Brand Storytelling
Interview with James Rickard

Title illustration: a film crew with equipment in the Australian outback. In front of the blue sky a blimp is hovering on a huge mobile crane over the red earth.
On location with stills photographer, Andreas Smetana at Manguri Station just west of opal mining town, Coober Pedy in the South Australian outback for Great Southern Rail.

HOW TO TELL STORIES THAT STICK: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES RICKARD

Storytelling is not a new trend, but in recent years the technique has developed into a powerful tool that no marketing strategy should be without. We spoke with James Rickard, independent creative consultant, about what is important when it comes to telling a good brand story, how to remain authentic in the process, and how to captivate your target group with lasting effect through good storytelling.

If you haven’t lived under a rock for the past years, you have probably already heard about storytelling. At least in the advertising and marketing scene, the topic has been on everyone's lips for a few years now and is considered by many experts to be one of the most important pillars of a company's or brand's marketing strategy. Since time immemorial we humans have been telling stories — whether unconsciously in the narratives of everyday communication or in the form of carefully crafted literature, whether conveyed personally or through the media, in writing, images and sound. However, especially in recent times, storytelling seems to have gained a special topicality for the communication industry.

Especially in advertising and marketing, marketers have to vie for the attention of their target groups — with more and more content being published every day, more and more complex and extensive information coming at us and a decreasing attention span of the recipients, no easy task. How do you convey information, knowledge and data in the best possible way and in such a way that it sticks in the minds of the recipients? Good storytelling is the answer. But what is ‘good storytelling’?

To find out first-hand what storytelling is all about and how to convey a good, authentic story, we spoke with James Rickard, independent creative consultant from Adelaide, Australia. With over four decades of experience in the advertising industry, James has worked at large multinational ad agencies as well as smaller shops and was Creative Director at one of Australia’s most successful and respected independent advertising agencies.

During his career to date he has won numerous advertising awards including the Grand Prix for “Barossa. Be Consumed” at the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards and the Grand Prix CIFFT for the “Best Tourism Film of the Year” in 2014.

James Rickard (portrait)
James Rickard, copywriter and creative director.

INTERVIEW

1 What is your concept of storytelling and how do you implement it into your work?

I work in the advertising world, so there are two crucial aspects of storytelling for me. First and most importantly is the outcome.

What is it you want the audience member to do once they have been exposed to your story? It’s not just about creating something artistically beautiful; we are charged with the responsibility of creating a commercially practical outcome for our client; the brand owner.

This may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some people, but for the client, the one who is paying for everything, this is why we exist; why we do what we do.

So, what is it we want the audience to do? Buy something, agree with a point of view, sign a petition, visit a location, change their recycling habits, donate to a charity, drive slower?

Whatever it is, we need to fully understand and agree on what the outcome is first.

That is the pragmatic aspect that underpins the story.

The second part is the ‘how’. And this is where you can unleash all your creative expertise, so long as it is intrinsically linked to the outcome.

The story can be a simple narrative, a metaphor, a parable, or a work of fiction. It can be constructed in a traditional, linear format or it can be more oblique or esoteric. The options and combinations are virtually endless.

You can tell a boring story – this product is made of the best wah, wah, wah and has superior blah, blah, blah, or you can tell an intriguing, entertaining and immersive story the viewer will never forget.

The choice is yours.

2 Why should we tell stories in marketing and how to tell a ‘good story’?

We have been combining audio and visual communication to tell stories for tens of thousands of years.

The first cave paintings were accompanied by the orations of elders to convey important stories.

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of what it is to be human.

Here in Australia, our First Nations people (the world’s oldest, continuous culture on the planet), combine their oral history with art, music, and dance to tell their story.

But again, while some of those ancient accounts are very pragmatic – this is a good place to hunt – others were woven into spectacular tales.

Our indigenous peoples, of whom we should be far more respectful and prouder, created what we call the Dreaming. Great god-like heroes, warriors, giants, and other ancestral beings, along with fantastic mythical creatures who created the landscape, developed their lore, and codified their culture and philosophy.

It is this fantastic and evocative storytelling that ensures messages are understood, easily remembered and worthy of being passed on from generation to generation.

3 What effects can a well executed story telling campaign have in your eyes? What makes a successful brand story?

Every great story must be rooted in a truth. But that truth must be of value to the person you are telling it to.

For example, the “Barossa. Be Consumed” campaign was anchored to an undeniable truth – soil.

