Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Celebrity and Story: Marketing at the Intersection of Fantasy

Several years ago while I was riding my bicycle up a lot of hills, I changed the inner chain ring on my bike from a 30-tooth gear to a 28-tooth gear. This makes it easier to pedal up hills. In the days leading up to installing it and actually riding, I had dreams of effortlessly pedaling up mountains. Not just sleeping dreams -- my idle moments were often filled with fantasies of easily spinning through the steepest sections of Old La Honda. Of course, that first time when I actually road up Old La Honda with my new chain ring, reality came crashing in -- climbing the hill was work. It was still work with 28-teeth, and when your body and your mind are loaded with physical labor, it's really not possible to say whether it's easier or not -- it just feels like work. This is reality.

Sales and marketing is all about selling the dream. It's about connecting with the customer's imagination and helping them live their fantasy. It's the customer, imagining themselves in that new car, enjoying the road. It's them walking into the casino, feeling like James Bond on his way to the Baccarat table. It's them, gloriously unifying their global business and solving all of it's communication problems with a single piece of enterprise software.

People don't dream about features and specifications. Sure, I was dreaming about a chainring with 2 less teeth, but I wasn't dreaming about teeth. People don't dream about two more megapixels; instead, they're more likely imagining clearer pictures or capturing more image detail. While they may fixate on 2GB more RAM, what they are probably imagining is a faster system and not waiting for screens to load or things to process.

At the same time, a powerful fantasy has roots in reality to help make it tangible. Try selling someone on the idea that the system is faster or the camera takes better pictures without giving them a reason why, and they'll have trouble connecting with it. That specification provides an anchor for the fantasy, something to tell them that this can be real, that this is not simply a fantasy. Features and the believability of a fantasy are closely related, and it's why it often helps to attribute benefits to a branded terminology.

The Celebrity Narrative
As I mentioned in my previous post on celebrity and story, most of what we imagine that we know about celebrities springs from the characters that they've portrayed. Perhaps you fell in love with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Natalie Portman in Garden State. While we all know that in real life these actresses may not be anything like the characters that they portrayed, our understanding of the actress is filtered through a lens of that character. So when we see pictures of Kate Hudson or read interviews with Natalie Portman, we focus on the parts that reinforce our expectations that the actress and the character are the same. We forge our archetypical hero.

The entertainment industry understands how powerful this fantasy engine is, so it directs a lot of effort into reinforcing these fantasy structures. That's why actors and actresses are often cast in roles that echo characters that they've portrayed in the past. Everyone knows the word typecasting, but we always usually think of it in terms of the limitations to an actor's career -- we don't usually think of it as a branded narrative.

Some of these narratives are so powerfully entrenched that they become intertwined with the celebrity. Take the recent example of Harrison Ford at Comic Con -- he can't escape his Han Solo / Indiana Jones narrative. Sure, he's acted in many other movies and played many other roles, but many public expectations of him revolve around that narrative center.

Selling the Dream
At the end of the day, if your product or service doesn't connect with an audience and inspire them to dream, you are going to have a hard time selling. In some ways, your role as a marketer is about finding the dreams, understanding the fantasies, and reinforcing them. But this is not just attention-grabbing image we're talking about -- this is about the deeper elements of the narrative. It's not just features. It's not just fantasy. It's the intersection of the two. Something that seems both impossible and plausible at the same time, a reality that is just a couple of simple steps away.

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