Film, Co-creation and Story: Making Research More Emotional and Impactful

Jun 27 2013

The need for emotion

The problem with data is that it is, well, data. And data in itself, however prettily presented, always lack a certain something. Even the best use of powerpoint, prezi, or any other tool is incapable of communicating consumers lives and feelings. Data, however well visualized, lacks empathy and narrative structure. It doesn’t tell a story.

So what is the best medium for communicating consumer stories?

It isn’t new news that film is much better at capturing and bringing consumers to life but it needs to be real and personal, so less like the movie business and more like TV’s National Geographic. Their goal, much like our own is to take the ‘everyday lives’ of people and turn them into visual dramas that engage us so that we can experience it too. That means we can empathize and be moved by these stories and we learn something too (emotions. or meaning, are at the heart and soul of memory).

What are the differences between National Geographic and market research? Production values and storytelling skills.

Making it right

Let’s go back in time to the ways in which market researchers have used film in the past. I’m sure many of you will have seen the outputs from a shaky camera in the hands of a researcher following a colleague around a participant’s home or as they go about their daily routine, as well as the poorly located overhead shot of a focus group discussion where you just can’t quite see the facial expression of the person who is talking.

Market researchers are usually poor film-makers. Why use a professional camera operator, with a professional fee, when you can use a colleague for free?

Similarly, the usual research approach is to capture everything we can and then attempt to pull all our information into something coherent at the end. That’s why so many presentations are too long and poorly structured, without a narrative drive.

Film production costs are very high, and any good director uses a much more targeted approach to what they catch in film. Great film makers start with a clear idea of the story they are trying to tell before they pick up a camera. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do their research first, it just means that before they collect their final materials, they have already developed a storyline.

Research needs to get serious about production values if we want to move our audience.

The need for story

We also need to have a targeted approach. Unlike in the past we shouldn’t need to capture everything and then sift through it later for hours and hours. It is much better to start filming with a story to tell, as this shapes what you capture .

This can happen in two ways. Sometimes it can be predetermined, when a client comes to us with a problem to solve and this shapes itself into a story, in one recent case a love story complete with heartbreak and romance. If you don’t have a pre-determined story, then some exploratory research can help shape your story from initial learnings

If you want to produce a polished final product, you should always start with a clear idea of structure and character.

Models for storytelling

You will often hear writers talk about the difference between character driven and plot driven stories. For example, last year’s blockbuster Skyfall has a great storyline, but ultimately revolves around the central character of James Bond. In character driven stories, the central character shapes events and hence the storyline.

In contrast, a film like Inception revolves much more around its (very complicated) plot, although it does have strong characters too. In plot driven stories, events shape the characters.

Of course, any good story needs both plot and character, so are there any tools that can help us to build both into the visualization of research?

Let’s start with plot structure. The one thing that everyone knows about a good story is that it should have a beginning, middle and end. In research we can think of these as the context, the action and the result.

The middle act is usually twice as long as the first and third, and the first always contains the trigger, what screenwriters call an inciting incident, which should spur the characters and the plot into action. The final act always contains a climax that provides a clear ending to the narrative (which is different from the start point). And in between the trigger and the climax a story should contain tension, crises, conflict and struggle.

This is the pattern of all story plots from the beginning of time until the latest Hollywood blockbuster. One famous book argues that there are seven archetypal plots. Alternatively, Joseph Campbell argued that there was only one, the monomyth, which occurs across all cultures and times. Joseph Campbell also argued that these plots contained archetypal characters that are also consistent across cultures and times. After all, he was a student of Carl Jung!

Much has been written about archetypes, but the most interesting thing about them is that they reflect the most basic of human emotional goals. From the need for belonging, seen in the Everyman, Seducer and Caregiver, to the need for individuation seen in the Warrior, Artist and Catalyst. And from the need for Stability, seen in the Ruler, Idealist and Guru, to the need for Change seen in the Rebel, Explorer and Joker. These are the classic dimensions of psychological models of motivation, made real in the archetypes we all know in myths, fairy tales and Hollywood films. Any guesses as to which archetype James Bond falls into (especially as played by Daniel Craig)?

The final act

The theory of story is all very interesting, but how can we apply this to market research?

In a recent ABN Impact study the main insight was that the client’s brand lacked cohesion, due to many launches of new variants. Although the brand was meant to be helping users to gain intimacy and build relationships, the many variants were clouding this position. The client wanted to visualize this insight to ensure it would emotionally connect with their internal audience.

This meant that the brand was seen as part Seducer, part Explorer, part Caregiver, part almost every character imaginable making it difficult for consumers to know how to be in any relationship with the brand. With a clear story to tell, ABN Impact worked with TapestryWorks to make the story more compelling. It became very obvious that the story’s trigger had to be revealed early on to set up the story properly and take viewers on the brand journey.

This insight into the link between the emotional territory of the brand and the emotional goals of consumers helped to articulate the brand challenge in a compelling and highly emotional way, and one which definitely seduced the client. The film told the story in a way that powerpoint or fancy charts never could. Directly from the consumer and from the heart …

One final insight into archetypes is that all archetypes have a vice or weakness, which in the case of the Seducer is promiscuity. The need for intimacy can lead to a reckless abandon of principles if taken to an extreme. This brand had fallen victim to it’s own vice, which made for great storytelling even if it wasn’t so great for the brand!

Clint Eastwood once said, “You can tell any story 20 different ways. The trick is to pick one and go with it.”.

It’s time for market research to get out of the office chair and into the director’s seat.

[This article was written with Maz Amirahmadi and Angela Cross from ABN Impact. You can see examples of ABN Impact films here. It was originally presented through newMR's "Trends in Infographics, Visualisation and Presenting" event on 28 June 2013. ]

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