The other week I read this great post by Russell Davies called "Playful." It reminded me of my general approach to marketing strategy based on not telling people stories, but making them feel they are part of stories.
And that's really not that hard. People are already part of each others' stories anyway.
Data tell wonderful stories. If displayed right, they at the same time make the imagined communities visible and make us feel part of them, by sheer human drive for comparing themselves with & competing with others. They also tell us something broader about ourselves as a group - what we like, what we find romantic, popular, cool, what's the best of, what's the worst of. It's a story that's is simultaneously personal, communal, and open-ended.
Details on interfaces [on any interface] also can tell great stories - they give us subtle cues that help us pretend for a moment that we are doing something else, that we belong somewhere else, that we are someone else. We don't need more than a few clues/details to start playing a role. That's how our brain works by default - we fill out the missing pieces of a situation based on our own memories and experiences.
Then, of course, there are objects. Luxury brands figured this out a really long time ago that even a small luxury object can become this big symbolic thing for a person. Buy a mere Burberry scarf or a Marc Jacobs keychain, and you already feel part of a club - of a movement of those who are fashionable, stylish, cool, trendsetting. It simultaneously gives us a pretense and identifies us as part of something bigger. It's not a mere graspable escape from our "ordinary" lives that movies or Real Housewives of all zipcodes lend; it's having an actual, tangible cue for playing a role. Fast-shift from fashion objects to all stuff, and you can achieve the same thing: give a commodity a wink, a story, a myth, and it instantaneously transforms its use into something richer, more complex, and more imaginative. Apple does it; BMW does it; even J.Crew has gotten pretty good at it. Imagery and possibilities for pretending are all around us. Digital didn't kill the imagination - it made it impossibly and wonderfully accessible.
And yet, and yet.
For some reason, the operative word of the web is 'functional' and not 'fun.' Without the doubt, functionality is a sine qua non and the lowest common denominator, but the problem is, it's really not a competitive advantage anymore. It's not 2002, after all. Utility trumps aesthetics online, but why, almost by the rule, does it need to trump the human imagination, too? Every time I go to any e-commerce site, I want to die of boredom. Yes, I "complete the task" and I dutifully go through "the user flow" without much noise. But sadly, together with the noise, any signal has vanished, too. That's to say that I simply don't care which e-commerce brand's behind the site, because they all work the same. What they can do is to play differently.
On the opposite end are the obsessively *fun* marketing campaigns. There seems to be some sort of compulsive need create hyper-intense entertainment where everything is clear, everything is obvious, everything is simple. Don't let people think for a second! Tell them the story! Make sure that they really, really get the story right! I wonder where that totalizing marketing instinct came from. There's the imperative that, after watching a video/visiting a minisite/seeing a billboard, "people need to come out with a single clear idea what the brand is about." Um, why? A game with a single rule is boring as hell, and a game where everything is laid out in advance is equally dreadful.
The problem is, both campaigns and websites demand 100% of our attention; and imagination works on clues, details, open spaces, on possibilities, not actualities - on filling things in. Clarity and simplicity kill credibility, because they take away any opportunity for participating and pretending and imagining. After all, things are not fun if you don't work for that fun a bit. People never finish a video game and say, oh how unbelievably straightforward and clear this has been. Or see a movie, or spend their time on Facebook and Twitter and conclude the same thing.
Most likely, they don't know what made their experiences so fun. And you know, they don't even care.