A screen capture from the 2013 edition of the ‘World of Red Bull’ series of short promotional films. (credit: Red Bull)

Story First, Everything Else Last

We need the willing suspension of disbelief to sell shoes?

“How is corporate storytelling different from other kinds of storytelling?”

I was stumped by the question. I have to thank the interviewer who found the bullet point in my LinkedIn profile and called me out on it. I hope his audio editor eventually eliminates 90% of the pause that followed so I sound a whole lot sharper than I guess I must be. I eventually replied with the only thing which came into my head at the time:

“It isn’t,” I offered, with a hopefully inaudible rising inflection. As the interviewer seemed to approve of my initial answer, I began to gain confidence in it: “yes,” I thought, “corporate storytelling is just like any other kind of storytelling, right?” That is, in the sense its ultimate effectiveness is related to its ability to transport us, the audience, to some other place or time — to have us willingly suspend our disbelief, as Aristotle put it. After that, anything is possible. We’ll go wherever the storyteller wants us to go.

It just has to be a great story.

I first became aware of Tamir Moscovici’s work with the trailer for the short documentary film Urban Outlaw. In it, Moscovici tells the story of Magnus Walker, founder of the Serious Clothing brand and an iconoclast in the Porsche community. There is just one perfect word to describe Magnus Walker: unique. It’s almost impossible to put the man and what he represents into any pre-existing category. Yet, Moscovici captures the uniqueness of Walker perfectly in Urban Outlaw. It’s also a symbiotic relationship. The film both captures the brand and helps to reinforce it at the same time.

Filmmaker Moscovici is one of the premier creators of visual branded content — the place where art and commerce meet, achieve the objectives of both but never at the expense of either. It’s tricky, but he proves it can be done beautifully and, importantly, with business-like predictably with regard to outcome.

After spotting a story about him in the British Porsche magazine Total 911, Tamir Moscovici cold called Walker and asked him about making a documentary film. After some initial reluctance, Walker agreed, and the eventual result was Urban Outlaw. It debuted at the 2012 Raindance Film Festival to popular and critical acclaim. A few million views later, the film is legendary with Porsche enthusiasts as are the characters and brands it depicts. Although marketing Magnus Walker was not a stated objective of the Urban Outlaw project, it has still done an incredible job in that regard. There is no way of knowing how much product has been sold as a direct result, but there’s a couple of million people who now want to emulate the Magnus mystique as a result of seeing the film. And that’s worth a lot.

At the core of every one of Moscovici’s films is an utterly engaging story populated with interesting and unique characters. These stories are then rendered with feature film production values. This includes meticulous attention to the soundtrack music and also faithfully capturing the location sound — Walker’s Porsches in the case of Urban Outlaw. This is absolutely essential to putting us inside the world depicted in the film. The resulting visual and aural concoction grabs our attention and doesn’t let go until Moscovici says so.

With apologies to Tamir, I almost prefer the trailer for Urban Outlaw to the full length film. The reason is simple: Moscovici had already taken countless hours of footage and cut it down it down to just thirty-two minutes and thirty-two seconds. From that distillation, he then had to go through the excruciating process to find those elements which, in a scant three minutes and thirty-six seconds, capture the essence of the film and in turn, the core essence of the Magnus Walker brand. The highly condensed result proves great storytelling can still be done in a film of incredibly short duration.

My intrigue with Urban Outlaw led to a happy obsession with Moscovici’s work for a time culminating with an extended interview I conducted with the filmmaker. Preparation included the detailed study of another two of his films and in the combination of the three I began to see one of the patterns of his work.

In the case of the improbably-named Painting Coconuts, commissioned by carmaker Audi, Moscovici places another intriguing character at the centre of the film: David Beattie, who after being downsized out of the Detroit car business, decides to return to his boyhood obsession of constructing slot car tracks — without even knowing whether there was a market for them. These are no ordinary, puny, boyhood layouts but as Beattie describes them “interactive works of art” on a massive scale. It’s well past half way through the film before the audience finally begins to ‘get it’ — what the connection is with the Audi brand. But that mystery enhances the experience. It draws the viewer in. We really want to see how it all turns out in the end. Does the good guy win? The surprising, emotional payoff at the conclusion of the film helps create the subconcious emotional connection between the sponsoring brand and its way-in-the-future prospective customers.

