Applying Hollywood Story Techniques To Brands

Jerome ConlonSeptember 19, 20196 min

Businesses require many kinds of writing to address a variety of situations with different audiences. Many people handle different writing specialties, from law to accounting, public relations, sales, advertising, promotions, corporate communications, investor communications, and others, but whose job is it to articulate and craft the brand story, which provides the bridge for consumers to cross into your world?

Often the head of marketing develops briefs that are outsourced to ad agencies, who are then tasked with coming up with the big ideas to sustain the brand image over time, but this approach if not closely attended to, outsources one of the company’s biggest strategic decisions, defining its purpose, passion, character, personality, image, and public reputation.

While there’s no doubt that brilliant ads can get created this way, how many companies are really known today for the strength of their brand story and the power with which it connects with customers? Not many. It’s a short list of companies that have done a superlative job with their brand bridges.

So why is most business storytelling so unremarkable?

The challenge and goal is to tell advertising stories in a way that do three things simultaneously:

Salience – ads must stand out and be noticed

Relevance – ads should say something important

Resonanceads should have emotional connectivity

When all three of these qualities are present in a single ad then you’ve hit a communication sweet spot with consumers and have authentically broken through. Just Do It did that for Nike, Think Different did it for Apple, Your Man Could Smell Like Me did it for Old Spice, where brand sales jumped 107% over the prior year.

Crafting The Brand Story

So let’s look into the story process itself. Skillful and inspired brand story writing can be informed by studying the art of screenwriting.

I spent five years in Hollywood, the first two as senior VP of Program Development and Marketing Research with NBC Entertainment. To make the jump from brand and marketing planning at Nike and Starbucks to NBC Studios I had to dive into the world of screenwriting, story arc’s, plot twists and failure modes.

My responsibilities focused on increasing the success rate for new shows, and it’s a very tough business with a failure rate around 98%. Interestingly, the 2% that stuck more than made up for all the costs of the failed attempts, because a hit show is such a huge money machine.

When I arrived there was an old saying in Hollywood that, “Nobody knows nothing,” which referred to the belief that it’s impossible to study the art of story as applied in movies and serialized TV shows and come up with a sure-fire way of generating commercial success every time. It was believed that too many variables factor into why one movie or show concept is a hit and another a flop. While this belief has been historically true for most studios, there is the anomaly called Pixar that is worth consideration. Each of Pixar’s first 11 movies did more than $100 million at the box office, the threshold for a film being defined as a blockbuster. The blockbuster batting average for studios in Hollywood is less than 300. Why was Pixar able to succeed every time and no other studio in history had achieved this feat?

The Refining Force Of Pixar’s Braintrust

The short answer is Pixar’s unique “braintrust” process for polishing ideas during production review meetings. This is a skill that appears to have been developed organically as a result of the stress that the Pixar team was under during the creation of its first feature length computer animated film, Toy Story.

The Toy Story project was behind schedule and burning up its production budget, and according to Pixar’s CEO, Ed Catmull, many of the scenes and characters just weren’t working. Pixar had been taking guidance from the film’s major funder and distribution partner, Disney’s studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, but late in the production process Pixar’s John Lasseter (pictured) came to the conclusion that the edge that Disney wanted to give the film just wasn’t working for the Pixar team of animators.

At the 11th hour, with both the film and the future of Pixar on the line, Lasseter, Catmull and the animation team decided to re-do most of the movie, make the characters more relatable, less dark and edgy, and make the whole tone of the story more uplifting and inspirational. The pressure of this situation forced the creative team, led by Lasseter, to go deep within themselves for the answers, and in order to do that they had to ignore the guidance they’d been getting from Disney and instead trust their own instincts to make the Toy Story characters, scenes, and story really work.

Brain trust production meetings focused on this shift, with each of the key production team members expected to weigh in with their deep feelings, not just their thoughts. To succeed they had to develop multi-dimensional intimacy with the work, their communications with each other, and in sensing how the entertainment product in development would play with an audience. They were the initial audience, and they had to accurately parse how the film was playing for themselves.

The Brain Trust at Pixar accomplished several things simultaneously:

  • It provided an interactive field for intimate communications with the production team
  • It made it OK for people to weigh in with their thoughts, feelings, instincts and intuition
  • It provided ground rules for what constituted helpful or good “notes”
  • It established the ground rules for polishing rough ideas, going from good-to-great.
  • It stayed focused on one external goal – the highest quality entertainment experience
  • This process reduced project risk, increased project quality and tapped into genius group dynamics.
  • It strengthened the success rate ratio to a perfect score, strengthened the internal culture and strengthened brand image simultaneously.

The Circuit Test Of Story

Receiving feedback from your subconscious mind is a core creative skill that some artists learn to develop, but our subconscious mind speaks in a different language than the ego or intellect. We become aware of it from our moods, attitudes and subtle moment by moment feelings. We feel our hearts quicken when work feels right, and we groan when the work disappoints. This kind of feedback is fast and intuitive, and with practice and sensitivity, it can be deadly accurate.

The process for doing so is called a “Circuit Test.” Have you ever had the experience at Christmas time of pulling out old strings of lights to decorate a tree? You plug it in to see if it works, and invariably the string is dead. Rather than throw the whole thing out, the prudent thing to do is to check all the lights – are any missing or broken? You jiggle them one by one and when you find the problem bulb then all of a sudden the whole string lights up. This is what the artist’s inside Pixar were doing in the production brain trust meetings, identifying and fixing broken lights, scene by scene, character by character, until the whole story lit up.

Novelists, screen-writers, movie producers and brand planners use circuit testing to review how their stories are developing. Is the story being developed coherent or incoherent? Do the characters make sense and add up? Is there a rooting interest in at least one of the characters? Do you really care about any of the characters, or does the whole bunch come across as dark, brooding, or mean spirited? And for brands, does the story under development speak to a deep human need or desire, does it touch a core brand truth and does it resolve some kind of societal or identity issue?

Questions about how the story was playing led Pixar’s brain trust to completely re-make Toy Story after most of the production money they’d received from Disney was gone, and it was in this brain trust review and polishing phase that Pixar found its voice, work method, and team chemistry needed to nurture and protect its future success.

Every brand has a story. They are the platform for meaning and motivation. Make sure yours is as powerful as your offering.

These core ideas and others can be found in my new book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your Customers.

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Jerome Conlon

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