Learning marketing from storytellers
Having led a dissolute movie-life until my mid thirties, even I was surprised when I suddenly fell in love with cinema. In my teens and twenties, I was a positive laggard. To this day, I am both proud and ashamed to say that I have never seen any of the Star Wars movies, Rocky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or any of the Godfathers.
Many parts of popular culture simply did not interest me. I was wrapped up in a world of biographies and choral music, a world that seemed at sixes and sevens with the mainstream. When it came to film, I was lacking my route in.
The movie that changed my relationship with cinema was itself a popular hit. The Talented Mister Ripley was beguiling: it had layers, drama, mystery, beauty and a certain artistic rhythm that I found captivating. Ostensibly a movie of fresh-faced stars – Jude Law, Gwyneth Palthrow, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchet all shone brightly- the real focus of my fascination was Anthony Minghella.
In the DVD ‘bonus features’ was a director’s commentary, made by Minghella as he watched his own movie. Having already enjoyed the film as a punter, the director invited me behind the camera, seeking to explain context, motivation and structure in his building of narrative. Minghella’s incisive, nuanced and eloquent decode of his own picture was electrifying to me. It was, in its way, a strategic conversation elucidating the creation of a piece of world class culture. In truth, the strategic decisions present in building a story for screen are much like those that marketers take in new product development and, of course, in advertising itself.
I have, for some ten years now, been an ardent fan of movies, movie reviews and directors’ commentaries. Within them is the elusive key to the construction and telling of story – and story is the principal means by which all brands are built. Packaging tells a story, as does service, advertising, innovation and promotion. We, each of us, are the storytellers of the brands we work on. But do we know the story we wish to tell?
Just recently, I heard Sydney Pollack talk about the challenges of making his global hit movie, Out of Africa. It is based on a beautifully crafted book of episodic memories, but a book which also lacks a narrative spine.
‘We took two years to uncover the armature of this piece’ he explained. ‘If a movie can’t be explained in two sentences it’s not worth making. For Out of Africa, we finally settled on the theme of possession: if my characters own something (a farm, a way of life, a lover, a colony) what obligations does this possession demand?’.
By defining the distillation of his story, Pollack was able to test each scene against the movie’s core proposition, and in this manner weave his narrative.
The parallels with the marketing process are so clear that I am inclined to believe that many brand experts should make movies, and many movie directors should create brands.
Just today, I heard Bill Cunningham of the New York Times talk about the inspiration of the world’s greatest fashion designers. My ears pricked to the theme – as the principle is exactly that of Pollack and of marketing: what is the essence of what I am doing? What is the story I am telling?
‘Coco Channel’, Cunningham explained, ‘was single-minded in what she was trying to do. She was creating feminine clothes to replicate the contents of her lovers’ closets’.
All of culture – be it movies, fashion or brands – can be discovered and enjoyed in a multiplicity of ways. I have found that I am not just interested in beautiful execution, but in the full 360 degrees – also appreciating the strategy behind such beautiful execution.
Far from my laggard beginnings, this holistic way of appreciating movies, culture and, indeed, brands, may well be emergent.
What a thing: to be seduced by the storyteller’s yarn, and then insist on examining the spinning wheel that allowed its weaving.