What stories of hidden secrets and hypocrisy tell us about marketing

BBH Singapore chief strategy officer Jacob Wright on how character arcs in pop-culture and in life can help build more convincing, authentic marketing campaigns

What is it that makes the Theranos story – the tale of a medical start-up whose disruptive innovation turned out to be non-existent – so delicious? Is it a desire to see Silicon Valley brought low, or is it something much more human and basic?

The Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes appeared to be and painted herself as the platonic ideal of a start-up founder. She had a profound personal mission for the betterment of humanity delivered through a stunning new technological leap, born of a youthful disregard for conventional wisdom and a superhuman work rate. She gave Ted talks, hobnobbed with the Clintons and tweeted glibly.

But then it was revealed that apparently Theranos had lied about its technology – the entire thing was a colossal multi-billion-dollar fraud.

Holmes had the style of a revolutionary entrepreneur but none of the substance. And the world gawked. A book and two feature-length documentaries have already been released and a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the offing.

So, why is this story so compelling?

It’s because it speaks to a fundamental human belief – that people are not what they seem. That we have a public front and behind this lies a true character.

The sweet romantic Tinder profile conceals a ranting, sexually aggressive misogynist. The simple country girl with humble origins can found a world-beating internet company. The dashing hacker exposing the secrets of superpowers is a low-life who smears his own poop on embassy walls.

And of course, this belief is true: while everyone wants to paint the best possible picture of themselves, the reality is always more complex. When we get a glimpse of that reality, it has the ring of truth to it, and we feel smart for seeing it.

This is so fundamental to our thinking that it’s the basis for every good story. Robert McKee, the scriptwriting guru, calls it ‘character’ versus ‘characterisation’.

‘Characterisation’ is who someone appears to be. At the start of ‘Breaking Bad’, Walter White appears to be an ineffectual middle-aged chemistry teacher.

‘Character’ is who someone is revealed to be, by the choices they make under pressure. Confronted with his own approaching death, Walter becomes a psychopathic drug kingpin. The greater the pressure, the more revealing the choice.

There is a fantastic film called Force Majeure from a couple of years ago that illustrates this perfectly in more everyday circumstances. A family go on a skiing holiday together. On the veranda of the resort, they see a controlled avalanche being triggered which seems to gather momentum and threatens to engulf them.

Everyone panics and despite the distressed cries of his son the father grabs his phone and flees on his own, leaving his family. No harm comes to anyone but the characters struggle for the rest of the movie to come to terms with the fallout of what has been revealed about the father’s true priorities.

We can see this pattern in films as diverse as Rocky, Infernal Affairs, Magnolia, American Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and Groundhog Day. Characters who appear to be one thing, are revealed to be another through their actions, leading to a compelling story.

Which brings us to brands and marketing. Is the bulk of what we do as marketers ‘character’ or ‘characterisation’? Is it truly revealing the essential nature of a brand, or is it self-aggrandising bluster that people can see through? And, if ‘character’ is more powerful than ‘characterisation’, how do we successfully communicate it?

The answer is obvious of course – every manifesto film, every borrowed interest “emotional” proposition is characterisation. It’s us saying how we want to be seen. And the audience is constantly alert for the truth behind the mask. United Airlines urges people to ‘fly the friendly skies’ but drags screaming doctors off its flights. Coca Cola says ‘open happiness’, but it can actually cause obesity.

But some brands pull off something different. When Chipotle ran out of higher-welfare pork, it stopped serving pork, demonstrating far more effectively where its priorities lay and what principles it would not sacrifice.

Tesla gave away its patents, showing that its true aim is for the world to drive electric cars, regardless of who makes them. Ikea makes flatpack homes for refugees but doesn’t shout about it.

So it can be profitable to think about how true character is most powerfully revealed. One way is by what we do under pressure. Brands facing difficult choices can’t help revealing a lot about what really matters to them. Like Nike, facing the end of Colin Kaepernick’s contract, having to decide whether to commit to him or leave him high and dry.

Or Huawei, facing a choice in how they interact with Western governments and regulation. Boeing in responding to the problems with the 737 Max.

One of the most powerful examples is Tylenol from the early 1980s. It had a market share of 35% which plunged to 8% when a maniac put poison into Tylenol bottles, killing seven people. The company responded by inventing the tamper-proof seal, so that it could never happen again. The share rose to around 50%.

When you face increased competition and your margins are threatened by hungrier competitors, do you discount because you are customer-centric, or do you defend because you are greedy? The message gets through eventually.

When, like Axe, societal norms change around you, do you stick or twist? I’d argue that rather than run from these challenges, brands should embrace them as an opportunity, and even seek them out.

When society changes, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your point of view. When opinion is divided, coming down on one side or the other has real power. And when everyone is going one way, going the other demonstrates courage and conviction.

Another thing that powerfully demonstrates character is what you do when no-one is looking. We all know that people put on a front, and that much of our behaviour is intended to signal something about ourselves, especially when it comes to being “virtuous.”

Some incredible research has been done on the psychology of anonymous charitable giving – people give more when they see others donating anonymously than when they put their names on the donation.

This is perfectly illustrated by an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David donates to a cause only to find that Ted Danson has donated anonymously. Piqued, he turns to his wife and says “Now it looks like I just did mine for the credit as opposed to Mr. Wonderful Anonymous.”

Arguably, exercises like Ronald McDonald House, which helps hundreds of thousands of children a year in dozens of countries, could be more effective CSR exercises than something like Warby Parker and Tom’s Shoes’ highly vaunted (but apparently ineffective) “buy one give one” mechanics, precisely because they are shouted about less.

My final note is on brand purpose. I feel this has been misunderstood by much of the marketing community. In the quest to show true character, brand purpose is an invaluable tool. But only if it is truthful to the brand’s actual character.

If you are a publicly owned company that exists to turn a profit, albeit through making the best product possible, it is disingenuous to define your purpose as something spuriously high-minded. Cif’s ‘mission’ to ‘clean up the urban environment’ comes to mind here.

There is nothing wrong with making great products at a good price.

Brands for whom this is their true purpose should have the courage to say so because their actions are likely to reveal the truth, regardless.

Good agencies will embrace this. At its best advertising is “the truth well told” and character versus characterisation gives us a great lens with which to do this. And in a world where the “zig” is to pretend to be something you are not, telling or showing the bald truth is a powerful “zag”.

Jacob Wright is chief strategy officer at BBH Singapore and is based in Singapore


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