Win the Consumer’s Heart with Visual Storytelling
Robert Wilde has a special gift. He uses photography to tell powerful brand stories that go beyond the images. Although he doesn’t think of it as branding. For him, it’s something deeper. Something that all human beings secretly want.
In Robert Wilde’s own words: I’m a world citizen, and any fashion company is a world citizen as well. There are so many stories, so I start with one for my clients, one that is visually absolutely theirs and that engages. Then I’ll tell another. It has to come from experience and from the heart.
Visual Stories are still photography and film/video, individually developed story and world for each client.
Photo Campaigns Extra
“We’ve seen in the fashion industry where brands move away from the spring/summer and autumn/winter rhythm, and I could actually imagine that clothing will be released throughout the year and there will be campaigns every two months or so, because you need to tell the story and you need new images. You can’t show the same images for six months.” – Robert Wilde (an excerpt from the interview)
Want to see exactly how this technique works in real life? Robert gave us permission to share a number of his campaigns and what makes them work.
Win the Consumer’s Heart with Visual Storytelling
Brandon: Robert Wilde has a special gift. He uses photography to tell powerful brand stories that go beyond the images. But he doesn’t think of it as branding; rather, it’s something deeper. It’s something that all of us secretly want as human beings.
Among the many insights in this interview, we discuss the lesson from 1920s Russia that every creative director should know, the three elements that make for a powerful campaign, and how to get through the consumer’s internal ad-blocking filter. Plus Robert shares how to put together a great campaign on a budget, where to invest, and where you can save some money, so let’s join the conversation.
Brandon: Robert, we chatted a few months ago about the porn aesthetics of a recent campaign by a certain well-known feminine brand. You mentioned at the time that the market has really moved on from this. Can you explain a little bit what you mean?
Robert: I generally feel that we have a classic ideal of beauty over ugliness, and this has been broken starting with the 80s and 90s with heroin chic and the shock value. The problem with this is when you think that the downsides of human existence are more real than the upsides, and you’re submitting to this shock value, there’s only so far you can shock.
With heroin chic you shock with these emaciated women with the dark eyes and who look totally like half-way between life and death, and then you go one step farther down and then you end in porn. There’s nothing you really want to see. There’s no beauty. There’s nothing you can take out for your life. There’s nothing that’s giving you something, so why would you look at it?
You have been shocked once or twice, so it simply doesn’t make any sense to use such images to attract people.
Brandon: What is attracting people now in the consumer’s mind? What are they looking for? What do they want to see?
Robert: I wouldn’t even say it’s the consumer. I would say generally a human being always is most interested in things that improve their lives, something that gives them passion, that gives them good feelings, that gives them something to look forward to, that helps them to become better people or to master their lives better, to reach their goals.
One of the things that helps us a lot that we absolutely need is to get away from our daily lives, to have a little distance to it, because that’s how we can improve them. If you are stuck in the day-to-day life you can’t really do anything about it.
We want beauty. Beauty is basically centralized wisdom. It orders the world as it would be ideal to be seen. Beauty is always inspiring. Also, not only beauty as in prettiness, but also beauty in interactions between characters where you can actually learn something from it or take something with you.
Any kind of images that only go for the downside of human existence – what do you want to take out of that? You get shocked a little bit, but it’s nothing that would inspire you.
Brandon: If I understand this correctly, it’s more about the uplifting, the inspirational, the positive messages. That’s really what we as human beings want to see, and from a fashion perspective that translates into the type of imagery we really want to experience.
Robert: If you show us a suffering and miserable being that is kind of a little bit of the fad at the moment, there’s always this thing – what would the character in the fashion image do after the photo has been taken? At the moment we see a lot of images where you could say, “Well, she’s calling the suicide hotline.” I would like to reverse that trend towards negativity and say give us something positive that can make us better, that lifts us up, like in a great movie larger than life.
Brandon: Along those lines, you’ve said that a successful campaign is not about the image itself, but it’s about the story that is told by the image or the image set. What do you mean by that exactly?
Robert: You could actually tell a story in one image. You can do that, but if you have several images the powerful thing is the gap between the images. This gap is being filled in by imagination. It’s like in a movie. You have different takes that create a scene, and then you have scenes that create the movie, and there are always gaps in-between. That’s where our imagination really starts working. Those are the best movies.
