Telling A Blockbuster Brand Story

Jerome ConlonApril 3, 20204 min

More and more, brands are finding their way to the intersection of brand and entertainment, adopting Hollywood’s tools and techniques that lead to blockbuster story brands. Rightfully so in an attention economy that rewards brands that are both meaningful and interesting.

A brand brain trust can help build an advantage at these important crossroads.

The concept is ideal for considering how a spectrum of ideas related to products, advertising, branded content and social media can be screened, shaped and aligned into one integrated and multi-faceted brand story. It centers on multi-visioning the brand context to uncover innovative and impactful brand story angles. Here, any visionary leader (from design, marketing, R&D or other functions) can experiment with what has been learned by applying new knowledge and points of view in support of stories about products, fields of play, athletes, campaigns or other factors that could improve storytelling.

This approach can be used to get a cross-functional group to come together to break down the anatomy of campaigns that have failed or succeeded.

Besides Nike’s Brand Guardian group (which I was a member of) the best example of the use of a brand brain trust that I have come across in practice was written about by Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, in his book ‘Creativity, Inc.’ Here Ed revealed the role that the brain trust idea played inside Pixar, driving it to its astounding level of success. It’s a story that is relevant to all brands and is certainly worth retelling here.

How A Brain Trust Released Pixar’s Full Potential

The goal of the Pixar Brain Trust was to uncover how to develop resonant relationships between the story, plot and characters, in a movie under development from the perspective of how it was playing to the audience. It is worth noting that every one of Pixar’s first 11 films were blockbusters, a success rate of 1,000%. No Hollywood studio had ever achieved this level of success.

To get there and stay there it became necessary for Pixar to see beyond the obvious, to uncover and discuss hidden dimensions about plot, characters, story, to help stories progress from broken-to-good-to-great. And every one of their movies went through a story doctoring process to refine it to the highest possible quality. Pixar learned that the brain trust process involved relying on the combined intelligence and instincts (thoughts + feelings) of a cross-functional team, to fully understand how key scenes played and to explore with each other how the entire story was playing. This required a delicate notes process of being intellectually and emotionally honest about personal feelings between the brain trust team members and between how each individual on this team “felt” in their “guts and hearts” the story, scene or character was actually playing. The objective of tapping into their subtle emotional bodies in this way was to create a process of providing story improvement notes.

“Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film. But we know. We trust our process.” – John Lasseter

At Pixar the problem of how to fix an entertainment project that showed promise but wasn’t quite clicking was by using “notes.” Ed points out, “A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix a problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But, if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe the only answer. Most of all a good note is specific. ‘I’m writhing with boredom,’ is not a good note.”

Candor is very important, and openly discussing how people feel, as well as what they think, without any one person dominating and controlling a Brain Trust session was essential to Pixar. Ground rules for brain trust engagement set the stage so that all voices and points of view matter and were given consideration. No idea killing on the spot, instead notes were offered to provide encouragement or suggestions for how to evolve weak ideas into stronger ones.

It was the Movie Directors role to sort through all of these notes and to interpret which ones to act upon and how to act upon the suggestions.

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.

Pixar learned that a brand brain trust was instrumental in shaping the brand voice, identity, persona, character, key messages and images to achieve long-term brand positioning goals.

How Future Story Brands Will Thrive

We are in the twilight of a society based upon data. As information and intelligence becomes the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: Emotion. Imagination, myth, design, music, rituals – the language of emotion – affects how we work with others and what we buy. Brands will thrive on the basis of the products and myths they create.

If your organization needs assistance in setting up a Brain Trust or telling effective stories, contact The Blake Project.

These and other insights into brand truth, purpose and deep campaigns is covered in greater detail in my new book, Soulful Branding – Unlock the Hidden Energy In Your Company and Brand.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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Jerome Conlon

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