A new day breaks in branded entertainment

One of the best things about being at BBDO New York is the quality of people and ideas we encounter. You could be getting a drink from the vending machine and find the legendary Greg Hahn a few meters away. The result is, once every few months, someone in your office will do a piece of work that’s absolutely pathbreaking and redefines the whole world of marketing.

The most recent example of this is Daybreak, something BBDO and TV producer Tim Kring (Heroes, Touch) are doing for AT&T. It’s an ecosystem of content that’s loosely termed a web series, but there’s much more to it. There’s a whole mythology around it, almost like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics and the like. And of course, there’s an app for it. More about that later.

Without playing spoiler, Daybreak is about a set of mysterious objects called dodecahedrons (20-sided cubes) that have extraordinary powers, with both good and bad forces hunting for them, and inevitably clashing. With a good versus evil battle and a conspiracy theory providing fertile ground, the makers have cultivated enormous story value in every episode, and you absolutely need to keep watching till the end.

The good guys detect the dodecahedrons using an app called Jack Boxers, which has frequency recognition and picture recognition technology pioneered by AT&T. The dodecahedrons emit frequencies that enable the app to track them. Picture recognition helps the users make sense of pictorial clues they detect across the city. AT&T is pivotal to the story as the plot cannot move forward without its technology. This is a far cry from the product placement we’re used to. We don’t find anything out-of-place or in-your-face. There’s simply no story here without AT&T.

While a web series (albeit a very entertaining one) isn’t pathbreaking, it’s the ecosystem surrounding it that makes Daybreak first-of-a-kind.

Firstly, a series of web films seeded on YouTube show scientists a few decades ago performing mysterious experiments with dodecahedrons. You can find them here, here and here. It was never explicitly mentioned that these are part of Daybreak, and that only made them all the more viral.

Secondly, the Daybreak website has a whole series of images and videos revealing knowledge on dodecahedrons, physics, and the conspiracy. You get really drawn into the Daybreak culture through it.

Thirdly, the Jack Boxers app in the story is also a real app. In the story it’s a valuable tool used by a worldwide network of Jack Boxers to uncover dodecahedrons. In real life it’s a game in which you collaborate with thousands of worldwide players via Facebook to locate fictitious dodecahedrons. This blurring between fiction and reality is a beautiful way to fascinate people.

Following the same philosophy is this site that takes the Jack Boxers mythology to stratospheric levels. It reminds me of the mythology created around the movie Prometheus (such as this 2023 TED Talk). We’re increasingly entering an era in which a movie or a series is simply the core around which concentric circles of more content are created.

Finally, one stroke of brilliance connected Daybreak with a whole new audience. This film, completely outside of the five episodes, shows a juxtaposition between the hero of Daybreak and the hero of Touch, an iconic TV series produced by the same Tim Kring. Touch is about a mute 11-year-old boy who has extraordinary mathematical abilities and knows how everything in this universe is connected through mathematical patterns. Daybreak is another series about interconnections, so it’s brilliant to establish it in the same universe as Touch. I heard that in the last episode of this season of Touch, the concept of dodecahedrons was introduced to stimulate curiosity about Daybreak. Shortly after this season of Touch ended, Daybreak went live, and that was beautiful timing.

If you look at the different mediums and forms of content involved in Daybreak, you can tell that this is really the future of branded entertainment. Multiple mediums were involved not because someone was ticking boxes to ensure that film, web, mobile and social media were all covered. Multiple mediums were involved because that was simply the best way to tell this story. Great storytellers express themselves equally well in any medium, because their philosophy is to lead with great content.

I don’t believe creatives should start ripping off Daybreak. But I do believe they should deconstruct it to know the thought processes that went into it. A kind of “knowing where the rocks are so that you can walk on water”. So here’s my humble attempt. If the makers are reading this, they’d probably laugh at how ignorant I am. But that’s not going to prevent me from trying.

More than anything else, I believe that the starting point was when the makers asked, “What sort of story showcases the AT&T brand best?” and the answer was clearly “a story of interconnectedness”. A story of how people and objects in entirely different circles are woven together in the grand scheme of things. Just like AT&T facilitates this interconnectedness in real life, its technology enables the characters to piece together the interconnections in the story. The learning for all creatives working on all categories is to ask the question, “What sort of story showcases the brand/product the best?”. If you come up with the most amazing story that doesn’t showcase the brand/product powerfully, waste no time in consigning that story to the trash bin.

Once you think of stories that can build the brand, the next step is to ask yourself whether this story is entertaining, whether you would be interested in it. To evaluate its entertainment value, think about age-old techniques in storytelling – drama, tension, conflict, good versus evil, mystery, conspiracy, betrayal. This has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with human nature. All these techniques were pioneered even before electricity was discovered.

The next step is to weave the brand seamlessly into the narrative. If you’ve done your homework in step one (asking the “what sort of story showcases the brand” question), then this step becomes easy. You’ll discover a multitude of ways in which the brand effortlessly fits into the story.

Once that is achieved, it’s time to have some fun with it, and build an entire subculture. Create stories peripheral to the main story. Create objects and concepts that deepen the narrative. And as you do that, you’ll naturally find different mediums to express yourself.

Of course, all these are easy to talk about, but rather difficult to do. That’s why the people who created Daybreak are truly the best in the business. There’s so much to learn from them. Even if we do half the things they are doing, we’ll become much better marketers and communicators.