In a very intense way it has been shown by Eisenstein and Kuleshov in the 20’s in Russia when they really developed editing. There’s this famous example where he wanted to show that a lot of story and a lot of what we experience in film, and that goes also for photography, is actually not in the picture but between the pictures.
He recorded a very famous actor and he said, “Don’t do anything. Just relax your face and let us film you without any expression,” then he recorded a plate of food, a coffin, and a little girl. Then he edited this together – the unmoved face of the actor and the coffin, the unmoved face of the actor and the little girl. Then they showed it to people and they said, “This is really why he’s a great actor, how he’s caring for the little girl, and the suffering when he looked at the coffin, and so hungry. How he played hunger so well when he looked at that plate.” Nothing was in the actual frames. It was all between the frames. This is the power that a campaign can use, just like a film.
Brandon: We talked about it a little bit, but let’s spend a little more time drilling down. What does it take to grab and keep the attention of the fashion consumer in today’s market?
Robert: It’s the same. The fashion consumer is the same as a human being. What do you need to attract a human being? You have a fashion item and it’s very important to the designer. He loves it and everybody who works with it – like the photographer – they all love it, but to the person out there who is bombarded by lots of things it doesn’t mean a thing. It’s an object.
You have to raise it from object status into something that means something – for example, a talisman. A talisman is just an object like any other object, but it has for the bearer some specific meaning. It is charged with emotion. This happens, for example, with an object in a time of crisis. You get through the crisis and now this object is charged for him. “If I have this with me, I will also go through all future crises.” Basically, this is how an object gets charged with emotion, is by putting it into context.
That’s the goal that you have with a campaign. You take this beautiful dress, and it’s still an object because there are many beautiful dresses out there, so you have to make it a specific beautiful dress. You do this by putting it into a context in a story. It has to be a part of a world. You have to define who’s wearing this in the campaign. Who are these people? How do they live their lives? What kind of world do they live in? What is possible in that world? And that’s very different.
For example, when you look at Woody Allen’s world, there is no difference between doing a fashion campaign or shooting a movie. It’s always the creation of a story and the world around it. What is possible in Woody Allen’s world is very different than what is possible in the world of Alien, for example. If you switched Alien over into Woody Allen’s world you would think, “Somebody tries to stop the alien and tries to scare him.” Nobody would take it serious.
Raise the object from the object status to something that means something through a story context and world creation.
Brandon: We’ve talked about a couple of different processes so far, but in your own specific case – let’s say that a client comes to you and he has a pretty dress and he or she wants you to put together a campaign to introduce it to the market, what is your general process? How do you start and how do you progress?
Robert: First of all, I would have to see why the dress is beautiful. Is the dress a very simple design with a high-quality material and texture, or is it something that is very ornate and has a pattern or has a lot of decoration on it? There are so many different styles, so I have to first see in which way is the dress beautiful, and which could be the world it would be in?
For example, if I have a very minimalist design dress it would be not so good to have a very romantic 19th century Romanticism world. It would be more of a harder world, a tougher world, where people fight for their goals. If I have a dress that’s more romantic I would look for a romantic world, but that’s not a given. Sometimes it’s really good to go against the natural inclination of a design. You could, for example, use a minimalist design and create a very warm colored and romantic quality.
It has to do with the dress, but I also have to look at the designer. Who is the designer? What’s the designer’s personal experience, because this is not just about one dress or one collection, it’s about the designer himself and what he creates. Each well-done campaign is basically building on top of the other one, increasing the level of intensity and increasing the story.
At the moment we still have a lot of these campaigns where for every season you have a different campaign. They look a bit different but they don’t relate to each other. Where I see the future in campaigns in fashion is to build.
For example, you have Game of Thrones. I can remember when I watched the first season. They didn’t have a lot of money, there was a lot of talk, but there was something that kind of attracted me. I stayed and then they got more money and then they could get these really fantastic landscapes and panoramas and it became so involving.
Each season of Game of Thrones built this world more. If you’re in season 3 you just can’t get out anymore. You’re sucked in. You’re now in this world and you have to watch it to the end or you will never get out of it. This power I would like to unleash also for fashion campaigns.
