Risking it All: 5 Creative Trends in Brand Storytelling

Can you turn hate tweets into advertising? That’s the question FCB/SIX asked Kent Johnson of the travel and lifestyle startup Black & Abroad. The agency’s plan: to repurpose tweets featuring the phrase “go back to Africa” as a bitterly clever way to not only encourage black Americans to travel internationally but to also highlight positive images of black Americans who love to travel in Africa.

“We were terrified of this campaign, to be honest,” Kent told the audience of last week’s Most Contagious event in New York. “We’re a two person startup and a lot could go wrong. It’s a scary campaign.” But the campaign was wildly successful, bringing attention from Black & Abroad’s target demographic and from media outlets. In the end, the team was glad they did it. Johnson’s agency partner, Ian McKenzie of FCB/SIX, said, “All of the best marketing campaigns I’ve been a part of have always had this moment where the chief marketer slams their hand down on the table and says ‘We have to do this thing.’”

Black & Abroad’s Go Back to Africa project and many other incredible campaigns were on display at Most Contagious, a showcase of the best and most interesting creative work from around the world. Most Contagious also showcased many of the evolving trends that are driving conversations around creative and brand storytelling, and many of them have to do with brands making risky moves. As Chris Barth of Contagious said, “Don’t get fired, but do push for the space to do the work that needs to be done.”

Here are five topics that brand storytellers will be talking about in 2020.


1. Brands must stand for something

Given the focus on brand purpose and the Business Roundtable announcement last year, it’s not a big surprise that purpose came up a lot. From the CMO of Hero Digital speaking about the “truth and beauty economy” to Jordan Doucette, CCO of Leo Burnett, arguing that purpose doesn’t have to be so “purpose-y,” brands using their power for good was a big theme.

The most interesting thing was seeing how this works itself out in creative. Country Time Lemonade’s “Legal Ade” campaign, which set aside money to pay legal fees for kids fined by police for selling lemonade without a warrant (seriously) was a great example — impactful but fun, and a perfect match for a brand trying to find its voice.

There’s a lot of doubt around whether or not consumers actually buy based on their values, but as Contagious’s Chris Barth points out, any survey is always a rear-view mirror, and we’re starting to see the needle move on this.


2. Positivity is in

Call it the Baby Yoda effect. Almost all of the campaigns showcased were designed to give you the warm fuzzies or make you smile. Microsoft’s “Changing the Game” campaign — which WE led communications around — put accessibility for a niche audience front and center in a heartwarming way. Instant messaging service Slack injects joy into office communications and the AA’s singing baby ad was an upbeat success in the UK.

Of course, whenever there’s a trend, there are brands bucking it in creative ways. This Halo Top ad had the audience laughing.


3. Hyper-personalization comes of age

Brands have been talking about hyper-personalization for years, but now it feels like it’s really arrived. Many brands around the world are using a creative mix of machine learning, geo-tagging and data-mining to build ridiculously specialized campaigns.

Deutsche Bahn was able to target German travelers who had indicated a desire to travel internationally and show them photos of German locations that looked just like the international locales on their wish lists (the photos were sourced by neural networks). Puppo made personalized posters for every registered dog in New York and posted them up in the boroughs where the owners lived and walked their pups.

Yet, there’s a fine line brands must walk with hyper-personalization. As we’ve discussed before, it definitely has the capability to get creepy.


4. The power of IRL advertising

Despite all the cool digital work on stage, many brands talked about how meaningful physical experiences and out-of-home advertisements can be. Kathleen Hall of Microsoft talked about how important it was to get the Xbox Adaptive Controller’s box correct — especially for an audience that may have a wide range of mobility issues. “Unboxing videos are big in our industry,” she said. “We worked hard to get the physicality of the box just right.”

And oddly enough, billboards came up again and again. Led by Donkeys’ anti-Brexit billboards put political hypocrisy into the public sphere, and John Schoolcraft, global chief creative officer of Oatly, argued that billboards are the only channel that “actually let you become part of a city—how cool is that?”

An interesting point from Contagious’s Katrina Dodd: one industry that understands the power of physical advertising? Ironically, digital. Four of the top ten buyers of out-of-home media are big tech companies — Netflix, Google, Amazon and, at number one, Apple. Apple really knows how to make use of billboard space, too—remember their massive takeover of the side of the Marriott at last year’s CES?


5. Sustainability

Our Brands in Motion global survey found that 53% of respondents want brands to address environmental problems in both local communities and at a global level. So it was no surprise when the very first talk opened with a discussion of “the consumption crisis.” According to Contagious, consumers are looking to:

  • Re-use more
  • Own less
  • Waste less
  • Think more about their impact

Most of the talks touched on sustainability and responsibility. Consumers around the world are aiming for quality consumption — owning less but owning better — preferring high quality items or subscription services over cheap, disposable products. We’ve all seen companies improving packaging and getting rid of single-use plastics, and other brands are getting even more creative. H&M has installed DIY repair stations in some of their stores. Nudie Jeans offers free repairs for life. Subscription services work for more than just software — Volvo offers a car subscription service, and there’s a whole collection of consumer goods rental startups — Upchoose for baby clothing, Feather for furniture, Kipling for luggage and more — changing the way we own.

With so many of these campaigns, what stands out is brand storytelling’s ability to turn a problem not only into a solution but to also drive real change — from Black & Abroad’s ability to switch up the narrative of black American travelers on social media, to Microsoft physically changing people’s lives and Country Time creating a law to help kids sell lemonade. To many, these ideas shouldn’t have worked. The fact that they did can tell us something about how brands can use risky propositions to create enduring consumer love.


For more insights into the challenges and rewards of building emotion-infused creative that’s human to the core, read our whitepaper, “Creativity vs. Everything.” 

February 10, 2020

Kristin Flor Perret
Former EVP, Head of Global Marketing