The third film was Moscovici’s magnum opus in the field of visual branded content entitled Kaz: Pushing the Virtual Divide. This full length feature film was commissioned by Sony to help promote its Gran Turismo car racing video game. Once again, Moscovici employs the dramatic element of centering the film on a thoroughly intriguing character. In this case, the almost ghost-like creator of the game, Kazunori Yamauchi. The film Kaz explores this highly cerebral individual by framing his work not as computer science — lines of code — but as craft and draws comparisons with more traditional craftspeople in widely varying, non-digital fields. At the end of it, the audience is left in awe of the mind-boggling and minutely detailed work which goes into modern video game design. Before viewing the film, we probably didn’t think of video games as craft, but we do afterwards and with it gain a whole new level of respect for the work.

Because I get enough screen time already, I have never actually played a video game. It’s true. That said, I might just play this one someday just to see how it all turned out.

How many commercials do we seek out to watch again and again long after they have left mass media rotation? For most it won’t be many, and I’m no different. But for the few I do rewatch of my own volition, Nike is behind many of them.

In the panoply of Nike advertising, two examples come to mind as exploring the outer limits of what’s possible with corporate storytelling through branded content. The first is the legendary Underdog which Nike ran in 2010. It really couldn’t be simpler, combining just four basic elements: visually, there are short cuts of the various Nike-sponsored athletes — no one cut more than a second or two and in some cases just milliseconds. For the soundtrack they added an edited and remixed version of First Breath After Coma by American post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. Then there are just the slightest hints of the location sounds of the actual sporting events themselves and only then, present at absolutely the right cinematic moments. Finally, there is the voiceover of ‘The Coach’ which is attributed to American actor John Dorman who, while he never appears on screen, does look every bit the part. Arguably there is a fifth element in the slightly-more-than-two-minute film: it’s the editing which is superficially simple but actually incredibly complex, superbly organized and exquisitely timed. The combined effect of these elements is an emotional rollercoaster which has us alternately feeling the intense pain and then the supreme ecstasy of the athletes.

However, the true genius of the film is The Coach’s monologue. The first couple of times the film is viewed, it’s natural to assume this is the kind of speech given to the athletes depicted in the film just before going out to compete. But in time a second possibility emerges.

The Coach is talking to us.

Underdog doesn’t sell shoes, at least not directly. It sells the idea of improbable triumph over ridiculously long odds. The kind of odds we might face if fate intervened and for one improbable moment we faced LeBron James, one-on-one, on some inner city basketball court where we both happen to be at precisely the same instant. The most obvious and most likely outcome would be King James sailing over us and noisily slam dunking the basket with its chain net.

But with The Coach’s words ringing in our ears, for a split second, we are the Nike athlete. With that, anything is possible.

Underdog is a triumph of simple elements woven into timeless, breathtaking filmmaking. However in a second example, Nike takes the art form one step further. In Swing Portrait, Tiger Woods is featured doing what he does best: unleashing that trademark, nearly 720 degree swing but shown in ultra slow motion. Everything else is abstracted away: Tiger wears all black against an all black background. A single instrument — a cello — plays a minimalist theme for a soundtrack. We cannot hear any sound related to the swing itself — in that sense, it’s almost like a silent movie. The one minute film starts as Tiger addresses the ball and finishes at follow through with his right leg, torso and arms forming a nearly perfect arc.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

Tiger Woods is a once-in-many-generation phenomenon who has certainly changed golf forever and, without too much exaggeration, also changed the wider world in many significant ways. Nike was a foundational sponsor of the Tiger brand and they have faithfully stuck with him over the years regardless of the twists and turns Tiger’s life has taken.

As his life evolved and inevitably became more complex, Nike takes the time to remind us that at the core of the Tiger brand is really just one thing: that amazing, out-of-this-world, virtually perfect golf swing.

