Does Storytelling Play Favorites?

At SXSW big brands take the spotlight when it comes to the convergence of storytelling and technology. But, when it comes to building narratives, is big budget the only factor that creates big impact?

SXSW is nothing if not commercial. It’s hard to walk 10 feet without being handed a branded koozie or see a “lounge” sponsored by anything from McDonalds to Samsung to the Nation of Brazil. It hit home when a fellow cadet and I were eating samples of chicken wings marinated in Pepsi that we got from a logo-blazoned airstream trailer.   

At SXSW, where what’s “cutting edge” and “cool” seems inextricably linked to major corporations, it can be easy to think that the only leaders in technology can be major brands with big bucks to spend.

In some ways, major brands have an undeniable leg-up when it comes to pioneering the use of new technology. A prime example is this year’s hottest topic at SXSW, virtual reality (and its more down-to-earth cousin, augmented reality). In a well-crafted talk by Wesley ter Haar, COO and co-founder of Amsterdam-based Mediamonks, he explained that while technology improvements will decrease the cost of VR hardware and production, the discipline has a long way to go before it reaches a point of mainstream accessibility for both users and producers. In short, VR will have an out-of-reach price point for the foreseeable future. In the meantime those who will make strides in VR will have deep pockets.

It can be easy to feel that museums, non-profits, and cultural organizations can only wait around to get the leftovers of what was once cutting-edge. However, as I thought about it more (and was weighed down by more and more branded swag), I came to a conclusion that it’s not quite as simple.

Once stripped of its novelty and glitter, VR is yet another vehicle for “storytelling.” In recent years “storytelling” has become an exhausted buzzword used to describe the idea of a narrative that propels an audience member to feel a certain way (motivated, inspired, hungry, etc.). However, the label “storytelling” doesn’t quite fit for both narratives that try to sell you something and narratives that try to teach you something. It’s easy to say that the former is corrupt and the latter pure and admirable, but it’s not as cut and dry. One type of “storytelling” is not better than the other, but it is safe to say that commercial brands are limited in the stories they can tell.

An example came during another SXSW keynote, a conversation between Fast Company editor Robert Safian and Under Armour Founder and CEO Kevin Plank. Plank has led the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company to undeniable success including record-breaking expansion and nearly two decades of continuous growth. Plank attributes the success of Under Armour to the “story” of the company. The “story” told by Under Armour–in partnership with creative agency Droga5–comes in the form of highly-produced media showing chiseled break-out athletes mid-workout (usually at obscure times of day to emphasize their grit and raw hustle). This hauntingly compelling video from the Rule Yourself campaign is a prime example.

What Under Armour cannot do, however, is tell a story that is not directly part of a marketing agenda, a story that has highs and lows that makes a tale authentically human and brings the viewer to a place of enriched knowledge. A brand’s media may be a “story”, but it’s one created by bells and whistles, not necessarily narrative substance.

The renowned director JJ Abrams presented a keynote session in which he repeatedly emphasized that technology, no matter how sexy or advanced, cannot make up for a lackluster story. While Abram’s endeavors are highly profitable, the success of his work hinges on having narratives that are rock solid and deeply human. He attributes his success not to the extensive technology used in making his films and shows, but to his tireless attention to the fidelity of his stories.

Big brands may have slick and expensive tech, but they are at a disadvantage when it comes to ready-access to stories that are truly meaningful. Museums, nonprofits, and educational institutions are up to their eyeballs in exciting, gripping, emotional, and touching narratives. Human stories are part and parcel of these organizations’ history, structure, and mission. Technology can bring stories of this caliber to the forefront, but it could never create them out of nothing. Cultural organizations can use technology to enhance their storytelling, not sustain it.

It is important to note that the divide between “big brands” and cultural organizations is not an issue of bad and good or even a hard and fast divide at all. At Bluecadet, we are fortunate to work in a niche of an industry that blends the two, a union that often produces the most truly innovative and captivating experiences. It is important, however, when buzz about sexy technology reaches a din, that non-profits, cultural organizations, and museums don’t feel like they are playing second fiddle.