Hollywood’s Yoda – Robert McKee on Why Most Brand Stories Flop

Brand storytelling is often the superior alternative to conventional features-and-benefits-style communication. Unfortunately, though, the skill doesn’t come easily to brands transitioning to the more altruistic approach.  
Here’s why.

Why Are You Here!

“Why are you here?” the legend himself pointed his steaming coffee mug at me. I froze.

“What about you?” He asked my neighbor. “Why did any of you come? Don’t be shy, answer me,” he growled.

“I want tools to convince my executives to stop telling brand stories that feature our products,” shouted one brave soul.

“Mm,” nodded the sage thoughtfully. “Well, I guess we’d better get started, then.”

Over the next nine hours the eclectic collection of marketing practitioners sat rapt as this celebrated teacher deposited one nugget after another into our mental accounts. Robert McKee is – and really, always has been – one of the most revered Hollywood storytelling experts of all time. And with brand storytelling in such vogue, business strategists have flocked to his famous STORY seminars to learn the craft. But his usual 3-day event doesn’t include business application. Understandably, the holes left marketers lacking. So McKee joined forces with Skyword’s CEO Tom Gerace to apply the sharp hooks of an addictive story to the many (many, many) purposes of business. The lecture-style presentation is called STORYNOMICS™.

Robert McKee Brand Storytelling“A story is a gift,” he began. Heads nodded. Pens all over the auditorium scribbled. I waited. “And when used correctly, it is a generous form of persuasive communication.” The only problem? Today’s marketers honestly believe they’ve made the transition and now tell good stories.

“They have no idea,” McKee smiled. Scant few of the brand stories out there, according to McKee, are genuine stories. They’re polished, bokeh-loaded, interactive versions of the same old bragging and promise-making that got brands into the irrelevant position they’re in today. And that’s exactly why those “stories” aren’t rising above the din to deliver the metrics most stakeholders are waiting for, having risked everything on the visionary marketing department that – not too long ago – promised the world in return for the budget.

Thankfully, there’s a pretty simple fix. Even better, the answer produces a craving in audiences. Figure this out, and people will want more of your content, your stories, your gifts.

By now we were all on the edge of our seats, desperate.

“Uncertainty!”

“Uncertainty.” Our teacher spat. “That’s the answer.” Pain. Fear. Loss. Antagonistic forces like betrayal, grief, and an active, scary villain. These are the answers to the flashy, one-dimensional ads now peppering favorite YouTube videos and posing as relevant storified content.

Confused silence followed. Patiently, McKee started over. When comms don’t resonate, too often marketers blame their audiences. Instead, there’s a better response. You see, when carefully crafted projects don’t go viral, the wiser course of action is to examine the story for negative forces that – believe it or not – keep audiences coming back for more.

If content creators open their minds to evaluate their own stories, they usually find a happy, happy, happy protagonist using a featured product in a variety of ways. Beautiful smiling families traveling in your vehicle. In-love couples using your knife to chop homegrown vegetables in a pristine kitchen. Healthy children thankful to their capable parents for providing a designer bedroom furniture suite.

“Everyone knows your presentation is bullshit!” McKee yelled. “Today’s audiences know it, and they’re over it.”

Unfortunately though, companies continually crank out this cooked data, the one-sided pseudotruth that holds the sponsoring brand up as some solutions provider for “consumers” who never really had true problems to begin with. And here’s why.

We want to appear smart. In control. Human nature – especially when trying to sell something – desires the appearance of capable potential. We, the brand, can handle anything. To use McKee’s exact words, “Your conscious mind runs PR for your subconscious.” And that’s why we end up with the happy, happy, happy brand stories that everyone knows aren’t true.

Conventional education has lied to us. In the past, inductive and deductive logic were held up as the standard. We were taught essays outflank stories. Winning arguments was the skill to acquire, the potent muscle to flex. Why connect with a consumer when you can conquer them by being right? The goal was a scientific sterility that brands hoped would translate into trust. Instead, of course, it translates into self-righteousness at best, and at worst, deceit.

Everyone hates pain. McKee says there are two overarching forces in the universe: pain and pleasure. Everything else we experience falls under one of those two umbrellas. And since they’re such oppositional forces, marketers tend to believe one must be avoided to emphasize the other.

Unfortunately though, these lines of reasoning are boomerangs. Appearing smart backfires when your audiences feel belittled or incapable of doing something on their own. Winning arguments with logic only benefits one party in the exchange (guess who!), and the most deeply satisfying pleasures in life indubitably involve pain.

Ready for Honesty?

The better way is to level with your audience.

Drop the veneer.

Evoke curiosity by showing an incident that throws someone’s life (or even your own brand) out of balance.

Violate expectations with honesty.

Deposit a silent question in your viewers’ minds: “How will this turn out?”

Plant an object of desire into a protagonist’s heart by allowing believable pain, realistic fear, and a heart-wrenching choice.

Force your character to relinquish something good for the sake of finding something much better.

Do this, and the unstoppable response from audiences is a gut level empathy that has nothing to do with your product’s features and benefits. Instead, you’ve given audiences the gift of experience. The feeling of hope – even on behalf of someone else like a story’s character – is an emotion that lets tension do its risky work in the brain of viewers and readers. Without the uncertainty, the stress, the concern… there is no rewarding joint exultation from audiences when the hero pulls through against all odds.

If your first attempts at brand storytelling feel forced, phony, or foolish, you’re probably right – they likely are. You and your team aren’t screenwriters or novelists. And your agency is likely great at getting attention, not keeping it. That’s why there are resources like the one-day STORYNOMICS™ event, ongoing training from experience-driven thought leaders at the Content Advisory, and the growing pool of inventive content creators recently laid off by traditional media outlets struggling to adapt.

But that’s you. I have a story to finish:

Across the small theater, heads lifted, pens slowed, and brows furrowed. Negativity was the answer? A villain? Hostile forces of antagonism? Crucial choices and loss, either way? This is the guru’s answer?

Yes, it is.

We all came to the STORYNOMICS™ seminar with the desire to incorporate story elements into our marketing philosophies. In fact, some of the attendees were visibly hungry for the information. But eagerness doesn’t mean readiness. The brands represented seemed to crave the secret sauce they’d been missing, but when McKee delivered it, a gravity settled over the crowd.

Later, talking with other attendees and listening to the Q&A session, I got the impression listeners dreaded going back and pitching the candid truth to executives and board members. I even sensed they’d already tried and failed to convince stakeholders that an authentic portrayal of the uphill struggle of simply being a human today would resonate.

And get this: Having just learned about the eight stages of Story Design, I realized I was watching a number of stories unfold. Every protagonist here had experienced disruption in their industries. And every person in attendance (myself included) had decided to take action by travelling to New York City to hear the Master himself. Now, they all faced their own antagonistic fears and critics. And every protagonist represented at the seminar now had that one final, critical choice to make. (Not sure what “critical choice” means? Just conjure up the memory of your favorite movie’s final climactic scene.) The choice that would conclude each marketer’s story as a tragedy or a triumphant victory.

The crowd dissipated that evening, and as I watched, I knew (as a consumer) that I would soon see branded content from the teams these people returned to. The only thing left to determine is whether these spots will show the addictive truth of real life or the usual, predictable, boring and untrue depiction of happy, happy, happy.

Bethany Johnson
Marketing Consultant at BethanyJohnson.com
Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences. As a consultant, she combines change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.
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Author: Bethany Johnson
Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences. As a consultant, she combines change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.