Focus on that. Everything else is a detail.

I don’t drink Red Bull.

I’m sure it’s a perfectly good product and that it’s made from the best ingredients and all the people who work for Red Bull are good people. I also assume they are an environmentally sensitive company and donate generously to worthy charities and are, of course, an equal opporunity employer.

Red Bull is just not my thing, that’s all. No offence intended. And no, I haven’t tasted it, so guilty-as-charged on that account.

Imagine my surprise, then, at being mesmerized by the 2013 edition of the World of Red Bull ad. I watched it over and over again. Turns out, it has many similarities to Nike’s Underdog. It’s a series of short takes of Red Bull-sponsored athletes each doing their particular, truly amazing thing. The images are stunning and many of them leave the audience with a palpable sense of dread for the lives of the athletes, which seem to be in genuine peril in some cases. The soundtrack music is Sufjan Stevens’ already beautiful Redford, but remixed with lots of timpani and horns to make it even more cinematic and even more majestic. The final element is a simple voiceover by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner. That name may be familiar. In 2012, Red Bull sponsored his recordsetting skydiving jump from nearly 128,000 feet after being carried aloft by the Red Bull Stratos. His bunny hop from the gondola is the next-to-last visual cut followed by the final, thank-God-I’m-alive moment when the skydiver is back on Planet Earth.

Baumgartner’s voiceover consists of just three simple lines. He opens the film with “I think it’s human nature to want to explore. / To find your line and go beyond it.” Just moments later, he closes with “[t]he only limit is the one you set yourself.” Quite deliberately missing from the soundtrack, it seems, is the instantly recognizable tag line “Red Bull gives you wings.” It’s not needed because it almost spontaneously pops into our heads. This makes it even more impactful than if we had actually heard it spoken. The message? With Red Bull, we can do anything.

Some time after my most intense obsession with this ad had burned itself out I was in a convenience store picking up a few ‘essentials’. Of course, the Red Bull display was prominently located near the checkout. This is where the World of Redbull ad worked it’s subconcious magic. I found myself thinking, without first thinking of that wonderful ad, “I wonder what that stuff tastes like?”

Imagine, for a moment, at the end of Underdog it faded to “now until Sunday, all Nike shoes are 40% off!” Or at the end of Painting Coconuts, a disembodied voice says “visit your Audi dealer for exciting year end offers!” Or for that matter, just after it’s clear Baumgartner survived his stratospheric leap, he then stood up, looked right at the camera and said “now it’s time for a Red Bull!”

The incredibly fragile, gossamer-like suspension of disbelief would instantly be blown to smithereens. “Oh, I get it, you were manipulating my emotions just so you can sell me something” we might think, angrily. We’ll feel violated and cheated and deceived. The Fourth Wall will have been shattered and the pitchmen are now talking directly to their marks looking to hastily close the sale.

However, by avoiding these crude tactics, we are left with the pristine notion of the product the filmmakers worked so hard to make us to believe.

Make no mistake about it, though. Selling us stuff is exactly what these films are attempting to do. Nike really does want sell us shoes. Audi wants to sell us cars. Red Bull needs to feed the nearly seven-billion-can-a-year dragon, and do it year-in, year-out. The financial results of these companies seem to bear out they must be doing something right.

The sponsors of these films abjectly accept the non-linearity of the branded content storytelling form. With that, they also accept the utter absence of any traceable cause-and-effect and certainly the absence of any definable return on investment for the massive amounts of money they spend. They accept it’s simply the price they have to pay for getting the storytelling exactly right. Beyond that, they appear to be operating mostly on blind faith that these methods actually work.

So much so, it seems, they are willing to let their agencies weave their ephemeral magic without much constraint of any kind. Certainly without the burden of asking them to become hawkers and hucksters.

Instead, they simply ask them to tell us a great story.

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. All the films mentioned above can be found in Related Stories and Resources. You can also listen to this essay an episode on the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author and accompanied by additional audio artifacts.

Not There Yet.

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