Now, soil in and of itself isn’t very exciting. Nor is the fact the region is made up of eight distinct soil types. Even the fact the first European settlers started growing grapes and making wine there isn’t so remarkable.

But when you consider other artisan food producers in the region had extraordinary success in growing their produce in the very same soil, you start to become just a little intrigued. Why does this small corner of the world enable so many epicurean producers to thrive here? Why is what they grow so much better than elsewhere? Is there something magical about the soil?

Now we have the basis of an interesting story. Everyone in Australia knows Barossa is famed for its wine, but now we were telling them something new — the secret to Barossa‚Äôs success as the home of the finest foods and wines is its unique soil.

Illustration: A crew scouting views in a mountain valley
On location in the 600-million-year-old Flinders Ranges, 450 kms north of Adelaide for the South Australian Tourism Commission.

We were targeting the gourmet traveller and telling them if they wanted an unparalleled gastronomic adventure, they must visit the Barossa Valley.

Countless regions around the world could make the identical claim, so now it is down to ‘how’ you tell the story to make it uniquely the brand’s own.

In this case, the story was multilayered and esoteric. In fact, it was written in reverse. The story begins with an empty table, and we journey back quite literally to the roots of the produce that was once feasted on, but not in an obvious and hackneyed way. We didn’t show anything awful like wine going backwards into the bottle; we reversed the story, not the film.

Barossa. Be Consumed.
4 You write that impact is more important than reach. How do I create a brand story that has a big impact? And why does reach play a subordinate role for you since the goal of advertising is to make as many people as possible aware of a product or brand, ultimately?

When done well, great brand stories require less viewing because people are instantly attracted, genuinely immersed and feel a deep connection to the message.

Consider much of what is presented to us on digital and social media platforms. Most are dull, uninspiring, and therefore need to be highly repetitive for us to even notice them. Then, suddenly, there is one remarkable piece that is impossible to ignore.

In a sea of mediocrity, make your brand story an island so breathtakingly desirable, people will want to swim to it.

We created a huge impact with our campaign for Kangaroo Island. Instead of merely showing landmarks and attractions like every other advertiser in the tourism sector, we dug down into the essence of the location; bringing to life its sense of freedom and reconnection. Yet another typical postcard video simply wouldn’t cut through. This certainly did.

South Australian Tourism — Kangaroo Island. Let Yourself Go
5 In the same way, you say "quality over quantity" — in your opinion, what are indicators of high-quality advertising? And how do you manage to create advertising that is of high quality and appealing even with a small budget?

Even the smallest budget can and should be leveraged to ensure the brand is represented in the best possible way.

Regardless of the price, a brand must be valued.

Often, I think we are too easily seduced by big productions and attempt to replicate them on a fraction of the budget. Write under budget. If you only have $10,000, write a $5,000 idea, then explore every possible way to add the utmost value to the production. There is no surer way to fail than to conceive an idea you can’t genuinely afford to make.

I am a regular panellist on several creative international award juries and continually see ideas fall short because they have been overwritten and underproduced. I see highly complex but poorly executed ideas laden with special effects for small clients with tiny budgets, when only a global publisher like Activision would have the money and expertise to bring it to life properly. Sadly, we don’t often get to work with Nike, Apple or Disney-size budgets.

Work with the very best people your budget can stretch to.

I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career to work with extraordinary people such as the late, great and sublime director and cinematographer Jeffery Darling; academy award-winning director Scott Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson; chart-topping and ARIA award-winning record producer Nick Launey, along with many great photographers, producers, musicians, engineers and other talented professionals.

Sometimes, but not always, the most gifted people are prepared to give you so much more than you could possibly afford if they share your vision and the story is really worth telling.

6 Are there certain core aspects that are part of every good brand story?

Contrary to popular misconception, people are highly intelligent and don’t need everything spelled out for them. Books would be very thin and movies very short if we simply laid bare the facts in the simplest possible terms.

If we wrap up our story in a way that enables the audience to become a part of the journey, they will feel a greater sense of reward. They will be immersed in the story; help discover its meaning and even draw their own conclusions. If done well, the audience will take ownership of the story. They will share it, promote it, and defend it.

Make the story too complex though, and the audience will disengage. Too simple and they won’t feel compelled to engage.

Understanding and setting the tone of your story is crucial. Should the brand message be rustic, robust, and earthy? Elegant, sophisticated, and mysterious?

