Same old stories – the joy of repetition


As reality entertainment season reaches its peak, we find IACGMOOH striding into its 10th consecutive year, while X-Factor and Strictly are mid way though their 8th and 9th instalments respectively.    You’d be forgiven for wondering where original and new TV content will emerge from to challenge the domination of the Autumn juggernauts, as they roll on year after year.  

 The world of film is no different – this year alone saw the umpteenth version of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, yet another X-Men film and two films (Twilight and Harry Potter) which were actually sequels split into two so that fans could stretch out their enjoyment further.    When the money spinning franchises reach exhausting point they are simply ‘rebooted’ with a fresh twist on the same old story (Spiderman, Batman and Bond to name but a few).

In the gaming sphere, the biggest annual franchises beat even the biggest cinema releases with Modern Warfare 3 grossing $775 million worldwide within 5 days of release.    Interestingly while critically and commercially acclaimed, some gamers have resented the similarity with previous episodes of the COD franchise and have leaned towards an alternative one, in the shape of Battlefield3

This marks a curious inversion of the cinema model, where critics pan the franchises and consumers bray for more, but the commercial figures still speak for themselves.   As Keith Stewart points out, many people will have enjoyed MW3 regardless, because “the notion of the sequel is based on the usually accurate construct that we like to relive enjoyable experiences.”   In other words, we know what we like and we like what we know.

But none of this is new.   Human beings love a familiar story well told, as anyone who has hung out with three year olds will verify (I spent last weekend re-playing the same intro sequence on Super Mario galaxy again and again at the fervent request of my nephew).   Kids of all ages love repetition, perhaps because it is a way of learning that is ingrained in human survival.   In the same way that we look for the tropes of the genre in horror films (see Scream for a case in point) and enjoy the same joke again and again in sitcoms, our memory structures become trained to look out for familiar themes and outcomes (if that predator comes near me again I will run like hell).

This tallies with Byron Sharp’s call to brands to re-enforce existing memory structures to build strong mental availability, rather than changing tack again and again, as associations are stronger and burn brighter the more times they are re-enforced.   This applies, of course, not just to advertising but to all the tocuhpoints a brand has at its disposal.

It also has a bearing on frequency and consistency of planning communications.   The trend towards the spectacular advertising ‘event’ (which ironically fell out of the annual TV event franchises) is an attempt to piggy back on the watercooler moments provided by those type of shows.   But it does beg the question of how much you can keep adding to the ‘Adverspectacular’ (coined by John V. Wilshire in his excellent posting on the subject of the ‘yoghurt wars’ a few weeks ago), before it all gets a bit ridiculous and the brand message gets lost within the arms race.

An alternative model might be that advertisers create consistent ‘communications franchises’ around an annual occasion, as Iceland have done successfully via their IACGMOOH association without requiring the fireworks of the Adverspectacular.   But for every BT, Nescafe and Coca Cola Christmas campaigns that last what seems like a generation, there are many, many more advertisers who come up with something different every year, in part driven by the annual planning cycle, failures in execution and an appetite among agencies to come up with the next big thing.  

The challenge for advertisers is to know when they already have hit on the right thing, that re-confirms in people’s heads what there brand is all about, that taps into the existing ways that real people come to the brand, as well as a memorable context, and then having the bravery to stick with it.  

Something that hardwires the positive set of memory associations all brands need to re-enforce, because people simply don’t have the time to ponder the pros and cons of yogurts, frozen food or coffee as they rush through the weekly shop.

Like the big Hollywood franchises, this doesn’t mean staying still but evolving into new formats, new media and merchandising opportunities.  They can be given the occasional modernising reboot too, but retaining an ever present set of values that affirm what the brand is really all about.   This isn’t easy of course, and requires a change of emphasis among advertisers and agencies from annual planning cycles to 5 year planning cycles, if any of their intended messages are to stick in the long term.  

And of course, the hard bit is finding a compelling and authentic narrative that people don’t mind hearing again and again, because it rings true. 

It certainly doesn’t seem to have done Coca Cola any harm – after 125 years their mission statement to be ‘no more than an arm’s length away’ still resonates through everything they do.   A familiar story re-told for each new generation.    Just like Spiderman, Batman and Bond. 


Posted by Simon Harwood                    @sharwoodster


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