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Need a Brilliant Brand Strategy? Go See a Movie

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why certain brand stories resonate with consumers on a deeper, emotional level.
  • To dodge marketing tactics that could cloud your brand's value message
  • To let your brand story take consumers on a story-like, emotional journey

Filmmakers and marketers continue to migrate toward one another because the key to their success is the same: story.

On my first day in graduate film school at Columbia University, my professor—a lauded screenwriter—began his class by saying, "Known, unknown, unity," and then left the room.

He was referring to the ideas of the late Joseph Campbell, a brilliant philosopher who created a basis for transcendent storytelling with a modern understanding of the power of mythology. For Campbell, the "myth" did not mean some yarn about gods and fantastical creatures. It referred, instead, to the basic pattern found in every timeless narrative.

My professor's point, albeit dramatic, was clear: There is a narrative pattern—Campbell's "Monomyth"—that resonates supremely with humankind.

The idea that brands are stories is not novel. But as a filmmaker-turned-marketer, I'm sensitive to how often brands focus on tactics, or, dare I say it, politics and compromise. They therefore lose sight of their monomyth—that narrative that identifies with consumers' values and transcends mere sales propositions in favor of an eternal, universal truth.

Too mystical to be true? Let's take a closer look at one of Campbell's patterns, as applied to a brand and stories we all know.

The Known

For Campbell, The Known is where a transcendent story begins. It is the moment we find our hero in a world he understands, but a world that is somehow unsatisfying.

It's Luke Skywalker on his family farm dreaming of a larger purpose. It's Beowulf, a kingdom away, before he hears of the vicious Grendel. For a brand, it is the moment when it launches and either breaks through or fizzles.

For Apple, the moment was 1984. Apple bought every available page (39 in total) of Newsweek's popular post-election edition, but the launch failed because Apple was already lost in the tactics. The Newsweek ads strove to differentiate Apple from IBM in technological terms, when they should have differentiated in terms of values.

Apple corrected its mistake with a seminal Super Bowl spot in which a leggy supermodel, wearing a Mac tank top, ostensibly saves a mass of oppressed people by hurling a sledgehammer into the image of their Orwellian captor (read: IBM).

The ad was simple, mythic, and clear: IBM is the machine of the boring status quo, and Apple is the machine of an imaginative, beautiful future.

The Unknown
In The Unknown phase, according to Campbell, a monumental event thrusts the hero into the unknown: a life-or-death journey.

Storm Troopers murder Luke's aunt and uncle (his guardians), and he's embroiled in a galactic rebellion. Beowulf runs to assist the village and gets caught in a battle between mother, father, and illegitimate son. A brand enters the marketplace and must achieve market share or die.

After the success of the Super Bowl launch, Apple did not repeat its mistake. Just as Yoda told Luke that a hasty, vengeful attack on the Empire was not only contrary to his values (vengeance is a value of the Dark Side) but also foolish, Apple realized that attacking IBM as a technology company was a losing battle and contrary to Apple's monomyth.

Instead, Apple re-emphasized its values with the "Crazy Ones" campaign, which featured significant historical figures like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, and John Lennon—and a new slogan: "Think Different."

Apple stayed on its authentic, narrative track and secured an alliance with values like art, innovation, and freedom. It's no wonder that, to this day, if you're a banker you likely use a PC, and if you're an artist you likely have a Mac on your desk.
The Unity

At The Unity stage, the hero has survived the life-or-death ordeal and lives in a new world with a deeper, unified understanding.

Luke destroys the Death Star, the universe enjoys renewed peace, but Luke understands that he is made of both good and evil—and which one he becomes is matter of choice. Beowulf slays the monsters, the villagers are safe, but all of them understand that secrets and infidelity bring down wrath.

A brand achieves market share, it enjoys consumer loyalty, but it also understands that it is obliged to stay true to the values that got it there.