Once the tone has been agreed upon, then you can begin bringing the story to life. The tone will affect everything from the choice of music, voice over, colour grade, casting, film speed, editing, location, props, graphics, typography, etc.

Then there is layering. While the story is an unbroken golden thread, it can be enveloped in subtly and nuance. In much the same way great novels have subplots; layers can aesthetically enhance a story and add depth to its meaning.

Texture, temperature, colour, sound effects, subtle metaphors and many other visual and audible layers can embellish a story to improve its effectiveness and appeal.

A word or two on music: the soundtrack provides 50% of the story. It creates the mood and can dramatically increase recall. Too often, music and sound design is an afterthought when it should be as highly valued and pre-planned for as the visual.

Illustration: In the studio
In a recording session with record producer, composer and recording engineer, Nick Launey in Sydney for the South Australian Tourism Commission.
7 Emotions and emotional content play a big part in storytelling – what are the best devices to convey the feeling that you intend to create connected to your brand? And how far can emotions be condensed and reduced without robbing them of their power?

If an audience member is truly engaged with a message, they will feel something. This should be the goal of any great story, whether it is a corporate video, documentary, film, television commercial or social media post.

As the great American poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So rather than think about what emotions you can build into your story, think about what emotions your story will elicit.

We are blessed with the opportunity to make people feel something. We have the entire array of human emotions at our disposal. We can make them feel joyful, nostalgic, relieved, excited, and calm. We can also make people fearful, confused, awkward, distressed, and angry.

Positive and negative emotions are equally powerful. Which ones you leverage come down to what you want from the outcome of your story.

A client of mine who was the Artistic Director of an international arts festival once said to me, “If you have no reaction to it, it isn’t art.” I think this is true of commercial storytelling. If the audience has no emotional response, it has failed, utterly.

Better to be hated than ignored.

8 Against the backdrop that, especially in the context of TikTok and Instagram, there is less and less time to convey a message — how do you tell a brand's story in just a few seconds?

While we’d all like more time, my career has essentially been governed by 15 and 30-second increments for television and radio commercials. Of course, I love creating epic two-minute-plus videos for cinema, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Fortunately, many digital and social media channels enable you to create videos of any length, but this can also be a trap. While you don’t want to rush a story, there is no point in being overindulgent with time either.

You must be an honest and brutal editor of your own work.

Once again, as a juror I have had to endure overlong corporate and content videos. I studiously watch every minute but am often begging for it to end. When you consider I am a part of the industry so therefore have a vested interest in what I am being shown, imagine what it would be like for a member of the public to watch?

However, even with the explosion of platforms like TikTok, there is no need to fear short timespans. As an example, 20 years before TikTok, back in 2001, Leo Burnett created a series of memorable and award-winning 10-second ads:

McDonald’s “Plumber”

These little gems would still work today on digital and social media platforms, as well as television screens.

9 Are there any trends in storytelling right now that seem to be worth following?

The marketing and communication industry loves a trend. It loves to create new ideas like disruption, engagement, brand purpose and the like, and the latest buzzword is storytelling.

The fact is, like almost all the trends of recent history, they’ve all been around for a very long time. Storytelling is nothing new; it’s been around for millennia in fact, but our industry loves to recycle, rebadge, refabricate, repurpose, and reinvent the latest new shiny thing.

Unfortunately, a lot of influential, but ill-equipped people take hold of the latest trend. They wax lyrical to position themselves as experts and in doing so, misguide the inexperienced and gullible.

Once you have a thorough understanding of your audience and desired outcome, the one enduring trend in storytelling is authenticity. People have finely tuned radars and can spot a fake or disingenuous story a mile away. Keep it real.

About James Rickard
Adelaide, Australia
Creative Director and Copywriter

A long and successful career spanning more than 40 years ago has seen James work for large multinational and smaller independent advertising agencies. His skill set has evolved from art direction to a copywriting and ultimately creative direction.

He has worked on a diverse array of brands in categories including premium beer and wine, finance, automotive, sporting events, the arts and most notably, tourism.

Along the way James has been fortunate enough to pick up numerous creative awards.

His work for the South Australian Tourism Commission, “Barossa. Be Consumed.” won 7 Grand Prix and 10 Trophies in 11 countries and was ultimately awarded the 2013 CIFFT Best Tourism Film of the Year at the Festival of Festivals in Vienna.

www.jamesrickard.com.au