Imagine your target consumer. Got the visual? Does it involve a human being? Well, that’s your first problem. In 2015, the average human attention span is 8.25 seconds, which is three-quarters of a second shorter than that of a goldfish. That’s right—your child’s pet fish can pay more attention to your ad campaign and brand story than your customer.
Given that insight—and the fact that our attention spans are actually decreasing—it’s time to stop pinning our marketing and communications strategies around storytelling. Stories take time, and time is our greatest luxury. If most consumers can’t afford the luxury of diving deep into your brand story, is a long-winded narrative about heritage and craftsmanship the right strategy? Of course not. While it ostensibly makes sense to bulk up credibility with character counts, it doesn’t make your audience’s life easier—and at the end of the day, isn’t that we all want?
One final nail in the coffin for storytelling: It can be downright dangerous for your brand. We live in the era of transparency and access, so it’s easier than ever for consumers to sniff out inauthentic back stories and eyebrow-raising claims. Presenting dreamy photos of a craftsman painstakingly assembling your product (which is actually made on an assembly line overseas) isn’t a smart way to sell—but for what seems like years, it has been the go-to strategy for marketing and ad agencies. Well, not anymore. It’s time to trim the fat, cut the crap, and limit the amount of visual junk food we’re consuming (and producing).
So now that we all agree that storytelling is dead, what do we do? How do we engage consumers and entice them without the fireworks and the fluff? Here are some rules to live by:
1. Talk less, say more: Think back to your last group meeting. The person who says the least—who waits for the right opportunity to deliver a short, thoughtful message that cuts to the heart of the issue—often holds the most power. Let your brand embody that ideal by eliminating unnecessary messaging that takes up valuable brain space for your consumer and dilutes your core message. Follow the example of Michigan-based company Boxed Water Is Better, which relies on simple packaging and a brand name that functions as a mission statement, graphic brand, and tagline.
2. Kill the tagline: Apologies to copywriters everywhere, but it’s time to start chopping off taglines. This doesn’t mean that every tagline is unnecessary—but many of them are. Distill the most vital information and present it to your audience; let powerful design be the vehicle for your message. Case in point? These posters for The Washington Ballet’s production of “Alice (in Wonderland)” could have easily included a “Go Down the Rabbit Hole” tagline. (Note: The Washington Ballet is a Design Army client.) But since we ultimately want our audience to get excited about the ballet and know the pertinent details of date and location, a tagline isn’t essential. And how can we best serve our distracted goldfish? By cutting out what isn’t essential.
3. Be quiet; be powerful: The biggest challenge facing the marketing and advertising industries might just be daring ourselves to be different—to be bold enough to forego the traditional communications solutions and go back to believing in “less is more.” First-aid brand Help Remedies is a powerful example of this sort of daring thinking. In a pharmacy aisle crowded with products advertising “more”—extra strength, maximum dosage, multisymptom relief—Help’s products stand out because of the belief that “less” can be more. The company believes in fewer drugs, fewer dyes, and less confusion, and the branding reflects that philosophy. It appeals to consumers like an oasis in the desert because it limits the time they have to spend studying packaging. In this case, less is definitely more.
4. Don’t spoon-feed your audience: Your consumer is smarter than you think, and when storytelling becomes spoon-feeding, you’ve gone too far. As humans, we’re hard-wired to crave that sensation of figuring something out for ourselves—of solving the riddle and experiencing the “Oh, I get it!” moment. What does that mean for your brand? You don’t need to spell it out. The old-Hollywood actress strategy of leaving something to the imagination still works—our brains can be as enticed by what we don’t see as what we do. Through design, we can tease the brain, create intrigue, and convey the message, all without giving away too much. Take the Signature Theatre posters (our work): By distilling a complex message into a simple yet clever visual, we give the audience the pleasure of solving a riddle without spoiling the show. No text, no tagline, no storytelling required.