March 6, 2020

A Lesson in Brand Storytelling from the Movies

“The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.”

Joseph Campbell

Humans are hardwired to look for meaning in life. Whether it be in actions, places, relationships, or objects, when we imbue something with meaning, we are more likely to care about it. And the more meaning something has, the higher the value we assign to it. We are also hardwired to respond to storytelling. It is a cornerstone of how we have communicated over the centuries. It creates a human connection, which makes it is a highly effective way to convey meaning to people.

Smart business leaders know this, so they put considerable effort into building stories around their brand. By using brand storytelling to communicate their history and values, brands take on more significance in people’s minds, and we attribute a higher status to them. Those who do this successfully reap many benefits.

Not only does a compelling brand story attract customers, but it also makes them prepared to pay more for the brand’s products. It creates loyalty, which encourages customers to make repeat purchases from the brand, increasing their lifetime value. In short, brand storytelling is a good investment and an effective marketing strategy. It is also a useful way to get your point across to someone on a personal level that they can relate to.

There is an excellent example from the movies that perfectly illustrates this power of storytelling. Quentin Tarantino is rightfully regarded as a masterful storyteller, and nothing illustrates his mastery more than the flashback scene in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis’s character, Butch, is given the family heirloom of a gold watch by one of his father’s Army buddies when he is a child.

In the scene, the young Butch is visited by a man who served with his father in the Vietnam War, played by Christopher Walken. Walken expertly tells the backstory of the watch, which is simultaneously poignant, ridiculous and hilarious. He recounts how the watch was initially purchased by Butch’s Great Grandfather from the first company to make wristwatches.

The watch was handed down to Butch’s Grandfather, who wore it during World War Two before it was passed on to Butch’s Father back in the US.

Butch’s father then wore the watch in Vietnam and, upon being captured and held in a POW camp, hid the watch in the only place he could —  up his ass —  for five years to avoid it being taken from him. The watch ultimately ended up with one of Butch’s Dad’s comrades  —  Walken’s character  —  who stored it in a similar manner for another two years before returning home and passing it on to its rightful heir, Butch, in the scene we are watching. 

Now, just think about that story for a second. Who in their right mind would want something that has been stored in various people’s anal cavities for a total of seven years? That should be enough to make anything undesirable. Yet, the watch means so much to Butch that he risks his life to retrieve it later in the movie. The compelling backstory of the watch’s history imbues it with such meaning and significance that it becomes more desirable than if it was bought new from the store. This parable is Tarantino’s ode to the power of storytelling, told in his signature darkly comic fashion.

Consider this principle the next time you want to communicate the value of something to somebody. Whether you are writing a business marketing strategy, a sales pitch, a personal message, or a piece of content, focus on crafting a powerful story. Then use brand storytelling to get your message across in a way that will resonate with your intended audience and make them care. Because the magic of a powerful story is hard to resist.