Despite all the advances in Digital PR over the last decade, typical product marketing continues to be framed from the traditional perspective of the manufacturer. Potential customers may learn that Product X is more effective than its rivals or predecessors, or that it has an attractive design, or that it is cheaper, or works better. The customer may appreciate any or all of these features, but the essential story with this approach nevertheless focuses on the product rather than the customer.
This style of content creation may be convenient for the storyteller; we writers are often advised to ‘write what you know’, and a product-focused story is indeed rather simple to put together. But published work should always aim to connect with the audience on a much deeper level, using an imaginative approach that genuinely resonates with their emotional lives.
Opening a new door
On July 4, 2019, the polymath, investor, and cultural commentator Eric Weinstein was the featured guest on The Joe Rogan Experience, the most influential podcast of our time. The show is a long-form, unstructured conversation on a wide range of topics, where guests are typically drawn from a deep well of business leaders, celebrities, athletes, and cultural critics.
Mr. Weinstein appears relatively frequently on the program, and on this occasion his visit coincided with the launch of his own podcast, called The Portal. His framing of the ‘portal’ concept has since gone viral, and is best encapsulated by this fan-made video that incorporates Mr. Weinstein’s own explanation:
In a world where politicians antagonize each other endlessly, a never-ending wave of products promises to solve all our problems, media outlets dig in their heels to defend hardened cultural opinions, and a tone of constant and condescending outrage pervades much public discourse, such a statement of open-ended imagination and possibility comes as a breath of fresh air.
Positive and engaging messages are always to be welcomed, while the stifling and noisy character of the present moment makes the promise of a real portal even more appealing. In its own way, The Joe Rogan Experience offers listeners a portal as well; the clue is in the word ‘experience’, and the evidence is in the engaging and immersive conversations that often go on for hours – a stark contrast to the world outside, where the distractions of mobile phone culture have seemingly dealt a mortal blow to the simple art of conversation.
The above video illustration of our society’s recurring portal fantasy struck a massive chord with audiences. It was assembled and published within 2 days of the podcast, based purely on listener inspiration, and instantly attracted the attention of Mr. Weinstein. For most of the following week, The Portal was #1 on Apple’s Most Popular Podcast list – even before it had ever released an episode.
As an entirely organic marketing achievement (The Portal used no paid ads for self-promotion), this outcome was extraordinary. Eric Weinstein is nobody’s idea of a born media star; he is 53 years old, has a professor’s demeanor, talks at length about deep conceptual problems in mathematics and physics, manages an investment firm, and frequently criticizes trends in popular culture.
It certainly isn’t the messenger who is inspiring such a response, so it must be the message. Mr. Weinstein’s invocation of the Portal concept refers to its vast popularity across cultures and generations, and so we should hardly be surprised when his own creation of a new portal has the same outcome.
Increasing the signal-to-noise ratio
Marketers can use the concept of entering a new world to excellent effect. Rather than focusing on individual product or service details, promotional campaigns can instead highlight the deeper benefits of the overall customer experience – and how people’s lives will improve when they use the product in the real world.
A few examples can help crystallize the point. We may imagine a company that sells skin moisturizer, about to begin a new campaign for their flagship product. Perhaps their brand of skin cream has vitamins to nourish the skin, and it decides to list all the technical ways that these vitamins work with the body. Perhaps it is now sold at a cheaper price than the competition, and its marketers decide to highlight the savings. Perhaps it lasts longer than other moisturizers, thanks to a new scientific formula that they have patented.
The problem is that none of these angles excite the imagination, because they do not connect with the actual hopes and dreams of the customer. People dream of looking beautiful, obtaining social status, acquiring confidence, attracting a love interest, and being the center of attention. They are somewhat less likely to lie awake at night thinking of skin vitamins, minor discounts, and improved scientific formulas.
Now imagine a customer-centered ad campaign for the same product: An ordinary-looking woman appears to be shy and lack a stage presence in social situations – showing particular nervousness around a handsome colleague. She seems generally downcast, and eventually wanders off on her own, finding herself walking the aisles at a pharmacy. She notices the skin moisturizer on the shelf, figures she’ll give it a try, and puts it in her shopping cart along with her other necessities. The next day, she puts it on and goes off to work. There is a bounce in her step, and people notice as she walks by. She likes the attention. She arrives at work, where somebody compliments her appearance. She turns, and sees that it is the colleague she has a crush on. She blushes slightly, gets on with her day, and soon finds herself feeling more included among her colleagues. Her opinions are sought after, and she is generally more popular. She quickly gets used to her new status, and before going home for the day, it is the handsome colleague who tries to talk to her, showing nervousness as he gives her a compliment and invites her out to dinner sometime.
This version of the story entirely bypasses the technical details, going straight for what the customer really cares about: How will this product actually make my life better?
For some reason, most advertisers continue to take the product-centered approach, despite regular evidence that the Portal method is vastly more effective. And it isn’t just for moisturizers – even highly technical products can be sold without reference to product details at all. Consider Apple’s 1984 Superbowl ad, directed by Ridley Scott. It says nothing at all about the product, but remains legendary in the advertising world and was instantly regarded as the finest TV ad of all-time:
Stories can be found everywhere, if you know where to look. Some companies ignore them, and others decide to tell a mildly interesting story about themselves – their founder’s original vision, or their achievements, or their products.
In the old days, ads were hard to escape. If you wanted to watch TV, you were a captive audience for commercials, and these kinds of repetitive ads might eventually start to have an effect.
But in the digital era, when ads can almost always be ignored or skipped, you have to give people a reason to listen to you. In such a context, talking about yourself ad nauseam has roughly the same effect in a marketing campaign as it does on a dinner date. People soon regard your utterances as just so much noise to be filtered out, when all they ever wanted was a signal that you were really interested in them.
It’s time to start giving that signal. Show them that there’s a whole new world out there – a world that they’re missing out on. Show them that your product is the portal that takes them there. As Eric Weinstein points out, the most successful stories are the ones that take us on a journey of personal transformation.
At some level, their creators understood that this kind of storytelling satisfies a basic human instinct. Marketers around the world – to really build inspiration, wonder, and excitement among their audiences – should learn this lesson too.
Lexicon is a full-service digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We specialize in corporate storytelling and produce all of our content in-house, including branding, copywriting, video production and graphic design. We bring all of our services together and use Digital PR and social media marketing storytelling to connect our clients with the ideal target audience.