Digital storytelling with an inflated piece of leather

You can go to seminars.  Watch inspiring Ted talks.  You can study storytelling from Homer to Homer Simpson until you are yellow in the face.  But we all have plenty to learn from the NBA.  I just spent my best sleeping hours watching Game 3 of the Finals and the storylines are too many to count.

Over here in Europe it is hard to explain to people.  They are used to the pathetic low levels of entertainment that soccer offers.  They don’t mind watching multiple extremely boring games as long as once in a while someone dazzles them for a few minutes or scores a goal once every forty minutes.  They put up with rigged matches and applaud Juventus, happily forgetting the unbelievable scandals that sent that very same team out of the picture a few years ago.

Every sport gets better when you know the storylines, the players, the drama.  The NBA however is the only sport that makes sure you can’t miss them.  Let me illustrate my point with just the most recent posts from the official NBA Instagram account today as I find them:

On the left a pretty straightforward “match up” type story.  LeBron versus Curry.    If some post Jungian psychologist wanted to frame this, we would say it is the anticipation stage of the story.  Dramatic graphics, blue versus red, this is an eternal struggle as a poster.  A black man with white clothes is keeping the ball away from a white man in dark clothes, their bodies locked, their wills at odds.  The two greatest players of our time with the word “AT” between them.

Each player in the NBA has a tiered set of myths.  LeBron is not just about his “legacy” or “Greatest Of All Time”.  He is “chasing the ghost” and “returning to Cleveland” as a modern day Ulysses.  On the right he is flying, the illusion of invincibility of the dream stage in any story as the hero has some success but…not quite.  There is always something more.  Like the endless supply of StormTroopers that Luke Skywalker shoots, the endless levels of a computer game.

The NBA excels in making stories out of older players too.  Here we have LeBron, alive, in colour, next to a faded retro Bill Russel.  Michael Jordan still makes millions from selling shoes on the back of this sort of myth making.  And even much lesser players are kept around contributing to “the big NBA family”.  Today I choked up as with a few simple gestures the NBA made a fuss about a person in charge of TV something or other.  That’s how good they are!

In fact today as we watched, the sportscaster said “wow, those two are setting the stage to take a role in the future here”.  He was referring to two players with microphones, another NBA first whereby we can listen to the players during the game.  It really brings the action, the passion and the human stories to life.  These two players, according to the sportscaster, will likely take a place as commentators.  Indeed there are many great players now entertaining us, analyzing moves and making sure we understand what is happening.  Shaq a prime case study of such a transition.   On the left “4XMagic, legends reunited”.  Players don’t drift off and disappear as happens in other sports and other leagues.  If you make it to the NBA, you can be here for life, simply changing roles in the story.  It is like DC or Marvel characters, ever weaving narratives along the way.  The Warriors’ coach was a sportscaster before becoming a champion.  Before that he was a champion with the Bulls as a player.  It never ends.

In fact the NBA is so amazingly good at making stories of everything that all the social responsibility things they do seem relatively “normal”.  LeBron can donate a hundred million for children from rough areas to study and we don’t even flinch.  After all he is himself David Copperfield or Aladdin or some other mythological hero in his own story of rags to riches.  You can watch a feature film about it.  He produced it.  And that was before the unbelievable way he brought the title to Cleveland after so many years.  Rocky Balboa revisited with a very real “local boy” aspect, he deserves the statue even more than the one erected for Stallone’s film hero.

The NBA hardly allows a single bit of information to flow to social media or any other media without making sure it can be framed within stories.  Steph Curry, the amazing little boy that nobody took seriously, like the Lord of the Rings bringing a title to a team which was at the bottom of the league for so many years.

The NBA produces so much content that fans can produce their own mini movies simply repurposing video.  Some of them are quite good actually.  Other fans produce short films with “footage” from games they edit together into a story or a video clip.

But they do so much more.  I was amazed at the insightful comments of my younger son until I discovered the source of his basketball wisdom: short clips on Instagram which are converted with graphics reminiscent of NBA 2K showing how a team or a player executed a particular play.  And it’s not just the spectacular stuff.  Any and every aspect of the game are brought to the forefront.  A particularly good example is the replay.  While other sports like soccer avoided it like the plague (probably so that they could more easily rig matches), replay became integral to the NBA.  They branded it, they gave it a story.  Much like the frustration stage in a good story, when the hero struggles, is treated unfairly or is confronted with a seemingly unbeatable enemy.  The referees go to the monitor.  They wear big headphones so they can concentrate.  We see it all, nothing is secret or vague.  In fact now in the TV coverage they added a new character;  the wise man who knows the rules and explains what is at stake.  Again branded, this mini story within the main narrative ;the replay center brings a happy end to that particular scene with justice.  We all saw that LeBron wasn’t stepping on the three throw line so here is one extra point for you retrospectively.

