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Macala Wright: Redefining Narrative Storytelling

What Van Life, a surf documentary, can teach brands about connecting with their customers on a personal level.

Macala Wright
Macala Wright on September 29, 2013. @macala

In July 2011, Foster Huntington left his job as a creative director for some of the top retail brands in New York City, bought a VW Vanagon and hit the road.

For the last two years, he’s put 80 thousand miles on his camper traveling around North America surfing and camping. What emerged from was not only a photo documentary on Surf culture, but a narrative on how people live in their vehicles and exist as auto nomads in a series called Van Life.

Van Life is a cross platform, episodic journey over two years of life on the road. In that time, Hunting has developed an Instagram following of 625,000 people and his tumblr, Out of Reception, averages over 350 reblogs per post, his most emotional photos receiving several thousand.  Because of the hundreds of photos he’s captured, the VanLife hashtag has received over 51,000 submission from those familiar with it, creating one of the fastest growing  collaborative social experience projects on the web today.

Huntington is perhaps one of the best examples brands can learn from when it comes to learning how to capture the essence of story in way that truly connects consumers to them.

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How did you start Vanlife?

I started taking photos of vans and other campers that I came across in my travels in the fall of  2011.   After rationalizing my interest in these campers,  I wrote a post and put together some photos on my blog for a post called Vanlife.  Here’s how it read:

Not until experiencing something for myself can I really appreciate it.  Call me thick headed, but it’s been true about autumn in New England, sex, and most recently, camper vehicles, or as I call it, van life.  I purchased my Syncro with no prior knowledge of van life.  Operating on the assumption that I liked the freedom and exploration offered by living out of a van, I committed to trying it out.

A handful of interesting people’s stories of the road reassured me that it was the right thing to do.  Ships of the open road are hard to understand when you’re not sailing them.  Now that I am sailing my own,  I have grown to appreciate the breed of adventurers they attract and the vehicles they drive.

Two years later, I am just as excited to see a camper parked for the night or hanging out on the side of the highway.  Some of the most inspiring and happiest people I’ve ever met live in their vehicles by choice.

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Why are they happy? Happiness is so elusive to so many people, how do you think this experience has helped them find it?

These people are happy for a bunch different reasons but by lowering their overhead they are able to spend more time doing the things they love as opposed to earning money to pay for a mortgage, and new clothes. Living in a camper lets them go new places when they get restless as opposed to by a new outfit.  There’s also happiness that comes with taking a step back and letting go of expectations of what society expects people to do.

When I look at your work that you’ve done for Ralph Lauren and Patagonia, it’s beautiful. As content marketing, storytelling and film as medium to tell stories are at the focus of so many marketers minds, how can they do it more effectively? What are brands still missing when it comes to telling great stories?

I think telling an authentic story is the most important part of it.  People are smart.  If there’s some big corporate agenda focusing the narrative it’s going to come across that way.  It’s about having the right person for the right story.  There’s such a disconnect now between the people that are telling good stories and utilizing the Internet and those in control of the market budgets.  It’s hard for a company to accept that some “blogger” is better at telling an authentic, relatable story than a billion dollar brand.  In the future I imagine brands giving storytellers a much longer leash and letting them go on projects they believe in.

What practices must they change in order to be successful?

Brands are going to have let go of creative control.  Advertising and marketing people are going to have come to terms with the fact that people telling stories successfully on the Internet have a better understanding of the platforms.  Right now it’s like having a person that’s an expert on ovens work on a microwave.  It will have to change.

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You’ve recently launched a Kickstarter for Van Life – Why?

I’ve launched a Kickstarter to publish a photo book and some other vanlife related swag.  For this project I wanted to publish it myself so that I could have control over how the book looked and felt and how it was marketed.  I worked on a book with Harper Collins on a book for my project called The Burning House.  This time around I wanted to focus on the entire process of making the book as opposed to just delivering a manuscript and blogging about it when it came out. Self publishing and using kickstarter lets me have this control.

For marketers and storytellers, what’s important to note about Huntington’s work is his dedication to authenticity. The reason what he does works, the reason he has followers, and the reason brands are attracted to VanLife is simply because it’s a real story, with a real person – that’s well told. Huntington has changed an old model (a spokesperson as face of a company via contract that a brand attaches its own creative and marketing to) to a new model with greater legs (a real person telling their own story, aligned to the people and products within it in a way that’s natural). The results of the new model are great: the outcome is better, success is exponential, and the relationship continues versus abruptly concluding when the contract ends.

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