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Let me entertain you

Branding isn't just about the hard sell; it's an emotional appeal, with consumers' hearts and minds targeted by viral ads, word-of-mouth campaigns, happenings and the like. John Carver is among those leading the way

If you ever made the painfully slow journey down the A4 this summer, you may have seen two sculptors meticulously crafting a full-sized Nissan Murano from a massive block of polystyrene. They were living in a large glass box near the Hogarth roundabout on the western outskirts of London.

Each day the sculptors carved a bit more, under the watchful eyes of passing motorists, until the "installation" was complete. Then a real Murano was placed in the box.

This entertaining experience was part of Nissan's global campaign to "Shift Convention". But is it marketing, or is it advertising? What exactly do you call it?

Brands now realise that there's more to effective communication than well-trodden, predictable paths. There's no doubt that "traditional" advertising is still important. But is it enough?

Corporations seek a "competitive" edge over the competition. Increasingly, their answer is to attempt to build long-term "emotional" relationships between brands and consumers. Brands are becoming "involved" in peoples' lives as never before. It's as Confucius said: "Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand."

In this new thinking, the conventional tactics using television, radio, press and posters amount to didactic messages from advertisers to consumers. One-way messages talk at people, not with people. And people are sick of being talked at.

But emotional links can be created by developing "dialogue" between brands and consumers, crediting people with intelligence and encouraging participation.

Four years ago, the car company behind the new Mini hired my firm Cunning to give them "a competitive edge" by creating "Mini happenings". They weren't asking for advertising, or PR. The Mini people wanted "stuff" that reflected the personality, spirit and attributes of their brand. It made sense that a product positioning itself as original, quirky and different should reinforce these attributes by being original, quirky, different in its methods of communication.

We brought the advertising agency WCRS's "Mini open air theatre" strategy to life by using a Mini convertible as a stage that pulled up outside bars, targeting pavement drinkers in the summer. Four spoof 30-second abridged plays were performed from the Mini (based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, and Chariots of Fire), bringing an evening of theatre to more than 100 bars around the country. This is typical of the entertaining, playful work we do, and it won us a Creative Circle award.

The industry is changing. Traditional advertising and PR agencies are reinventing themselves as all-encompassing "creative communications" organisations. At the same time, many small, independent "creative shops" are giving clients other perspectives. Advertising is moving from the hard sell to entertainment. If brands want to become part of people's lives, they have to work at being accepted.

My firm, Cunning, has just started preproduction on a branded content feature-film called St Patrick's Day, which challenges the conventional model for making a movie. Financed by a broad mix of brands, the film is an exercise in commercialism designed to deliver specific punters and a return on investment. The closer brands get to being "entertaining", the stronger the emotional buy-in.

The film is a caper set in Dublin and Cheltenham, and it appeals to brands selling everything from online betting and travel to pick-up trucks and stout.

Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP has a pretty good idea of what's going on globally. He's predicted that within five years more than 60 per cent of marketing budgets will be spent in the "non-traditional" sector. What we now call "traditional" communication will become "non-traditional".

The best way to hear about something is to be told about it. Nothing comes close to word of mouth. It's cheap, fast and carries the endorsement of the originator. Word of mouth is personal, intimate, a great base for an emotional relationship and a great way to get closer to customers.

As a result, there's been a boom in making ads specifically for e-mail. It's called viral advertising, and it's going berserk. Viral ads are unregulated and undeniably important. These short films are electronic word-of-mouth. Once they're made they cost nothing to place, as media space is free. Some are sexy or violent. Others are funny, or just weird. The best virals go round the world in moments.

At Cunning, we formed a joint venture (with Bikini Films) called Sexy Briefs to create viral ads and branded content. Viral advertising and branded content is becoming such a vital area for film-makers that the official industry body (the Advertising Producers Association) has set up a branded-content division.

The most famous viral is the spoof ad for the VW Polo that was made (without VW's permission or knowledge) by some out-of-work creatives looking for notoriety and jobs. Outrage and controversy will always get a reaction, but not always a good one.

Word of mouth goes way beyond ads distributed via e-mail. It goes back to its root - people talking and interacting in public places. Overhear a "conversation" on the Tube about a product or service, and you could well be listening to some "live advertising" without knowing it. Actors acting like normal people talking about normal things wouldn't arouse suspicion.

Visionary marketers start with a clean sheet. They should have no preconceptions, and make no assumptions that they'll spend their budgets the same way they did last year. They should also be constantly re-evaluating media and methods.

Brands need to become part of peoples' lives, but they'll only be allowed in if there's a reason. So why not create reasons? These reasons are not easy to describe. They don't come with a rate card, as they're all custom-created and tailor-made. They're neither advertising nor PR.

I always like to refer to these reasons as "stuff". Engaging "stuff" creates long-term emotional links with consumers and makes a measurable difference. So that's it - we're in the "stuff" business.

John Carver is the executive creative director and co-founder of Cunning Worldwide