Most of what the NBA does is then copied in other sports.  Only it is hardly ever quite as good.  A large part of this has to do with the sport itself, the rules and the setup from its beginnings.  An even larger part has to do with the fact that the players actually enjoy these roles we assign them.  They participate. They embellish.  They have their own marketing teams adding and playing with the themes.  Some of the most creative adverts and brands around them are constantly building on the story lines.

If you have seen Space Jam or don’t know the story of Michael Jordan, his foray into baseball and his triumphant return, you have seen  the Odyssey, Orpheus or the Ramayana.  It is a classic story, a true story, an amazing story where the rise is followed by the frustration stage.  His invincibility was lost, nightmarish enemies and threats appear and in the climax of the plot all hope is apparently lost.  Like LeBron’s Cavaliers losing 3-1 in the finals.  I lost good money betting against my Cav-fan son that they couldn’t turn it around.  It had never been done by any team, let alone against the most amazing super team of all time.  But in the resolution, Jordan, LeBron and the other NBA heroes get out there and overcome the odds.  They are super heroes and we have witnessed and felt what ancient Greeks felt in a good tragedy.

A lot of people try to copy the NBA.  And so they should.  So we all should when our job is communicating.  This is ten adults in shorts bouncing around an inflated piece of leather after all.  If you don’t watch it, if you don’t take in a little of the plot, you will just say it is “boring”.  The fact that they have me awake at 4am enjoying the drama shows I am hooked.  The fact that the TV ratings are through the roof and revenue from all NBA related goods above the roof prove I am not alone.

Human beings try to assign meaning to puffs of clouds, to random numbers and to events in their lives related to the stars.  Some say that is what God is.  Our desperation to add meaning to the mystery of life.  I’m not sure about all that.  If there is a God, I am starting to suspect he too is copying storytelling techniques from the NBA.

 

 

 

Follow your bliss: branding is storytelling as an archetype

Heinrich Zimmer was a man with a mission.  You don’t need a guru, he said, you need to find an archetypal myth that applies to your situation and live it through.  His knowledge of Hindu mythology allowed him to interpret works of art through archetypes.  Very Jung-like of him and he greatly influenced my favourite thinker on the subject, Joseph Campbell.

It is a fairly straightforward theory: any story can be categorized in a specific archetypal myth.   A myth that is told and retold since the beginning of human storytelling.  Any journey, be it Lord of the Rings or Rocky IV, has twelve stages.  Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor and so on.  Much like Jung in “Man and his symbols” demonstrated that signs from the swastika to a snake eating it’s tail have followed homo sapiens from his very beginning.  (Great inspiration for logos!)  You can pick a fight with Jung’s last work easily.  Is a lion the same potent symbol today as it was back when I really did fear getting eaten by one daily?  A dragon now that we now all about dinosaurs?  Any symbol in a technologically advanced world which throws any image around the internet and on TV at a breakneck speed?

But you can’t argue with mythological archetypes.  Why?  Because what makes us human is the search for meaning.  Arguably without that, there are no emotions.  And without emotions, there is no marketing.  So, like Zimmer, I say “don’t look for brand gurus”. Follow your bliss and find the myth that applies to your brand.  And the stage it is at.  Start up?  You have seen it a thousand times in those films where a young person suddenly gets thrown into a big adventure.  It seems impossible at first, daunting.  But we learn about his pedigree.  (Good excuse for our brand’s origins.)  Then he finds allies (other companies we are working with) or mentors (brand endorsers).  We are routing for him.  Then we learn about his nemesis.  You can make it specific (“we hate Microsoft” seems to be popular!) or generic “untidy offices drive me mad!”

Myth provides a safe, reliable route to follow.  One that consumers can relate to.  Because the biggest enemy of brand building is incongruity.  Our brains just can’t handle information that seems to make no sense.  Just like in film making or book writing, just because you are following an archetype, doesn’t mean you can’t embelish it, or decide where to place emphasis.  But using well known symbols gives the larger than life effect every brand needs to gain mind share.

Straightfoward stuff.  Now my teaser question: who do you want telling your story?