The beloved American children's classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was published in 1939 by the Montgomery Ward department store. So it's tempting to think of it—like Campbell's Green Bean Casserole—as yet another lasting piece of seasonal content marketing.

Except Rudolph is so much more than that. Journalist Roy Peter Clark looks at what he learned about writing and storytelling from Rudolph. When we look at it through a marketing lens, too, it's also a handy framework for telling our own brand stories.

(Of course, you can also look it through a woke 2018 lens, because the story of an adolescent deer who was shamed and bullied until he had something everyone wanted is problematic, when you think about it. But that's a story for another website.)

First, a quick recap of the plot for those who don't know the story (or those who need a refresh):

  1. Rudolph is a young buck born in the North Pole with an unusual superpower/value proposition: a glowing red nose. He's mocked by his peers; his flight coach casts him out of the squad; his parents are ashamed. Only a hot young doe named Clarice shows him any kindness.
  2. Then one foggy Christmas Eve, the fog as thick as pea soup threatens to ground Santa. As a cranky Santa delivers his plan to cancel Christmas, he's annoyed by the glow of Rudolph's bright nose. At which point he realizes that Rudolph is the perfect lead for his reindeer sleigh team.
  3. "You in?" Santa asks. "Sure," Rudolph says. He saves Christmas for Santa and for children worldwide.
  4. Rudolph becomes the celebrated hero and gets a song, animated TV special, movie, franchise deal, and verified Instagram account. (Just kidding about that last one.)

There are other details, but that's the gist. So... what's that have to do with marketing?

Well, let's break it down.

Naming. Santa's reindeer A-team included Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. "Recite those names and experience a little feast of sound imagery: including alliteration, assonance, meter, and rhyme," points out Clark.

"Rudolph" as a name describes an entirely different creature, Clark writes: "The initial R and final F sounds find no connection with the others. Starting with his name, Rudolph is a creature set apart."

Takeaway: In your own brand story, name your enemy. Name your hero. Give them both a face and real personality—and set each apart from the other.

The problem. The conflict is Rudolph's terrible, bright, cursed nose. Rudolph is bullied, cast out, excommunicated from the community... err, herd.

Takeaway: Every story needs conflict. What's the problem you need to address?

No! The actual problem. But wait! It's not the glowed-up nose that's the real problem: It's the fog on Christmas Eve! That is the real, immediate problem—and it's Santa's problem—because it's his clients' problem. Not Rudolph's.

Takeaway: Dig deeper on that problem thing. What's the audience's problem? What's an incident that brings the conflict to life?

And answer the question: Why now? What makes your story relevant and in need of a solution right here, right now?

The curse becomes the blessing. From Clark: "In the first 44 lines, the blessing of that wonderful nose becomes the curse of disfigurement and alienation. By the next 44 lines, Rudolph becomes a flying headlamp, the savior of Christmas."

Takeaway: Rudolph is the product/solution, of course. But resolution is framed not in how perfect the solution is but in the good it does worldwide.

The community. Other characters cycle in and out of the story.

The Island of Misfit Toys is Siberia to all the weird and psychologically broken toys that aren't good enough to be delivered by Santa. Hermey is the Christmas elf who wants to buck elf toy-maker genetics and become a dentist. The Abominable Snowman isn't really mean—just misunderstood.

All of those creatures together are a powerful metaphor for tribe, where like-minded people live and thrive. In the story, Rudolph becomes everyone's hero, saving Christmas on behalf of misfits and the misunderstood.

The "savior" mantra is on two levels, in other words: It's not just Rudolph who's set apart, he represents a bigger community of misfits and lovable weirdos. (And of course, we are all weirdos.)

Takeaway: What's the story you can tell that elevates an entire community? What's a specific story you can tell that chronicles one person or idea, but nonetheless has broader, universal appeal?

Resolution. Rudolph saves Santa. He saves Christmas. He changes people's minds about scary snowmen and dentists. And Clarice kisses him.

Takeaway: We root for Rudolph the underdog (under-deer?). That's why we need to show the kiss Clarice gives him. But it's Santa who is the real hero here, from a Marketing POV. Santa gets all the credit for recognizing Rudolph's special skill and tapping it. It's Santa who makes children worldwide happy when they wake up on Christmas morning—once again!

How can you apply this approach to your business?

Of course, the "product" here—the proverbial "solution"—is Rudolph.

The "customer" is Santa.

And the "product" makes the "customer" the hero of the story.

How can you apply the Rudolph framework to your business?

  1. Once upon a time, there was ____________ (your product).
  2. It has the capacity to _____________ (your product's superpower).
  3. Some people doubt it because __________ (what the doubters might claim).
  4. But one day, _________ (something happens).
  5. Which means __________ (your would-be customer now needs this).
  6. For _______ (whom does your customer serve?)
  7. And that matters because ________________ (how your customer becomes the hero).
  8. Someone gets a kiss.

Try it for yourself!

A version of this article originally ran in Ann Handley's newsletter, Total Annarchy.

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image of Ann Handley

Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author who recently published Everybody Writes 2. She speaks worldwide about how businesses can escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. IBM named her one of the 7 people shaping modern marketing. Ann is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a LinkedIn Influencer, a keynote speaker, mom, dog person, and writer.