Ruth Mortimer: Brands should follow new soap operas lead

The new soap opera from ITV, Echo Beach, has more to interest viewers than ex-Neighbours heartthrob Jason Donovan. Unlike a traditional soap, Echo Beach comes hand-in-hand with its own behind-the-scenes “mockumentary” called Moving Wallpaper. The idea is that while people watch the fictional story unfold in the soap opera, they can also see a comedy based on the pretend world behind the scenes of Echo Beach.

Confused? The concept becomes more elaborate. Some characters appear on both TV shows. The real-life actress Susie Amy plays a fictional thespian in Moving Wallpaper, hoping to get a job on Echo Beach. She succeeds and then pops up on that show as the character Angela.

This is not the first time that two shows have crossed over with each other. You can see characters such as Detective Scotty Valens, played by Danny Pino, from crime show Cold Case pop up in the hit series CSI: New York.

Even the idea of a show-within-a-show is a longstanding concept. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, written in the 1590s, is set up as a play-within-a-play, and so to an extent is Hamlet. More recently in the US, there has been 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

So why should marketers care about these new series on television? Perhaps because they illustrate a few of the most important ideas that everyone needs to keep in mind in 2008.

The first of these is storytelling. Every brand needs a good tale to back it up. By allowing viewers to see the “back story” behind Echo Beach, the programme is set apart from other programmes where the production methods are hidden from the audience. Echo Beach puts a positive spin on its own creation.

Some brands are already doing this. Innocent smoothies always plays up its production processes rather than hiding them behind sterile language and imagery. It asks consumers to imagine how the fruit passes through its processes by portraying this as a fun journey with daily blogs to keep the tale evolving. Look out for more companies tapping into this idea in 2008.

The second idea within Echo Beach is that of “getting close”. It allows people to glimpse a (fictional) world behind-the-scenes. As the internet makes masses of information available by the second, consumers feel entitled to know absolutely everything about their interests. If Britney Spears is having a breakdown, people don’t just want to read that she’s having problems, they want to see videos on YouTube of her freaking out.

In the same way, customers want brands to offer them the chance to get close to every aspect of their operations. They like to know about the ranch where their beef was farmed, whether child labour was used to make their trainers and how company executives behave in their private lives.

Some brands are already tapping into this concept. T-Mobile runs marketing campaigns based on getting its users closer to their interests, such as special access to pop star Robbie Williams’ music or concerts. Apple allows consumers to feel “close” to their phone by making the iPhone virtually an extension of people’s own bodies and minds through a touchscreen.

Another trend reflected in Echo Beach is the ever-increasing importance of communities. The programme relies on the viewers’ interest in a group of people who they do not know but feel as if they do. The same strategy is behind a growing number of niche social networks online.

While MySpace and Facebook have large numbers, many people are turning to more niche communities that bring together people who have an interest in certain sports, activities or hobbies. Of the over-55s using social networks – those consumers with high disposable incomes – 67% tap into specialised groups, according to a survey for Brand Strategy and NMA magazines by YouGov.

We are likely to see more brands creating their own social communities throughout 2008. Pop star Kylie Minogue has already done this and Nike has teamed up with Google to launch Joga, a social network for football fans.

But the final issue thrown up by Echo Beach could prove to be the most important of all for brands – transparency. In a climate where consumers want to know more than ever about what’s happening behind the scenes, marketers have to be careful to separate fiction from fact.

A mockumentary is funny because we all know it is make-believe. But marketers who are seen to mislead consumers even slightly over product benefits, supply chains or the stories backing up the company will find themselves in severe trouble. Echo Beach reminds us that all is rarely what it seems; a plot that no one wants for their brand.

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