Brandon: In your mind now, with the experience that you have, what do you consider the hallmarks of a great photo campaign in today’s market?
Robert: Three things. It’s a great story, a great story, and a great story. You get the attraction from people by telling them something they want to see. We have so many ways to get rid of content we don’t want to see. You can basically become ad-free. You have ad blockers everywhere.
For example, I don’t listen to any radio station that plays commercials. I would never do that. We are also developing a selective blindness to ads. I don’t watch TV and many people I know don’t watch TV with ads. I don’t know when I watched the last TV ad.
You have to be a little bit more creative to get messages out, to get the story to the people. For this reason you need to create something that they want to see, and that’s a story. It always comes back to that. You can’t just show a product.
Brandon: As you were talking about the fact that you don’t pay attention to ads, and this is the reality for most people – we haven’t had to pay attention to commercials for a long time – the world is reverting from an ad-saturated zone to where we’ll pay for services so we don’t have ads, like Netflix, Spotify, and many other such services.
I remember in the early days of the internet – and this is going back first when it was really commercialized and a couple years in when it became public – John Cleese did a Monty Python-type skit for a domain hosting company. For the life of me I can’t remember at all the name of the company. It doesn’t matter, it was the story and it was very Monty Python-like.
I remember that this was when email spam filters were first starting. The artificial intelligence that runs them today was very, very primitive. It actually, for all intents and purposes, broke the internet. The company landed on everybody’s spam filters because people forwarded this video anywhere. There was no YouTube at the time, so people forwarded this video by email and it showed up so often that I guess the primitive spam filters at the time thought it was spam and they started blocking it.
I had forwarded it a few times. I had people try to send it to me, and sometimes it went through and sometimes it didn’t and nobody knew, but it illustrates your point. Virality as a concept is based on a good story, and it doesn’t look like an ad, even though it was selling hosting.
When brands are creating campaign art, what mistakes are they making? We mentioned a couple of them already, but what else is there that they need to pay attention to and avoid ultimately?
Robert: The key problem is to be too commercial, to put the product out and nothing else. We see products all the time and, as beautiful as they make look, if you isolate a product shot it just looks like all the other product shots. You have to have the context and you have to have the story, the world behind it, and a sophisticated look. The commercial look that’s over-lit and super clean is very unnatural. It’s inhuman; therefore, we filter these shots out. We don’t look at typical commercial-looking images.
One of the key things about photography is to make this machine, this camera – which is basically a recording device, a machine that creates images that don’t look the way the human eye creates images – and for this you need also to adjust the colors, the contrast, and the texture.
The camera sees everything the same way. Every detail in the image is pictured in exactly the same position. The most important detail has no more detail than the least important, so it’s actually a mess. But with the human eye, what’s most important that we look at, that gets all the attention. It gets all the detail and the color is adjusted to our key detail, and everything else almost blurs. Some things we don’t even see. There could be a huge truck in the background, but if we’re not interested we may not even see it. If you don’t adjust images to the way humans see images, they will not affect us. That’s the first thing.
Here’s the second. I just wrote an article about why images actually work the way they work, why some images are so strong. You know when you listen to somebody talking to you or you read something, you always kind of judge. There’s always a filter to the written word or the spoken word. It’s our ratio that’s there, but an image can sink into us without any control filter.
That’s extremely powerful because, for example, when we read the word ‘house’ we have to imagine it. Our ratio is already working to make this general term a specific one. But when we see an image, the house is there. It just sinks into us. But that doesn’t work with all images. It only works with images that are original.
We have seen everything basically, but an image that has a specific style is an image that is like a new image. Every image that is a cliché image, like an overly-commercial photo, we immediately tag it, “Oh, that’s like that,” and then the ratio is there. It doesn’t sink in. It actually gets caught in the filter.
If you copy a style or if you create generic images, you will not affect anybody because of the filter. We recognize the style of images and we filter them out. It doesn’t reach us. But if we see something that we haven’t seen before, it sinks deep because we have no experience with it.
This is also a reason why if a brand wants to have effect, it has to create images or have somebody create images that are specific, that have a character that comes out of the character of an artist and hasn’t been there before in this way. You can’t do anything completely new because everything has been done basically, in a way, but the main thing is that a true image is created off the character and the experience of the artist. The cliché image is just copied style.
