Fierce Truths – Three challenges for brand marketing from (what used to be) Monty Python

Comedy can help us see things that we’re usually blind to, or that we simply prefer to ignore.  As put by writer Mary Hirsch, “Humour is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”

The ad industry, for all its foibles, often manages to laugh at itself.  And in the process self-criticise. The marketing fraternity, however, tends to take itself more seriously.

So when again watching the 1997 movie Fierce Creatures recently, I was struck by the implicit lessons contained in one of its scenes for brand management today.

Before getting into these, here’s a brief synopsis of the film to put things in context.

Fierce Creatures revolves around the acquisition of a zoo in regional England by Octopus Inc., a global conglomerate headed by billionaire New Zealander Rod McCain, “the most powerful man alive” (with Octopus and McCain being obvious and unflattering parodies of News Ltd and Rupert Murdoch).

The scene in question has the zoo’s new director, former Octopus Television executive Rollo Lee, presenting his objectives and vision for the attraction to the zoo keepers, with each of his points being challenged by them; in particular by spider-handler, ‘Bugsy’ Malone.

The roles of Lee and Malone are played respectively by John Cleese and Michael Palin, former stalwarts of the iconic Monty Python comedy team.

In just a few minutes, the exchange between them amusingly touches on three significant shortcomings of contemporary marketing, as outlined below.  (Note: Each point includes the section of the scene related to it.  But here’s a link to the full scene if you’d prefer to watch it in its entirety first).

Growth without Purpose

This exchange makes the ‘growth for the sake of growth’ objective pursed by most businesses seem shallow and ill-conceived.   In contrast there is the recent position – championed by people such as former P&G chief marketing officer Jim Stengel in his book Grow – that businesses and brands must have a reason for being beyond just making money.  A purpose based on “ideals of improving people’s lives”.  Because, according to Stengel, “Maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible – they’re inseparable”.  (The concept of brand purpose in further outlined in the post The New Alternatives for Brand Strategy).

Some will also see the strategic distortion to marketing planning that the growth imperative creates.  How many marketing plans default to forecasting top-line growth just because it is expected, even though customer, channel or competitive conditions aren’t conducive to it?   And, as a result, put less focus on other objectives such as improving profitability or simply protecting market share, even though circumstances indicate that these may be more important and/or realistic.

Default targets and tactics

How often do brand managers really question what they are trying to achieve or the methods they use?  Not simply a gentle interrogation of a promotional recommendation or a media plan as a token demonstration of due diligence, but seriously and deeply asking ‘Why’.

Take for instance the situation with ‘new’ media.  How many initiatives are based on sound logic as compared to doing what everyone else seems to be doing or a fear of being seen as not digitally savvy?   How many brands rush into facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, experiential promotions, branded apps or native advertising without asking: How do we expect this to actually work?  What do we expect people to do with this?  How will it really benefit my brand?

Many brands would be better off if marketers would more often stop and ask, in Palin’s words, “Could we explore that thinking a little?”

Questionable Repositioning

The ‘fierce animals’ strategy is clearly dubious on several counts.  One is the level of stretch involved.  Can a product that is “dedicated to conservation” credibly move to selling itself on “danger”?  Another is the ‘because this worked there, it will work here’ fallacy.  And then there’s the ‘universal truth’ rationale that people “all over the world” are attracted to violence, without consideration whether this is actually motivating for the zoo’s customers.

As ludicrous as this scenario is, look around and you will see attempted repositioning exercises that are playing on the edges of these pitfalls.  In terms of stretch for instance, consider the number of traditional brands that try to present themselves as fashionable, youthful or modern without making any fundamental changes to what they offer; and so are rightly ignored for lack of authenticity.  Or, in regards to borrowed strategy, how many marketers have wanted to make their brand the Nike, Apple or Virgin of their category based on aspiration alone?  And while universal human truths abound (e.g. mothers put themselves last, love is blind), attempts to connect brands to one are often spurious; without an associated brand truth to support the link or lacking in a unique expression of it.

Laugh at your brand strategy

So here’s a suggestion.  The next time your team is reviewing brand strategy, invest a few minutes in viewing this scene.  Then ask yourselves if your thinking is guilty of any of the above points.

As Danish comedian Victor Borges once said “There is more logic in humour than in anything else. Because, you see, humour is truth.”

Image Credit: Universal Pictures – Fierce Creatures

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