Apple's unified understanding is simple: It is not a technology brand but an aesthetic one, and its monomyth built on values like design, freedom, and imagination ("coolness"). Today, Apple's brand strategy remains true to those values: What would make a computer company think it could enter the portable music market? Music is cool. Music is art. Music is imaginative.

* * *

Apple, like Target, North Face, Coca-Cola, and Lexus, is one of an elite group of brands that created an emotional bond with its customers—a bond that transcends commerce. Apple customers don't simply like Macs. They love them. And the thought of returning to a PC is anathema.

Apple's customers are deeply, emotionally involved, just as the viewers of a great film or the readers of a great novel.

Settle on a brand's authentic truth and core values, and use Campbell's Monomyth to construct a story around them to achieve transcendent brand equity.

To Yoda-ize Campbell himself: "To make your brand's heartbeat match the beat of Human Nature, the goal of branding is."

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Duke Greenhill is founder and executive creative director of Greenhill + Partners, LLC, a New York-based brand consultancy and marketing firm that focuses on authentic brand narratives to increase brand equity and cultivate brand-consumer relationships that transcend commerce.

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  • by Darren N. Fri Mar 18, 2011 via web

    Ok... you knew this was coming.

    Not his parents, his aunt and uncle; and Yoda never showed until Empire.

    Great article though.... as you said, the idea of story in brand development/management is not new, but it seems to get lost and overlooked.

    No matter how much emphasis we make on that foundation, of having and knowing your story and audience and the relevant link between them, the drift to a tactical focus seems inevitable.

    And I don't think it's just the bean counters, the sales team or executives who need to generate a report... sometimes it seems the marketers are the ones to blame as they get caught selling the shiny tool of the moment (hello Facebook, then Twitter, the Foursquare, then...)

    This story - that marketing is about connecting the storyteller (the brand) with the audience that cares (the real market) - can never be told too many times.


  • by Vahe Habeshian, MarketingProfs Fri Mar 18, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the Star Wars corrections, Darren. We'll update the article accordingly.

  • by Hannah Tighe Fri Mar 18, 2011 via web

    Great Article,
    I really loved how you connected all the dots. I know one of the things I struggle with is clearly combining a story with proven tactics that work. So many of us or focused on tools, tactics, and platforms, we begin to lose site of the underlying message. I just was working on a project where I needed to check myself to make sure I was still on track. Very timely post for me, thanks!!!

  • by Dhana@Loyaltics Fri Mar 18, 2011 via web

    Story telling is such an important aspect of marketing !. Thanks for the timely article !.

  • by mike lawson Fri Mar 18, 2011 via web

    One the best articles on Marketing Profs so far this year. Enjoyed how Greenhill used pop culture and literature as practical examples for brands to remain true to themselves. We all remember stories and any of us who can remember these three examples related right away -- which proves how powerful story telling with an emotional connection is. Well done!

  • by Daniel in Perth Mon Mar 21, 2011 via web

    Great article. I think the hardest job for marketers is trying to find the value in the product or services. While we all know the technical differences and benefits to the consumer - this is practically rammed down our throat by all and sundry, many people seem to stuble on the true value proposition. Not value as we the organisation or producer see it but value as the end user who consumes the product or service.

  • by Duke Greenhill Tue Mar 22, 2011 via web

    Just wanted to thank you all for your encouraging and insightful comments. It was Luke's aunt and uncle, wasn't it? Of course, the true monomyth exists across ALL the Star Wars episodes.

    So true, too, about how marketers themselves get weighed down in the "shiny" thing of the moment. Strategy is of course key, but strategizing a non-resonant brand story is an Emperor with No Clothes effort.

    Thanks for reading and again, for your thoughtful comments.

    With respect,
    Duke Greenhill

  • by John Fischbeck Thu Mar 24, 2011 via web

    Great article, story telling is the key to most marketing it has to be stealthy and make an impact on the reader. Connecting the dots...story.

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