superhero and sidekick with–what else–computer vision powers, which are used to rescue the world from unfair wireless providers.

GE’s Adventures in Science Series

Written by selected Wattpad contributors, these six science-fiction stories draw inspiration from the futuristic comic books GE published more than 50 years ago, back when technologies like wind energy were a novel concept. Titles like Adventures in Electricity and More Power to America combine the nostalgic appeal and retro artwork of the original comics with updated storylines and real, modern GE technologies.

Get your free copy of Internal Error: Millennial Misadventures in Marketing, by Brock Wilbur, here

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