Real Storytelling

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Did you catch any of those AT&T ads during the Olympics in which a winning swimmer or runner time was actually in the spot like right after somebody won a race? It wasn’t that immediate (though I remember it so), but it was nevertheless an incredibly brilliant example of how the artifice and invention of marketers could produce stories that were as real as reality.

The process behind “The New Possible” campaign was gloriously complex: First, multiple generic spots were shot/compiled for a few sports (featuring male or female winners). Then the agency, BBDO, shot hundreds of endings, each featuring a particular winning time. Then its team camped out in London during the event and got actual footage from NBC when likely winners competed in their qualifying races. The footage was quickly edited together and then, when somebody won, the right ending was added.

The spots were on air within 24 hours. Again, I thought they were immediate.

Perhaps the stories themselves made the commercials seem so relevant. They were all variations of the same idea, featuring a teenager going to/returning from practicing a sport and witnessing the winning Olympic on his or her smartphone. A resolute grin telegraphed the campaign’s “possibility” theme, and also made a connection between the real Olympic event and the implicit stories of the spots.

The ads were obviously scripted, expertly shot, and delivered through a calculated effort, and yet they come across not just as stories, but as real ones. This is advertising at its finest. My one issue with the campaign is a doozy, though:

I don’t get what the hell its got to do with AT&T.

AT&T has been delivering a branding for a while now under the rubric “The New Possible,” and I imagine that there are lengthy presentations explaining how the qualities of hope, innovation, personal initiative, and other aspirations should be a part of what the AT&T brand stands for. The company has spent many millions of dollars to tell us about it.

But who cares?

The idea that companies should grasp at attributes to attach to brands is a broken approach that was last current sometime in the 1970s. The advent of the Internet and social media, combined with the wizened if not utterly jaded opinions of today’s consumers means that the only brand associations that are sticky and matter are those that emerge from the experiences of those consumers. AT&T can spend billions telling us it wants to own the idea of “possibility,” but it’s no more real than Verizon or T-Mobile claiming the same attribute. Or Pledge floor polish.

Any brand can hire smart ad people to create brilliantly wonderful campaigns. The only differentiator, and success metric worth measuring, are the purposes to which those smart people put their attention. Global recognition of great ads and even recollection of the creative theme does not branding make. Great brands have great sales results, and they get there by communicating honestly and sustainably with the markets they serve.

So hats off to AT&T and BBDO for pulling off a really cool idea, and for creating spots that told stories in a way that rivaled the best “real” stories that real people might have told.

Had they elected to find and tell those real stories instead — even weave them into larger, more compelling uber-stories that only great advertising can share — not only would it have been better branding, but perhaps gotten some of us to fork over our dollars in thanks. AT&T missed this real possibility by choosing to talk about an imaginary one.

Image via flickr

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