The Breakdown: In anticipation of the upcoming SXSW Interactive conference, our next interview in the SXSW Q&A series is with Helen Klein Ross (@adbroad), founder of Brand Fiction Factory, which aims to help companies use narrative to strengthen their brands in the digital space. She will be giving a talk called 10 Rules of Brand Fiction from Mad Men’s @BettyDraper. Helen began exploring the concept of brand fiction in 2008 while tweeting as Betty Draper of AMC’s Mad Men (@BettyDraper). After presenting about her Mad Men Twitter experiences at SXSW 2009, Helen is back to share her wisdom about this unique approach to branded content.
S/G: What’s the story (no pun intended) behind Brand Fiction Factory?
Helen: There are plenty of smart digital strategists out there helping brands chart a course in Wide World of Webs. But what story should a brand be telling out there? How to make sure it’s a story that’s not only engaging but true to the brand’s DNA? How to build a mythology that extends current marketing efforts? How, in other words, to do the creative?
I’m launching Brand Fiction Factory in the company of a few other Mad Men on Twitter conspirators to transform traditional, one-way advertising communication into entertainment that elicits real-time conversation essential to building brand share today. It’s a content provider for ad agencies, entertainment companies and others seeking to engage consumers in the digital space.
S/G: How will this year’s talk build on or diverge from your 2009 SXSW panel “Behind the Scenes with Mad Men on Twitter”?
Helen: Last year’s panel shared the drama of how characters from a cult TV show became a phenomenon in an unlikely media universe, when Twitter had a fraction of the users it has today and was used mainly for information exchange.
This year, the session will be more of a tutorial in which we’ll share learnings we’ve acquired over the past couple of years.
S/G: What differentiates brand fiction from other types of fan-produced narrative content?
Helen: Good question. Most fan fiction is brand fiction, but brand fiction itself encompasses a much broader universe. Brand fiction is branded or unbranded entertainment in the service of a brand. It’s participatory entertainment that validates consumers and gives them new incentive to connect with a brand, allowing for a deeper relationship with it. Brand fiction can be created by the brand, or merely condoned by it, by virtue of a brand allowing it to continue. Some brands are reluctant to do this, afraid of ceding control of their brand message. But this is to ignore the far greater loss of ceding claim in a new frontier to competitors. One of the things I’m going to speak about at SXSW with Michael Bissell (@Roger_Sterling on Twitter) is how brand fiction, fan-created or brand-created, can play a key role in a marketing campaign.
S/G: How can brand fiction benefit companies outside of the entertainment sector?
Helen: The area of brand fiction remains largely untapped by marketers who aren’t yet taking advantage of this new way to tell a brand story, even though, of course we need a new way, because old ways alone aren’t cutting it anymore with consumers. Brands traditionally told their story via broadcast advertising, but now audiences aren’t willing to sit back and have the story pipelined to them; they want to be an active part of the narrative. Henry Jenkins has written eloquently on this shifting landscape and the rise of transmedia entertainment in his book “Convergence Culture.”
I think brand fiction will be an integral part of our marketing future. Every brand has a story to tell and whether or not consumers are willing to listen depends on how the story is delivered to them. Brand fiction means re-crafting the brand message to allow for audience interaction by delivering it in various forms created and produced for the environment(s) where the audience is most likely to receive it.
It may sound complicated, but really, it’s as simple as Santa. Santa’s a brand fictionalized for every platform. For two months a year, you can’t go out of your house without being immersed in the Santa brand story, whether you’re watching TV, cruising the web, making a call, passing a billboard, even riding an elevator. Santa’s the best example of brand fiction there is: make the brand story an immersive experience which affords massive opportunity for consumer engagement, even evangelism. That, Virginia, is the future of advertising.
S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?
Helen: I’m looking forward to F2F conversations with a lot of people who I usually get to see only as avatars. And to tons of learning from a great lineup of panels. Also looking forward to a new event in the industry that’s launching at SXSW this year–The Hive Awards. For the first time coders, programmers, user experience designers and other “unsung heroes of the internet” are being honored at an awards show, organized by Alan Wolk. That should be fun. And since film and interactive conferences overlap, I hope to make time for a film or two. But, honestly, if this year is anything like last, I probably won’t be able to tear away from interactive. So many sessions, so little time.
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2010 Q&A Series