“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make but about the stories you tell”
– Seth Godin
It’s the mantra of modern marketing: storytelling. Right up alongside ‘authenticity’ on the Buzzword Hot 100. The supposition is now that turning your brand’s offering into a story with emotional connection equals instant marketplace sovereignty. You know that. You know that because everything surrounding us is laden with narrative – the hyper-local community spirit voiced through creative entrepreneurs, the lengthy backstories of indigenous artisans practising time-old traditions.
There’s much debate over the provenance of the old idiom, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, but there can be no disagreement as to its veracity. Just think of the impact of the photo “Lunch atop a Skyscraper”, with those blokes eating their lunch on a girder 840 feet above Manhattan’s sidewalks; or of “The Burning Monk”, Malcolm Browne’s harrowing image of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation. If you want to bring storytelling into your brand’s marketing efforts, then narrative-laden photography must be top of your list. Right?
Let’s take a look at some images from art photographers that distill a singular essence of their locations and occasions. Solitary images that say a thousand words:
Hal Levitt, 1961. 1957 Ford Thunderbird, from Midnight Modern – courtesy of Tom Blachford / published by powerHouse Books
Shooting Palm Springs solely by midnight, Australian photographer Tom Blachford casts the desert city’s famous mid-century architecture in a new light. The car’s lights versus the starlit sky and deep shadows suggests a tension between stillness and imminent action – there’s a million threads of narrative that could be written for what happens next; but all that matters is that you are ensnared by Blachford’s ability to capture a gentle unease within serene beauty.
Photo is courtesy of Pierre Belhassen
Set in black and white, Pierre Belhassen brings a timelessness to his New York street photography – something paralleled by a tendency for many of the city’s diners (and residents) to exist as if we were caught forever in the ’70s or ‘80s. The French photographer captures in this image an essence of New York that lands an emotional connect way beyond the time-worn cityscapes that are burnt on to our consciousness.
Untitled (from In Plain Air), Prospect Park, Brooklyn 2011-2016 – courtesy of Irina Rozovsky 2017
On a summer’s day in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Irina Rozovsky condenses a carefree weekend into a single frame – it’s a far cry from the regurgitated images of laughing caucasians and perfect picnic blankets. The central figure gazes into the lens with contentment; but his is not a forced happiness – the high spirits of the day(s) that have preceded are merely washing over him as the sun sets. The other two subjects could be in song, or mulling over the week’s gossip. Someone else could have an entirely different take – but that’s the beauty of a photographer who’s capable of distilling a lengthy narrative into a solitary images.Photo is courtesy of Giancarlo Ceraudo, Italy, Shortlist, Professional, Candid, 2016 Sony World Photography Awards
Photo is courtesy of Giancarlo Ceraudo, Italy, Shortlist, Professional, Candid, 2016 Sony World Photography Awards
The protagonist of this photograph is Miami. An image from Giancarlo Ceraudo’s series, Way Out, Miami, the thrusting entertainer (we might deduce, but not conclude, from the handful of dollar bills) brings noise and kitschy glamour, verve and over-the-top personality. The rest of the scene is largely quiet and unsuspecting of this storm of effervescence that looks us straight down the barrel of the lens. She personifies the contagious oddness that lies behind the over-saturated pastels and ocean blues that define the clichéd images of this perfectly unabashed icon.
So what do those images have that the industry’s branded imagery does not?
In a single frame, each of these images could replace hundreds of words of copy, sublimate an entire story into one glance.
Why then, do the websites and marketing materials of so many hotels remain insistent on explicit imagery of their rooms and communal spaces, tour operators and tourist boards? Why does the industry rely on unambiguous portraits of their destinations and activities? Why do food tours insist on images of people clinking glasses through teeth-clenching forced smiles? Why are the models used stiffer than Barbie and Ken, luxury getaways condensed into a white, heterosexual couple strolling waterside in soft focus?
“All human beings are also dream beings”, said Jack Kerouac. “Dreaming ties all mankind together.” It’s perhaps the reason why influencer culture has flourished so prominently in the travel world. Those dreams and aspirations are now fuelled by the kerosene of FOMO, with @PamperedWannabe93’s swimming pool selfies turning ‘dream beings’ into ‘follow beings’.
For some context: the number of internet users in 2018 has been placed at 4.021 billion, and social media at 3.196 billion, with data suggesting that the average user now spends some six hours each and every day using internet devices and services. Which is roughly-one third of our waking lives. Is social media where brands now dare to dream?