So that’s it. Be original and tell a story. It sounds very flat and unspecific. This is why I went into detail about what originality actually means and why we do not get affected by unoriginal images and why we get so deeply affected by original ones.
Brandon: I’m curious, do you think that brands need to have famous celebrities or influencers to make their products stand out, or has that really been overdone?
Robert: I can’t look at anything of this influencer thing anymore. What is a celebrity after all? I always feel that a celebrity is a person who’s famous and you don’t know why. An influencer is somebody who basically takes the position to know more than any other person, but I believe more in what we can call authority. They are people who can really judge, who have vast knowledge. Most people can only compare, and if they see something new it seems wrong to them.
This is why it’s so hard to get something that is new and original accepted, but there are some people who can judge and who see the new and can then explain it to the others. Those are the authorities in the field, but those people usually don’t want to be in the limelight. They usually act in the background.
There are very knowledgeable key people that you have in every industry and every art. They don’t talk to everybody, and they sometimes don’t even publish. They get contacted by people because they know. This is what I feel is the true positive influence. Those people who are just going out, they’re just being loud. I don’t think they know anything. I’m more into these authorities that work behind the scenes, and they are really making the change.
It’s often mixed up. If there’s a great actor or a great performer or top sports person, these people know something and they’re really good at something, but I don’t see them as celebrities. I see them as great actors, great performers, great directors, great writers. The term ‘celebrity’ has been so abused – people who don’t do anything well. It’s almost an insult to call a great actor a celebrity.
Brandon: Of all the things that we’ve talked about so far, I imagine that some of our listeners will be thinking that this has to be very expensive to put together such a campaign. Is it actually possible to deliver a high-quality campaign without breaking the bank?
Robert: Of course. There’s a certain minimum amount you have to invest, but there are certain things that you can actually save money on without losing quality. If you don’t go with big name stars in modeling and the creators, you can get great quality with somebody who’s not that famous, for example. You don’t have to rent a $10,000/day location, for example.
You need a creator that is an individual creative person who is not just copying styles, but has his own personality and world, because if your creator has no own world and no own passions and beliefs, and who has a very distinctive view of that world, how could he ever create a world? It’s impossible. So you need a good creator. It doesn’t have to be somebody who makes $100,000 per shoot. That’s absolutely not necessary.
You need good performers in front of the camera, because without a good performer – it’s what shows up in the image. You can make a decent image with somebody who’s not performing well, but it’s just such a miss.
You need a good make-up artist and hair stylist, because if the hair is bad or the make-up is sloppy you can forget it. It looks horrible. You have to have somebody who’s professional.
You can create a great shoot on locations that are available for $65/day. Shoot the whole day, have the great California light.
The one thing you have to think about also is two campaigns a year will probably not be enough. People expect now to see images all the time. I see very often that brands have great or good campaigns, and then when you look at their social media feeds you have snapshots of the worst kind that have no connection to what the brand wants to stand for and what’s in the campaigns. The storytelling has to be kind of continuous and consistent. What you show on social media has to be consistent with who you want to be and what world you’re creating.
It’s also like that if you create a world. You can’t do it in one session. This incredible attraction wasn’t built in a piece of one. It was built over time. That’s a given in advertising. You have to show something 6 or 7 times before it even gets noticed, but for storytelling you also have to revisit. You have to tell more scenes until the story really catches – not two campaigns a year.
We’ve seen in the fashion industry where brands move away from the spring/summer and autumn/winter rhythm, and I could actually imagine that clothing will be released throughout the year and there will be campaigns every two months or so, because you need to tell the story and you need new images. You can’t show the same images for six months.
Brandon: That makes a lot of sense. We’re out of time, but Robert, I’d like to thank you for being here today. It was very, very interesting. How can people learn more about you?
Robert: Thanks for having me as a guest. You can go to my website at robertwildephoto.com. You will also find a link to my blog. On Instagram I’m robertwilde1. I’ll soon be starting an e-magazine that goes out to my clients and to my potential clients, and there will be a subscription link on my website. This e-magazine will have the newest images, with some text, and I always work on how to improve storytelling for ads.