The festival and event industries are looking to entice customers with narrative skills, but how do you tell a story in 3D?

Storytelling is one the oldest and most powerful forms of communication. Stories passed down from one generation to the next have formed the foundations of history and cultural identity.    

Being part of an event can involve being part of a narrative, and this feeling of inclusivity is increasingly sought after by event organisers.

“We love a great story,” says Experience Designed’s co-founder Kim Mhyre, who recently left MCI Experience. “A strong narrative defining a character that we identify with who faces and overcomes obstacles to achieve success is something we can all relate to at a very emotional and memorable level.

“But just telling a story at your event may no longer be enough. Today’s event audiences are digitally enabled, more demanding, more impatient and have high expectations that events will be more engaging, personalised and participatory.” 

The days of thinking of event goers as a passive audience to be told stories are, Myhre says, over. Now audiences want to live the story. “Designing story based live brand experiences isn’t just a chance to tell a story — it’s an opportunity for an audience to live a brand a story in an immersive and meaningful way,” he adds.  

Jack Morton’s creative strategy director Caspar Mason shares Myhre’s apprehension towards the way a lot of modern agencies approach storytelling. “I’m a little wary of the (over)use of ‘storytelling’ in the creative/events industries – not quite as much as Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister [Ed’s note: see editor’s letter], but I think it can point brands and agencies away from what people want, and instead bog them down in a futile search for three act structures, friction points and heroes’ quests. Sometimes the answer is just to do fun stuff that people want to be part of, and let them create their own story – but made out of your brand world, with your messages baked in.

“The big issue is that stories are inherently linear (‘because of A, B happened and then C’) whereas people at events (and life, for that matter) are not. They dip in and out. They circle back. They skip bits. They make it very difficult, in other words, to tell your epic brand narrative.

Adland guru Alex Bogusky has a great analogy: “If advertising is the film, experiential is the theme park”. “That immediately gives a sense of how people will act and what they want. They’ll dip in and out. They might do something three times because they love it and ignore the rest. They might just leave half way through. And that’s fine. The trick is to make sure every touchpoint gives a sense of what you’re trying to convey and is enhanced by (but doesn’t rely on) the thing before or after it. Think of it as a collage, not a painting.”

However, Mason notes that with careful planning, story structures can be embedded. “Museum curators, who spend a lot of time trying to work out how to impart knowledge and narrative across 3d spaces and experiences, will often design their experience in layers – a visual, visceral layer to convey meaning to the people wandering through, a deeper level (or levels) for people who want to read and think. And different ways of interacting – activity sheets, sketchbooks, tours, talks, audioguides, lates – give people flexibility to experience things in their own way, at their own pace.”

Mhyre adds: “Live story experiences where an audience can be immersed in and even potentially participate in a meaningful narrative can create a much more engaged relationship between the brand and its audience and deliver that all important emotional and memorable brand affinity that only stories can achieve.”

For Myhre, traditional planning approaches are insufficient to deliver the kinds of experiences that will engage, inspire and motivate increasingly informed, digitally-enabled audiences. It’s a perspective that is at the heart of his new venture.

“We believe that a more human-centric design approach is required to create more personalised experiences based on in-depth audience insights, defined by culture, and crafted with a more interdisciplinary and intersectional design perspective. We want to work with creative agencies and their clients to empower breakthrough experience marketing innovation and brand transformation by applying a new strategic approach to experience design.

“After years of working in large, international agencies it became frustratingly clear that large, established organisations are fundamentally resistant to change. A focus on short term financials forces these businesses to stay focused on doing what they’ve always done – just more efficiently. Any attempts at innovation are viewed as disloyal, risky and expensive and so don’t survive. It dawned on us that rather than give up on our passion for brand marketing innovation in response to our rapidly changing world we would take the advice of Mahatma Gandhi who famously said, ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world.’”

The festival industry has often been at the forefront of this change, feeding back into the experiential world. ArcTangent’s founder Goc O’ Callaghan has researched engagement:

“People now expect the experience economy as standard and in the most parts, events are now delivering this. But what if events were being designed in such a way that you simply can’t help but participate and, in doing so, you are creating memories designed by the event producers which they can trigger later to further facilitate that feeling of FOMO encouraging you to return again and again for another dose of those memory creating experiences?”

 She points to the concept of FOMO – the fear of missing out – a modern day phenomenon fuelled by social media that is now being designed into events and experiences so that if you were not there, you wish you were. “By designing events to create that feeling of missing out (if you were unable to attend), the events world is taking advantage of this social anxiety and using it as a marketing tool,” she says.

In order to achieve this, the visitor must, according to Callaghan, have a ‘transformation through participation’. “The more that individual is prepared to put in, the more they experience and the greater the transformation, the overall experience better and the memories stronger. In a world of increasing competition and the expectation of consumers, some services today are starting to look like commodities: event concept designers are building on these new commoditised services to offer transformation and experience markets.

“Experiences are being pushed further still into immersive environments. Event concept designers now need to take this one step further to stand out from the crowd. Experiences need to meet the customer demands; they have to work and be deliverable. 

“A well-designed experience will encourage participation in a number of different ways, allowing the consumer to immerse themselves in an experience in a way they feel safe, and therefore enjoying it without pushing their own boundaries beyond a comfortable level; unless of course, that is their aim.

“Those memories which you’re creating at events and are embellishing through your memory recall and storytelling processes have been curated by the event concept designers, to not only facilitate a good time but to encourage you to come back.”

Interactivity is the key to unlocking engagement, says Zara Kerwood, creative technologist at George P. Johnson (GPJ) Experience Marketing. She started her career at Outlook Festival before moving to a digitally focused role at Eskimo where she worked with brands such as Mastercard and the BBC. As creative technologist at GPJ, Kerwood champions the value of cutting-edge tech in shaping creative concepts, deriving insight and building progressive experiences for clients. 

