A guest post by Duke Greenhill of Greenhill+Partners.
The recent summer blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though perhaps not vying for membership in the annals of film art, has earned a substantial berth in the chronicles of marketing.
Film and marketing are similar: the latter being the combined art and science of telling brand stories, and the former the same, only non-advertorial stories (with some exceptions, of course). Film and marketing also frequently share craftsmen and artists: filmmakers who relish the brief and well-paid commercial gig between feature projects, and marketers, like myself, who come from a visual storytelling background (there are many of us) and who continue to produce movies on the side.
But unlike marketing, where research and insight are king, Hollywood is a “drop it and see where it lands” business, with the studios regularly losing money on nine out of 10 pictures. They usually do make up the loss exponentially on the one “tent-pole” film that not only works with audiences but also keeps the studio from collapsing. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is such a picture.
Isn’t it natural then that marketers should glean priceless insight about the disposition of the market from a similar enterprise, Hollywood, which is essentially a barometer for consumer climate? Try this on for size.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco and released by Twentieth Century Fox, is the story of what happens when a scientist, trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, genetically enhances a pet chimpanzee who uses his sudden and enhanced intellectual power to lead other chimps to rebellion and, ultimately, freedom. It cost around $93 million to make, over half that much again to market, but at the time of this article, it has already grossed roughly $125 million, and shows every sign of being an absolute windfall.
Now, I know the plot sounds staid. It is a loosely associated and shameless addition to the Planet of the Apes franchise, and it’s not the first film that’s had viewers sympathizing with lab chimps. (Remember a young Matthew Broderick in Project X?) But here’s where this film is different.
1. In this film, the apes represent a film history first where the lead protagonists---the characters with whom the audience truly sympathize---are the only purely digital creations surrounded by a cast of real-life, flesh-and-bone actors.
2. The film makes the apes the heroes, whereas in previous iterations the apes were tyrants who oppressed the humans. This change is significant, and what I call the “Howard Zinn Effect.”
3. Finally and most important, the emotion that the film’s marketers are using to successfully sell the movie suggests that we are on the precipice of a new Zeitgeist, an important change in consumer attitudes.
The Apex of the Digital Evolution
Consumers are no longer merely conceptually literate in digital media. They are now emotionally literate, too.
There have been films in the past that have compelled audiences to care, sometimes deeply, for characters that were not human or portrayed by anything “real.” From Bambi to Where the Red Fern Grows to the Toy Story franchise, from animated deer to real-life dogs to computer generated pixels, this has always been part of the magic of movies. In Bambi or Toy Story, however, what choice does the viewer have? Everything is animated. In Red Fern, the dogs elicit emotion, but it is really through the boy that emotion flows. In none of these instances does the audience sympathize completely with a character that is neither human nor real, and do so despite all the other real, human alternatives.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, audiences do.
This insight is of unimaginable value to marketers. Marketers now know with certainty that consumers are capable of sympathizing, even empathizing, completely and in favor of human counterparts, with computer generated entities. This film proves that consumers are now not merely conceptually fluent, but emotionally fluent in the digital language. Imagine what this means for the telling of advertorial stories in the future, the proof that mankind’s long-unmolested narrative archetypes are not only changing, but perhaps changed. The proof that notions of (what were) human emotional trajectories and boundaries may no longer be ample to define the true range of consumer resonance.
One would not dare to speculate here on the myriad ways this shift will evolve the brand stories of tomorrow, but one certainly does wait with bated breath to see.
The Howard Zinn Effect
Consumers are no longer interested in aspirational and commercial stories, but rather backlash against them in favor of stories that raise person above product.
Howard Zinn is an author, professor, and intellectual perhaps best known for his book, The People’s History of the United States, which relates major historical events from the perspective of the loser---through British eyes, for example, instead of the American Revolutionaries, or the American Indians instead of the U.S. government’s. I use the term “Howard Zinn Effect” in my office when I believe that a fundamental shift is occurring in the stories consumers want to hear.
Someone at Unilever or Ogilvy Mather, for example, shrewdly saw a Howard Zinn Effect occurring in the story appetite of female consumers. Many of these consumers were no longer interested in stories about perfection, flawless beauty, sheer convenience, or sex. Someone saw that these women were craving stories that exalted inner beauty, authenticity, independence, and dignity. This person put together the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a campaign that so resonated with these consumers that it spawned everything from mass sleepovers to stage plays and films.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes gives marketers a similar glimpse into the changing story appetites of consumers today. The success of Rise of the Planet of Apes---a story, remember, about the evils of unchecked capitalism, the danger of corporate and governmental hubris, and the unalienable value of the individual and therefore the group---portends a consumer craving for brand stories that avoid too much humor, feeling too good and overt sex appeal. The consumer opts, instead, in favor of transformational, cause-related stories like we haven’t really seen since the late 1960s and 1970s. (Remember Coca Cola teaching the world to sing?)
Smart marketers will recognize this Howard Zinn Effect occurring in consumer tastes. Smart marketers will start telling brand stories that exalt social responsibility and deny the supremacy of the almighty dollar, stories that illuminate the intrinsic value of transparency and avoid any hint of manipulation or "selling," and stories that challenge the status quo. Smart marketers will recognize that consumers will soon demand brand stories that, above all else, raise people above commerce.
The Apex of the Revolution
Consumers are at the threshold of a market revolution, and smart marketers must stop marketing to the movement and realize that now the movement is the market.
All of the above leads to a primary, consequential conclusion: Among consumers, there is a revolution brewing. The core emotional strategy successfully employed by the marketers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is this simple tagline: “Evolution Becomes Revolution.” Judging from ticket sales, this emotion resonates with consumers today, who live in a country where 90% of the wealth is controlled by 1% of the population, the economy is in the proverbial can, and most mothers can’t afford the medical care their children need. Is it any wonder that consumers en masse have grown tired of evolutionary messages and are connecting with messages of revolution?
Much has evolved recently in a short period of time concerning consumer psychographics and therefore marketing strategy. The advent of emotional marketing and cause marketing are examples. But now, consumers are not satisfied by offsetting their complicity in the status quo. They want to change the status quo, and they are developing a taste for brands whose stories don’t merely mention the greater good, but are built upon it, TOMS Shoes and Eyewear being a shining example.
So, what does this mean for marketers? Just as in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the primary emotional driver is a combination of the audience knowing the apes will rebel and wanting them to do it, so, too, will smart marketers realize that successful brands will soon have to tell stories that know change is coming and are eager to be a part of it.
It is no longer enough for brands to market to the movement. They must become the movement. Any brands that fail to tell their stories from the frontlines will risk becoming irrelevant.
Duke Greenhill is the founder and CEO of Greenhill+Partners.
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