What Hollywood and Cats Can Teach You About Creating Marketing Personas

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So, it turns out that Hollywood screenwriters have quite a lot in common with professional marketers.

First of all, there are thousands (if not millions) of both of them, all trying to make a living through forging a connection with an audience. Both the screenwriter and marketers’ job is to connect with a particular audience in order to increase sales, whether it’s box office tickets or machine parts, their jobs are very similar.

Most recognize the need to emotionally connect with their audience and most recognize the importance of key ingredients to their job including the need to:

Screenwriter Marketer
Define a hero Define a brand
Provide a goal to strive for Provide a goal to strive for
Create an obstacle to overcome Suggest a problem to solve
Offer a reflection character Offer customer testimonials
Deliver a moral to the story Benefit statements

Both are storytellers. Unfortunately most of them, despite being decent storytellers, are failing to make that emotional connection sufficiently to make a difference and this is of particular interest to me.

The mechanics of a good story have been studied and well documented in both worlds, yet still there is a wealth of stories that just don’t cut the mustard.

Now I love movies, I love writing about marketing and I’m sometimes also guilty of procrastinating over one to talk about the other. One particular afternoon I was having lunch with a friend during a break from researching my book, Getting Goosebumps.

Whilst chatting about what I should have been doing at the time, my good friend, Glynn was listening to me draw parallels between movies and marketing and started to get quite excited. At first, I thought his excitement was due to such a profound parallel I was drawing, however it turned out to be something else. Randomly, Glynn had just read a brilliant book about Hollywood screenwriting. He read this book in less than 48 hours, couldn’t put it down, and the same was about to happen to me. Amazon Prime served me well and in less than a day I was part man, part book for 48 hours too.

The mechanics of good marketing storytelling seem to be a little more basic than the twists and turns, sub-plots and character development you can find in Hollywood. However, I was convinced the two worlds had more to offer each other and this book was about to let me in on the secret that Hollywood had kept from marketers for far too long.

Hollywood screenwriters have been ‘saving cats’ for years – this was the one thing I’d been looking for… Let me explain.

The late Blake Snyder, author of ‘Save the Cat’, sums up the reason for some movies being a hit and others being a complete flop, regardless of budget, lead actors, special effects and every other whistle and bell that Hollywood has to offer.

If you don’t like the hero, you don’t like the movie.

Snyder explains that in the first 10% of all successful Hollywood movies, something happens, something is said or the hero does something to provide a very good reason for the audience to like them. He calls this, the ‘Save the Cat’ moment.

Now, this doesn’t mean all heroes need to physically save a cat from a tree (although that would probably work). But they do need to do something that operates along the same principle.

Even if the hero is the meanest, most evil genius on the planet, if they do something to endear themselves to the audience in the first 10% of the movie, the audience can settle down, content that they like the hero and the story can continue to unfold.

A Modern Example

Disney writers are old masters at this concept. When they first wrote Aladdin, they faced a problem. Aladdin was originally a thief; he stole things from people for his own benefit and he wasn’t such a likable guy. After several re-writes of the screenplay, the opening sequence now included Aladdin stealing some food, only to give it to a couple of street urchins that were in greater need than him.

Just to make sure the likeability factor was as high as possible, the two street urchins immediately found themselves in danger, about to be whipped by a rich suitor for the princess. Who steps in to catch the whip and get the children out of harm’s way? Why it’s our hero, Aladdin, of course!

Aladdin is now safe to continue with the main plot with the full backing of the audience. We like him, we want him to win and it’s all due to the addition of the ‘Save the Cat’ scene.

I could write about these examples all day. Top Gun – Maverick flew back to guide Cougar home after he freaked out at nearly being killed by enemy Migs, despite being low on fuel. Heist – Gene Hackman leaves his mask off during a robbery in order to distract an innocent woman in the bank, despite being caught on the security cameras. You get the idea now, right?

OK, so now you’re in on the secret mechanism used by great Hollywood screenwriters, what do you do with this information, apart from shout, ‘Save the Cat’ every time you see the scene in a film! (It’s a great game to play but only if everyone is in on it – don’t do this in movie theaters without being prepared to be thrown out!).

How can us marketers use this technique within our story telling to encourage your audience to like your brand right from the start?

Set the Scene and Provide Context

Take a sufficient amount of time to set up a scenario before jumping straight into the features and benefits of your product or service. Your audience needs to understand the relevance of your story and its apparent value to someone else before you can talk about yourself.

It’s really important for brands to pay attention to context when storytelling. You could be creating amazing content every day but if you’re putting it in front of the wrong people it’s meaningless. In today’s saturated marketplace, personalized, relevant and contextually appropriate marketing is how you get your audience to love you from the off!

Be Funny

Consider using humor in some way to explain a situation or to break the ice with your audience. humor is a great way to draw your audience in to a story before they’ve decided whether to buy into the whole shooting match just yet.

humor is such an important and fundamental aspect to the human personality. It’s a direct and authentic way into a potential customer’s emotional decision making. Most buying decisions are emotional ones, so if you can provoke some humor then you’re well on your way to engaging with your audience and they’re more likely to remember you that way.

In Hollywood, writers sometimes use humor as the single redeeming feature of an otherwise unlikable character to make the audience laugh and find something to like about the character. We’ve all met grumpy angry characters before – the world is full of people that just aren’t very nice. But, if they have a sharp wit and they can make you laugh, their jokes save the day every time.

