So, it’s over. Walter White is gone, the “Breaking Bad” story concluded. Pundits and critics will be discussing the series finale for weeks. But I’d like to focus on something altogether different: the long narrative arc, the short story that is each episode, and what marketers can learn from Vince Gilligan to improve their brand storytelling.
Let me start by saying that I’m a latecomer to “Breaking Bad,” having started the series just a few weeks ago. At least I have the pleasure of continuing on, while many fans now are in the unenviable position of series withdrawal. I’ve still got three and a half seasons to view, which I’ll watch leisurely over the next few months – if I can stand to slow it down.
And I have another advantage: I’ve read ahead. Don’t be shocked! I do this all the time when I read novels. I like to know where the story is going, but I’m also keenly interested in story construction and character development. And I’m always looking to borrow from other disciplines to hone my own brand storytelling skills. So I’m glad I’ve read the dozens of articles about White’s transformation and the eventual end to his story. I now have time to fully appreciate and learn from Gilligan’s talent in storytelling.
There’s much that brand marketers can learn from Gilligan and this series. When we think about how to tell our brand story, we often think in terms of corporate messaging and individual campaigns. In an ideal world, these two types of narratives need to snap together. More realistically, in large organizations and fast-moving markets, that may not always be the case. Consistency of story is always a brand challenge.
Brand Storytelling and the Long Narrative Arc
Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to the studio with this one line: “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
That sentence says a lot about what Gilligan sees as White’s brand and direction. It answers the question: What does Gilligan want Walt to be? To support that vision, he weaves a narrative in episodes that turn Walt into a badass.
Every company has a vision for what it wants to be, although it may not exactly want to be known as a badass corporate entity. Nearly every one will want to be known as innovative or the best in their class. How they express that ambition, however, is widely different.
Apple, for example, has built a its reputation for innovation on the idea of originality. Its campaigns (“Think Different”) and product development (Mac, iOS, iPhone) have all supported that broader vision. Another example: Pepsi targets a youthful audience with its soft drinks. And of course it wants its customers to associate the brand with fun and entertainment. Its long narrative arc therefore taps into pop culture.
The long narrative arc is where brand storytellers and strategists must start. It’s ground zero. The questions are:
- Who are your customers and what do they think of you?
- What products and services do you offer?
- What is your promise to your customer?
- What does the brand want to be?
- What is your big picture story?
Some of these answers are very concrete, but others can and should be aspirational.
Campaigns as Short Stories
Each week, Walter White made another step toward Gilligan’s vision of badass. In season 1, the catalyst was a diagnosis of cancer. The first action toward building his badass brand was to start cooking meth. Each week after, Gilligan unveiled another proof point, whether it was Walt cutting deals with drug lords, abusing Jesse, lying to his wife, or cutting down adversaries.
With every episode, we had more proof of who Walt is. Each installment snapped neatly into the longer narrative arc.
Marketers must align every campaign that they run with their longer narrative arc. If a campaign isn’t consistent with the storyline, it needs to be rethought or even killed. Every campaign must be another building block in the story.
But here’s another thing that Gilligan did very well: He helped his audience become emotionally invested in Walt himself. In literary terms, Walt is an anti-hero, and by the end of the series, fans had divided on what they felt should happen to the man. While this division isn’t quite the fan investment brands desire, we do want our fans do care about us emotionally.
Here are the questions that brand storytellers and campaign managers need to ask:
- How does this campaign build our brand?
- How do we make an emotional connection with fans?
- What is the mini-story we want to tell?
- What do we want our customers to believe and feel?
Of course, brands can run campaigns without the bigger picture narrative or an emotional connection, but they’ll never build the kind of loyalty and love from customers that will insulate them from pricing and market challenges. For this, they need to develop that longer narrative arc and support it with proof-point campaigns – over and over again.