[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock created and ran Pi Studios, the award-winning entertainment arm of the ad agency WE ARE PI in the Netherlands. He is now Co-Founder of Soursop, a ‘cultural catalyst’ helping brands, publishers and broadcasters communicate with audiences through emotional storytelling. He previously worked in TV (for Channel 4 in the UK) and digital publishing (VICE and Dazed) and has been making up myths for different audiences all of his career.
A counter narrative is a reaction. If you’re a myth-maker, and every great politician knows the power of that, you don’t wait to see what someone else does first.
What do narratives mean for the marketing industry?
I see narratives as the base-level of storytelling. It’s fiction that is there to convince people to do something – whether that’s a good or a bad thing, used altruistically or for the wrong reasons.
In other words, marketing is there to present the most convincing narrative to result in an action – usually buying a product.
So it can be quite sinister, but it’s also mechanical. Most people in my industry are very aware of that power, and they are good at using it time and time again for clients.
An example of how brands use narratives
We worked with a beer brand that wanted to change its narrative. Their consumer’s narrative was a beach brand, relaxed arbeque vibes. But another brand owned that space and they wanted to be distinct.
So, we created a new narrative, based on insights and opportunity. Festivals were becoming a massive thing with people partying even more. They could be a party beer – not just a beach beer.
Our strategy was to create a narrative that could be filled in by reality. It’s perhaps a bit of a backwards way of working – you have the end before you define the means. It’s not reality or fact based, rather an emotional resonance, where individuals can see their role in it.
It’s not like people were going out and saying they wanted the brand, but we thought we could own that space. It’s inventing your own narrative in a place where one doesn’t exist!
Using narratives to change or manipulate values and perceptions
People have short memories. Throughout history you can see temporary values that are completely manipulated. Marketing and advertising are fantastic at reframing a word or a value to have a different meaning.
Acting as a catalyst to change the meaning of things is what marketers do. At best that’s challenging a perception that should have been challenged a long time ago, at worst its devaluing something that is really useful to society.
How to understand existing perceptions
We have deep dive strategies, do deep consumer research, and social listening – different tools to hear about what’s being said on major social media platforms.
Basically, you get a data set to understand how your brand or product is perceived. If you find something good, you can leverage it. If you find nothing good, then you can try something new.
Take the beer brand example. That’s how we found out that people didn’t see a difference with the other brand. They mentioned them in the same sentences, got them mixed up. It was clear our task was to distinguish the two.
Why is collaboration across sectors necessary?
Our working lives are based around us carving out niches within our various sectors. We develop narratives for our audiences with a specific remit, hardly ever taking a broader view beyond the borders of our specific industries.
Yet to know that our work has a common thread that has implications far beyond our direct line of sight could be revolutionary.
For an activist to know they can use the techniques of a scriptwriter, for a marketer to understand their toolkit could be useful to grassroots organisations, opens a whole new world of possibilities. A world of cross pollination and unlikely lateral connections. And this is where true innovation happens.
In our conversation with Ravi, we started talking about the challenges facing the NGO and civil society sector.
New versus counter narratives
A counter narrative is a reaction, a response. If you’re a myth-maker, and every great politician knows the power of that, you don’t wait to see what someone else does first.
If civil society exists in the current universe it is going to keep losing. The rules are stacked against you. How do you really break free of them? With a new narrative?
In that instance it might be really great to have with you an actual writer – someone who constructs stories or scripts and who can look for basic narrative devices in the challenges you face.
Give them the building blocks of the issue or brand you are trying to reframe, and they will structure the story with engaging plot pointers. Again, it’s this idea of inventing narratives. If it doesn’t exist, you make it exist. Even if it isn’t real. This is the scary part of our times.
Are too many NGOs dividing the narrative?
That’s about organisation.
Take Mandela and the South African apartheid. Mandela created a narrative that everyone could get behind. And it was sellable to an international audience.
Whether Mandela knew he was doing it or not, he sold a vision (actually he did know because he had to convince key international politicians of his cause). In the US it was about civil rights, in the UK it was about post-colonial unity and the commonwealth. He had many narratives for many people. But in South Africa he had one narrative: we are going to create a new South Africa together.
This isn’t about counter narratives or countering the forces against you. It’s about changing the rules and conversation completely so that everyone can be a part of it.
Other insights for civil society
Honesty is a new trend
One thing that’s a bit of a trend right now, and that’s been working well for a couple of brands, is ‘breaking the fourth wall’ of advertising: being honest with the customer. ‘Hey we know we’ve not been very environmentally friendly and we don’t have all the answers right now, but we’re on a journey and we’d like you to be on that journey with us.’ Is there a way for civil society organisations with volatile public relations to ‘break the fourth wall’?
Each generation changes the myths they are told
The other thing to remember is that no narrative is constant. Each generation changes the myths they are told. Mandela’s myth has now been challenged. Once you create a narrative you need to keep it strong to survive. Or accept that it will change.
Bring in fresh thinking
You also sometimes need a complete outsider’s perspective to tell you something you can’t see yourself. We look at ourselves in a particular way, defined by the narratives we tell ourselves. That’s why brands will hire an agency, because they need external perspectives. Civil society may also want to look to external creative agencies and writers more.
A simple message effects change
World leaders are like your users scrolling through their Instagram feed. They don’t have time for complicated messages. You need something simple, easy to affect, that makes you want to engage.