10 Storytelling Lessons from Google Creative Lab

If you’ve been exposed to Google Creative Lab’s powerful stories, you probably won’t be forgetting them anytime soon. One of their more recent ones, entitled “Reunion”, is so powerful that it brings viewers to tears. Google does more than simply push emotional buttons, though; their stories are not only moving, but also inform viewers about Google products.

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Despite primarily focusing on digital content, Google Creative Lab won a print ad award for one of its stories. If you’re looking to tell better stories, have a seat by the fire and get cozy: here are 10 lessons from Google Creative Lab and its leaders.

1. Educational Campaigns: Chrome Shorts

Your product’s benefits over the competition matter little if your customers don’t understand their value. Often, the first step to demonstrating your solution’s value is to inform the customer. As former Google Creative Lab Creative Director Ji Lee said in an interview with Design Taxi:

Most people buy a computer and they simply click the icon that says “internet” to get online. They don’t really see the need of changing that, or downloading a new, better browser because the current way to get online works fine for them.

To spread awareness of the browser and explain Chrome’s benefits, Google explained the alien concept of the browser using a series of videos called Chrome Browser Shorts. These explanatory clips are presented friendly ways: one clip entitled, “You and Your Browser,” humorously illustrates a browser’s functions through the cat’s actions.

2. Build Prototypes

Although the movement of rapid prototyping has gained popularity in the technology space, Google Creative Lab’s Managing Director Ben Malbon and Executive Creative Director Iain Tait explains to Fast Company’s Co.Create that it’s also extremely useful in advertising:

Truth is, the advertising world has been prototyping forever: Sketches. Previsualizations. Storyboarding. Animatics. Treatments. They’ve all been used to bring ideas to life and give a hint of the emotions a fully formed “thing” might evoke–at least enough to convince a client to stump up the cash to go into production.

While storyboards and sketches still play an important part in the creative process, they’re not able to convey the richness of interactive experiences.

Malbon and Tait suggest three types of creation that help tell richer stories: making a video, staging a performance, mocking it up in Powerpoint or Keynote (my own addition: if it’s mobile, try Invision). Once you’re sure the idea is working, or when you need to refine the story further, build a working prototype.

3. Bake a Broccoli Cupcake

Google’s products aren’t inherently interesting. That’s why instead of giving people information about products, Google Creative Lab wraps an emotionally stimulating narrative around each solution. For example, Dear Sophie is a heartwarming story about a father creating a Gmail account for his daughter and storing her memories in the Inbox. Parisian Love is a romantic tale of an American traveller falling in love with a stranger.

While these emotional themes seem unrelated to Google, the videos are filmed in settings such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Translate, and various other Google tools. As the viewer follows the story, they also naturally discover how the tools are used. The emotional content is the cupcake, and the Google solution is the broccoli. As Executive Creative Director Robert Wong suggests in an interview with Communication Arts, put the education into the entertainment by baking a broccoli cupcake.

4. Know the User, Know the Magic, and Connect the Two

Google’s VP of Global Marketing, Lorraine Twohill, boils down Google’s recipe for storytelling in Advertising Age: “Know the user, know the magic, and connect the two.” They use their understanding of Google products to bake their product into their content. They test their content on the web before moving into mainstream media in order to gauge user reception. Then, they buy extra-long advertisement slots in primetime and iconic shows in order to connect the two.

Re-evaluate whether your content team, from the most high-level editor to the most inactive freelancer, truly understands the magic of your product’s technology. In case your content hasn’t been received well, you need to know the user better. If you haven’t been converting well, you need to understand the magic better.

5. Create a Story Pre-Product

Have you seen this first person perspective of Google Glass? Believe it or not, after viewing an early version of a heads-up display unit, Google Creative Lab imagined this product was finished and created video content for it. Because there were no working units, the team filmed the video through cameras on helmets. A design intern helped mockup the user interface. The story was straightforward; how this nonexistent product could fit in a regular person’s life.

This content helped drive product decisions for the future as the Google engineers viewed it. Google co-founder Larry Page even joked that the team should make a film every week, and Google should build products against these stories. As the video was released, this also gave Google an idea of what product demand was and could gauge users’ reactions to the Glass concept.

6. Get in Touch with the Community

One of Google’s most powerful stories started with a community attempting to empower the next generation. In order to prevent young members of the LGBT community from committing suicide because they were being bullied, Dan Savage and Terry Williams started a project in 2010 called It Gets Better. It was comprised of LGBT adults who uploaded videos on YouTube sharing the message that life gets better.

Google Creative Lab recognized this and decided to bring more exposure to this story. Tying in their products, YouTube and Chrome, they created a video documenting the movement’s success and bought advertising space on Monday Night Football to expose it to a wider audience. It paid off in tons of earned media exposure. It can be difficult to recognize initial ROI; instead, tap into the emotional core of consumers by standing up for what you and the community believe in.

7. Connect with Curators to Increase Reach

Google Creative Lab Creative Director Tom Uglow writes in Marketing Magazine that the world is creating more than it can consume. Instead of reaching our readers and consumers directly, we’re being drowned out by noise from all other sources trying to do the same. How can you ensure your story gets in front of users? Whereas previously consumers would only get their information from newspapers and other types of established media companies, the power has shifted online to a few different curators.

It’s now essential to connect with curators through techniques such as surfacing, getting into trusted guides, and building relationships with editors, stylists, and critics in your fields.

8. Be Your Own Case Study

Client case studies often make for great stories. They also show other prospects and consumers the results that you’ve produced. However, if you want to explore new potential benefits of your product or service, you will have to do this by using them in your own content marketing and campaigns before experimenting on clients.

Google Creative Lab demonstrated their live streaming and partnership opportunities with their YouTube Space Lab initiative. They then made a case study sharing the earned media results and the Google products and services used in this campaign. Similarly, you can incorporate this into your communications plan. It’s a relatively straightforward formula: share how you did it, share which products you used, and what the results were from the campaign.

9. Your Byproducts are Stories

Much like how logging companies sold firewood as their main product and profited immensely off byproducts like sawdust, today’s more intellectual byproducts are stories. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked and discarded. This idea was published by Basecamp founder Jason Fried, who runs a software company and authored a book as a byproduct of the experience. As advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins writes in My Life in Advertising:

“But,” I replied, “others have never told this story. It amazes everyone who goes through your brewery. It will startle everyone in print.”

Google Creative Lab does a great job at this: during the process of creating their HTML5 game, Google Racer, they filmed a set of footage to show viewers what happened behind the scenes. In case you think this sounds obvious, it’s a technique advertisers overlook that companies have been using for years. Enter Hopkins again:

We told just the same story that any rival could have told, but all others thought the story was too commonplace.

Your story is more unique than you think. Share it with the world.

10. Empower Your Consumers

No matter how much creative talent your team has, sometimes the most unexpected stories come directly from consumers and users. Empower them to contribute, curate and aggregate their work, and package it into production quality content.

Google Creative Lab did this a few times: examples include Google Doodle and Androidify. A more powerful and engaging example is their entirely crowdsourced film, called Life in a Day, filmed by users around the world and debuted on YouTube.

Closing Thoughts

There’s the practical scientific solution, and there’s the fiction behind it. Stories often guide the way the world navigates; for example, Tesla and SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk recently built a technology solution he saw in Iron Man. (Coincidentally enough, Elon Musk influenced Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man protagonist Tony Stark.) Use some of Google’s principles to create and deliver better stories; even though you may not win a print award, you’ll still be potentially changing a client’s life.

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