Danny DeVito has played many a leading role whereby he’s a horrible, angry man. In ‘Twins’, we’re introduced to him sleeping with someone else’s wife, he double crosses Arnie and steals from him multiple times. But, he’s got this amazing angry wit that’s just so likable. The second the audience sees this side to him that, believe it or not, is his ‘Save the Cat’ moment!

A brilliant example of a brand that wasn’t afraid to inject some humor into their marketing is television channel TNT. They set up a big red button on a podium in the middle of a quiet, unremarkable square in Belgium. Above it hung a sign, in the shape of a giant arrow, saying “Push to add drama.”

People being people, it wasn’t long before a curious passer-by took the plunge and pressed the mysterious button. What follows is a sequence of increasingly weird events, a fight between a paramedic and a cyclist, a football team carrying a man on a stretcher, a woman in shocking red underwear riding a motorbike, all topped off with a banner that falls from a nearby building, proudly proclaiming “Your Daily Dose of Drama : TNT”

Why does it work? Well, who could possibly forget something so out of the ordinary, ratcheting up the tension on an unsuspecting public? When the marketing message is revealed it is filled with knowingness and a natural sense of humor that you’ll struggle to forget the scenes you’ve just seen. As marketers, if you can be fun and memorable, that’s half of your battle won!

Be Brilliant at Something

We all admire an outstanding talent or ability. It can be as simple as Marty demonstrating how good he is at skate boarding at the start of ‘Back to the Future’ or Mitch McDeere, clearly being the outstanding, superior A-grade law student that everyone wants to hire at the start of ‘The Firm’.

You don’t have to be lovable to be liked if you’re a genius. However, this one comes with a health warning. If straight out of the blocks you lead with, ‘look at me I’m amazing’ it can be very difficult to recover and the audience can be turned off quickly.

I recommend demonstrating your genius carefully by using your customer as the hero, or even portray the genius of your customer for using you as the solution to their problem. Nobody likes a smart-ass so be careful how you showcase your brilliance.

Mitch was also waiting tables to pay for college. Marty was cool, but also a flake who was caught being late for school which gave us insight into the endearing character flaws and traits we could also identify with.

One of my all-time favorite examples of a brilliant brand being…well, brilliant while simultaneously making their customers the hero of their story, is WestJet Airlines’ 2013 Christmas marketing campaign. This is an example we look really deeply into in Getting Goosebumps.

WestJet asked their passengers what they wanted for Christmas before they boarded a busy, holiday time flight using an interactive Santa on a TV screen. A nice touch? Sure! But that’s not where it ended.

In the time it took the flight to get from Toronto to Hamilton, WestJet had bought every passenger’s Christmas wish, which were left gift-wrapped and waiting for them on the luggage belt. You don’t really have to look any further to find a brand that knows exactly how to make their marketing all about their customers, while managing to make themselves look pretty brilliant in the process.

As viewers we’re left in no doubt that this is a business that cares.

Be Human, Be Vulnerable and Be Honest

The temptation to showcase your products and services as the best thing since sliced bread can be overwhelming. Naturally, as a storyteller charged with adding value to your business, it’s natural to live in the world that talks about the benefits of what you’re selling and why it’s so amazing.

Something that virtually nobody does is write about a situation that went wrong. Why would you ever reveal your flaws or failures? How would that help you sell more product?

When we fail, we chalk it up to experience, we learn and we move on. If you can talk about those epic failures honestly, you can also demonstrate how you’ve become better and more valuable because of those experiences.

When is the last time you saw a case study page on a website listing a long line of epic failures? You’ll certainly stand out from the crowd, endear yourself to your audience and probably become more credible to them than by talking about a string of victories.

When you’re honest about your shortcomings it inspires two reactions in the people you’re talking to. You come across as caring (and you are, right?) because your end customers’ experience with your brand matters to you. Being honest about your flaws shows that you don’t want them to be disappointed.

Secondly, people start to trust you. If you’ve nothing to hide then people have no reason to be suspicious of you. If you’re not wheeling out the smoke and mirrors to try and blindside your customer base then you instantly become more likable. The old adage that people buy from people they trust has never been truer when it comes to laying it all out in the open.

Dove took the bull by the horns when it comes to making themselves vulnerable as a brand. Exposing the beauty industry’s obsession with using a very limited selection of women in their advertising and marketing, Dove redressed the balance by using a wider selection of female models to sell their products. This move took guts because they implicated themselves as colluding in a long-criticized advertising standard while also taking clear and transparent steps to move beyond it. And now? They have a digital community of millions of loyal and inspired customers all over the world. Sometimes vulnerability can be very worth it!

The Bottom Line

So, ‘Save the Cat’ or ‘Save your Marketing’? You’ll have to decide that one but I know it gave me plenty of food for thought during the research phase of writing Getting Goosebumps. It turns out marketers have a lot more in common with other professional storytellers than you might initially presume.

I’ve read the tricks and techniques of stand-up comedians, political leaders and even professional pick up artists during the writing of the book. It turns out that, as a profession, marketing has a lot to learn from all corners of the storytelling world. Yep, even pick up artists…

If you have come across any other examples of professions that us marketers can learn from to make us better storytellers, I would love to hear about it.

Any finally, I’d also love to know what you think of our finished book, Getting Goosebumps. It includes more insights into how marketers can connect emotionally with an audience with tons of great examples from different industries about how to craft a compelling story.

Start to really understand your audience and figure out exactly who they are by downloading our free guide to persona and empathy mapping. You’ll win their hearts and minds once you start crafting great content just for them!

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