We prod Alex Prior, head of graphic design at Ennismore (the group behind The Hoxton), for his thoughts as to why storytelling has not found its way, en masse, to the marketing efforts of brands like his. “A few hotel brands have looked at bringing more emotion and storytelling into their photography”, he tells me, “but a lot of the time, it ends up being over-produced, over-polished and difficult to relate to. For more ‘authentic’ stories, social media now plays a huge part – and a lot of brands are taking advantage of the user-generated content that helps show a more ‘real’ representation, selling the experience rather than the product. The modern traveller wants more than just a room for the evening: they travel for immersion into a city culture.”
He’s right – and our boy Kerouac wouldn’t have argued about the necessity of immersion without reason (“the best teacher is experience”, he wrote in On the Road). But what of those brands who have managed to achieve authenticity with a side of relatability?
“Mythical and imposing, languid and frenetic, Pigalle is a neon light in the Parisian night. The neighbourhood has always attracted bad boys and artists, musicians and adventurers.” Committed to bring forth a destination that reflected the ‘tawdry values’ of their neighbourhood, Paris’ Le Pigalle is a smudged-lipstick love affair, bound to the loveable loucheness that this area of the city is infamous for. Their press photography follows suit. (If not rabidly tearing that suit off in the throes of elicit passion.) Bedsheets are ruffled and neon is the incorrigible hero, with the lighting recalling the walk of shame. And the best thing: you still get to see exactly what the hotel looks like. This is not visual storytelling like Robbie Williams and Daryl Hannah riding horseback, or Slash ripping out a guitar solo on the New Mexico prairie. It’s about drip-feeding an imagined experience, it’s about human beings also being ‘dream beings’.
Going a step further (or two), Australia’s impressive Jackalope hotel plays up to the mystical folklore of its name: its website leads with a series of links, and by hovering over each you bring up an emotive, largely abstract image, ranging from a super close-up of winemaking to portray its vineyard, to an impactful black and white aerial view of the coastline, and what looks like a petri-dish experiment. In a really nice way. Actual images of the hotel lie behind a click or two, the rousing nature of those images having had time to sow the seeds of the hotel’s spirit and soul in the viewer.
Is this the way forward? Should we use photography to convey emotion over the matter-of-fact?
We decided to ask a bona-fide art photographer. (And we got a surprising answer.)
“I want to make sure I feel confident that the hotel will be represented as it is in the images”, Amani Willett tells me, “so I want the images to provide information. But I also want to feel an excitement or emotional pull – a sense transmitted through the images that enables me to know what it would feel like to be there. So, in essence, I want to feel confident that I know what I’m getting into – both in terms of the physical space as well as the emotional state I’ll feel while staying there.” Thing is, as much as we are dream beings, the realities of life coerce even the most creative of us into an existence of practicality.
“Quite often photography of the space in hotels can be misleading”, continues Alex Prior, “rooms shot to make them feel larger, and so on. Photography has to show off the space – what’s inside the room and the hotel’s amenities – as well as showing the mood and atmosphere of the space and its design details. If you don’t get both of these across, you get complaints from unhappy guests who’ve been sold misrepresentations.”
Practicality – and, in particular, avoiding unhappy guests – is often a pet trait of those who hold the marketing budgets – they value safety and caution. “If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try”, says Seth Godin, the marketing guru whose quote led us into all of this. Perhaps Le Pigalle’s approach is like sky-diving: it scares you, but you know there’s a safety net – their images don’t mislead, but merely arrive with a side order of attitude that evokes their essence. For Hoxton, their ruffled sheets and personality play out on social media; while, conversely, Jackalope’s Instagram account is a less wild entity than its website. In an age where marketing crosses so many platforms, your Jekyll and your Hyde may both get the chance to shine.
As for this story, if it were a photo, it would be an aerial view of a precarious road winding its way through a mountain range. Marketing is rife with twists and turns, and even those who look like they know where they’re going can get lost from time to time. If you have the balls to make the decision that got you on to this road in the first place, then you’ll likely be rewarded with some impressive views. Consider that creatively focused imagery will say more about you and the experience you’ll offer your customers than shiny-teethed models gazing uncomfortably into the camera; don’t be afraid of rough edges; and forget the straight white couple walking hand in hand on the sand.
Said the pre-eminent American photographer, Aaron Siskind: “Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” You want to be remembered, don’t you?
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.