“A truly immersive experience makes the user part of the story by giving them a character and propelling them into action. Interactivity is a sure-fire way of getting attention and creating lasting impact.

“At George P. Johnson, we employ a whole host of immersive technologies, such as VR and AR. These technologies are increasingly creating further opportunities for telling stories and creating content. But don’t forget your non-techy tools – brilliant scriptwriting and captivating physical environments are essential to effectively convey a narrative within an experience.”

But this is subject to failure is agencies don’t properly plan. “Insufficient user testing is where agencies go wrong. Bad user experiences will inevitably leave a bad taste, and you risk being remembered for that alone.”

“We always start with the objectives and insights. From escape rooms and VR experiences to car launches and keynotes, we create purposeful storytelling to deliver on our clients’ ambitions. We created The City of Drones for Cisco Live EMEA 2019, enabling visitors to explore the world from above. Participants learnt how to block code by completing drone missions based on Cisco’s work with automated drones in Dubai. Previously, we delivered an Escape Room for IBM Think, showcasing its Cloud innovations through an interactive labyrinth, where collaboration was key to success. The marble-run style puzzle enabled visitors to be immersed in the story.”

Experience agency Imagination also look to capture insights in order to inform new experiences. Indeed, the company is working with media outlets like Dentsu x, Facebook and LinkedIn to create more ‘compelling and authentic’ content.

“Experiences are sometimes seen as one offs when they should be an ‘always on’ channel for brands. As an offline channel, online technology is needed to have accurate measures of footfall, social amplification, data capture and referral to website and wider online channels that is generated by experiences,” says Christophe Castagnera, head of connected experiences at Imagination.

“Experiences have always been a big industry when looked at across the lens of tourism, leisure, retail experience and events, but the trend here is that we have reached peak ‘stuff’ for many regions and there is a huge shift towards rental, sharing etc, the experience becomes the all-important setting for all other elements.”

Imagination says the USA has been a valuable testing ground for experiential. “Experience is still on the upswing with more and more agencies getting in on the act from measurement to design. Similar to the digital boom when pureplay ad agencies were talking digital to extend their client relationships we now have digital agencies talking experiences. It’s a natural extension from VR, to the environment the VR is experienced in.

“Pop-ups are still favoured, but one interesting move is the permanent location for the Museum of Ice Cream, which is therefore moving away from pop-up to bricks and mortar. It reflects a trend within brands for more permanent locations and brand homes influencing the US market,” Castagnera concludes.

Meanwhile, for agency Avantgarde, this movement has signalled the demise, or certainly a rethink of many event mainstays. Jason Anderson, digital director at Avantgarde London ponders whether ‘the screen’ is dead, and how screens can be part of an event story.

“Brand marketers are torn between the belief that consumers are enjoying being more connected than ever and the belief that that they are choosing to switch off from screens altogether. The reality is, both are true, creating an interesting paradox. To connect with consumers, a brand must be active in the screen and connected space, yet the content and proposition must encourage inquisitiveness, exploration and worthwhile interaction – otherwise, consumers will move on.”

“Considered use of screens does work and it works even better when it’s a relevant part of an engaging story. Effective user experience enshrines the need for memorable, meaningful and relatable touchpoints and screens can certainly add value to this journey. But to do this well, screen experiences cannot be crafted as stand-alone entities within a bigger picture. Instead, they must occupy a clearly-connected space within an entire story, their own chapter within a book, if you like.  

“Consumers must feel the need or desire to interact with the screens and there must be a reward for time spent doing so. Outcomes from the interaction should be relevant, enjoyable, memorable (and hence sharable) and should make sense in relation to the full story being told.”

Anderson points to the ExploreTheNew event that Avantgarde created for the launch of the new Lufthansa brand. With more than 155 screens, there was an abundance of screen space and the agency connected more than 2,500 guests and their phones together as an art installation, whereby guests shaped the event space with content they helped co-create from their phones. In effect, their phone became their host and guide through the entire story.

“The adage ‘content is king’ remains true. But content without a story is just a collection of noises, something that no consumer wants. When it comes to experiential, story is the true king and taking great care to ensure that the story is crafted first is key – the content can become the characters within the story and the tech is how those characters communicate.” 

So, will the screen continue to have life as technology and consumer expectations change? “No-one can predict the future, yet it’s safe to assume that whilst screens will remain integral to experiential solutions, their role will adapt. Indeed, with the rapid rise of voice-based interfaces there will be some problems for which a screen will not be a solution. This in turn creates a whole set of challenging scenarios – for example, in a world where voice interfaces dominate, there is no place for a visual brand, so an audio brand and a physical way to experience the brand become even more important. 

“In addition to screens taking new forms and roles through the creative use of real VR and AR, holographic projection systems becoming more high fidelity and screen-based interfaces changing through the evolution of chatbots, we are very cognisant that visual screens need to work in conjunction with our other senses. So, we’re actively involved in crafting user experiences that touch all our senses – touch, scent, taste as well as sound and vision. 

“Crafting brand experiences that engage all the senses in the most relevant and impactful way helps deliver something that the consumer doesn’t expect. User experience needs to be at the heart of everything and crafting engaging stories that uses the most relevant and effective technology is one of the ways this manifests itself. The use of screen technology is changing and diversifying all the time, with more and more opportunities for creating remarkable and unforgettable moments.”

Storytelling has shifted through the ages, from spoken, to written, to printed, via the stage and screen. Its new paradigm, experiential events, are also an evolving beast. Access is here to document this journey.