I heard it took the team two years to develop the whole thing. I’m not surprised, because it’s a phenomenal attempt, and it would certainly take even the best brains two years to do it. There was a line in one of the episodes that said people don’t kill each other over quarks and gluons (the tiniest particles ever discovered, several orders tinier than electrons). But in the case of Daybreak, I’m sure the makers really killed each other over quarks and gluons to reach this level of creativity. One day we’ll look back at Daybreak and say that was an inflection point in the history of branded entertainment.


A peek into today’s consumer – myself

I’m in the marketing industry, an industry which deals with human nature day in, day out. In the whirlwind of technology-driven communications that surround us (where a blue bird is no longer just a blue bird), it’s easy to forget that my industry deals with core human emotions all the time. We live or die by the consumer’s attitude, thinking and behaviour. The digital world has not changed core human nature, but has changed the ways in which humans receive, process and respond to information. Just today, I had an opportunity to observe how humans today receive, process and respond to information. I observed myself.
I hopped into work today, checked my email, and saw that I had received the customary LinkedIn updates email. I opened the mail, and among other things, I saw a status update called “Awesome mobile app – 60+” from one of my LinkedIn friends called Oliver Woods. That’s someone I had met once through a mutual friend (see, analog networks are still important in a digital world). Oliver had not posted it as a LinkedIn status message, but as a tweet, and his Twitter account had been integrated closely with his LinkedIn acount (I do that too).
And in that tweet, he had given an url of his blog post, which in turn had the iTunes url of an iPhone app called 60+ which his agency, Leo Burnett Singapore, has built. It’s an app which takes Earth Hour beyond one hour, and urges people to perform one environmentally constructive act every day (something like the boy scouts’ daily good deeds). You could unlock badges (inspired by Foursquare?) and track how many acts we’ve done.
Look at all the links in this chain. A friend I had met in real life and added to my LinkedIn, his Twitter account which was integrated with his LinkedIn, an iPhone app his agency had built, a tweet he had made regarding that, his blog post’s url in the tweet, the app’s iTunes url in the blog post, and the fact that LinkedIn had sent me the tweet in an email. This shows the interconnectedness of the digital space, and how we get info from a multitude of digital sources which are closely integrated.
This was not the end of the story. Naturally I followed his url and checked out the app on iTunes. I liked what I saw and it was free, so I simply went to the App Store from my iPhone, searched for this app and downloaded it. My mobile habits became a key part of my user experience, an experience that had begun on my PC.
Once I downloaded this app, I had an option of either creating a new account, or logging in via Facebook. I did the latter. Since I often access Facebook from my iPhone, my login details were already stored on my iPhone. The 60+ app automatically accessed it and logged me in. Yet another cog in this wheel: Facebook. Is there anything left that had not yet become part of my user experience?!
Once logged in, I viewed a comprehensive list of “acts” for the environment that I could do. I certainly plan to do some of them (the easy ones like “decline shark’s fin soup at a dinner”). But before I did anything, just to test it out, I “lied” to the app that I did it. And I got a message, “Congratulations, you’ve unlocked the badge Seedling”. A badge for doing one act? In Singapore terminology, isn’t it very “cheapskate”?
The next natural thing it did was to allow me to share on Facebook. I did that, and the next time I accessed Facebook on my PC, there was a status update to this effect. Another example of how the mobile web has become a reality.
Just as I thought everything in the digital space had been covered, the envelope was pushed further. As we know, social networks are a few-years-old phenomenon, and the present-day mind space is more about location-based networks. True to this, I got a prompt from the 60+ app that “60 Plus would like to use your current location”. I allowed it, just to see what would happen. I’m yet to see the effects of this.
Just to test the system further, I said one more time that I performed this act. I immediately got the message “Success! Thanks for going beyond the hour. Keep up the great work.”
I felt it was great that this variation in the messaging was built into the app. I would have felt annoyed if the same old message was shown again. This highlighted the importance of copy in the digital space. Copy is critical to the user experience in every medium, and digital is no exception.
To explore further, I performed a different act (keeping the aircon above 24 deg C). And I got a message that I had just unlocked the “Just Right” badge.
This is when I didn’t feel too right. A badge shouldn’t be so cheap, that you can get it just by performing one act once. In Foursquare, you need to really earn a badge (e.g. check in to 5 clubs in the same night to get a Socialite Badge), and this makes badges highly sought after. By dishing out a badge for every act, I felt this app was devaluing the entire idea of badges.
These are little details I pick bones with. But as an overall concept, it was very good. The important thing is, it had a solid idea at the core – that Earth Hour is not just that one hour, but it’s about going beyond that one hour and performing daily acts that help the environment. Developing this idea further, a key insight was that people want a way to keep track of their environmental good deeds and feel rewarded every step of the way. With this in mind, digital (and specifically mobile) became the key medium of execution. Too many digital campaigns start with the technology and then find a forced way to fudge an idea. This approach will never deliver truly great work. The approach of starting with human nature is always the best way.
As yet another step in my user experience, I’ve just blogged about it and posted the url into my Facebook. You probably saw it there and decided to read it. Or maybe you discovered it on Google thanks to the handful of SEO tags I added to this post. And now, you may want to download the app and try it out yourself. It’s a cliche that today’s consumer also creates content, but like most cliches it’s true, and I’ve proven that here.
The more I think about this, the more I feel this is a complete example of how today’s consumer absorbs and acts on content. It’s communicators who understand this sort of consumer behaviour who will deliver the best experiences to the consumer. A lack of understanding of humans’ content-processing habits is the key malaise in the marketing industry today, and something that needs to be fixed real soon. If not, the sparingly few marketers who understand this will have a field day at everyone else’s expense.
Erm, and by the way, if you’d like to play around with the app, here it is again.