Let me run through Scene 1 in a movie plot line I often find myself cast. I will play the part of the skinny content-marketing dude. The part of the brand-marketing executive will be played by John Goodman or Brad Pitt, whomever you like better—or you can afford.
The scene: Your average glass-walled conference room high atop your average corporate office tower looking out on the city
We have this video, and we want it to go viral.
Would love to help if we can. Let me see it.
Exec plays video on his laptop — a montage of perfectly lit images of a food container timed to a pulsating techno track. We see a tracking shot across the side of the container, an aerial panoramic shot across the top of the jar, a spoon removing a dollop of the jar’s sweet insides in slow motion. The montage ends with an extreme close-up of the product label as lightning flashes around it.
What do you think? It perfectly captures the
epic tastiness of our new line. Cost us $100k.
(searching for words)
It looks tasty.
I’ve been in this movie many times — along side brands that confuse shameless promotion with providing something of value. These brands spend too much money and too much time creating infomercials, then wonder aloud why the views don’t pile up.
Okay, so you think your brand is savvier than that? Even smart marketers often fall down the rabbit hole of casting their product as the hero of the story—even when the plotline is more sophisticated than the one offered up by our non-descript brand marketing exec. Is your product up to the role? Can it carry the movie? As it is with all good producers, the story has to come first, and all your allegiance must then be paid to it. Study the great work of a brand like Chipotle; the company has a message — on sustainable farming and food safety — and its products are lucky if they get walk-on roles.
What do we know about stories? They have beginnings, middles and ends. They have conflict. They have a hero (or an antihero). They reflect something intrinsic about our humanity. There also is often a funny irony about stories, the better ones anyway: They don’t sell, but if they do their job well, people will buy.
In this new age of social, spontaneous communication, brands need to learn how to become more storytellers, less pitchmen. Lessons can be learned from Hollywood, athough producers hardly bat 1,000 there when it comes to finding great stories. Every major summer blockbuster that is released is essentially a product line being launched across multiple verticals. However, the centerpiece of the product launch is a big, beautiful story whose job is to entertain. Leave a movie audience inspired, and they will come back and see the movie again. They will tell their friends, and they will want to incorporate reminders of that movie into their lives with the toys, branded food products, soundtracks and clothing they buy.
Hollywood gets this — and so do brands when they hitch a ride on a great tale (instead of creating their own) through product placements in films. Those days aren’t over, but it’s no longer the only pathway to a consumer’s heart and mind through story.
Brands are the new Hollywood, but they need to brush up on their storytelling skills and trust that the strength of their convictions will lead people to their products. Products need to be the manifestation of a company’s values. Those values should be the subject of all sorts of wonderful stories that comprise your company’s narrative. Some may star an employee. Some may feature your customers — or people you wish were your customers. Insist that your brand audition alongside everyone else, and have the courage to realize when your brand shouldn’t be hero.
The great bluesman Lonnie Brooks once gave me some advice he had received from another great bluesman, Junior Wells, about how to win over a cynical nightclub audience: “Anything that comes from the heart can’t help, but touch the heart … ”
The point: Great stories have to be more than simply authentic sentiment or messages from brands, even if they are told from the heart. They also have to be creative and purposeful, real stories that add value to the listeners’ lives. And above all, they need to be able to touch the emotions of their audiences. That’s a heavy lift even if you throw $100k at it.
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