Amid all the talk about how we’ve lost control of our personal data and surrendered our right not to be tracked and surveilled everywhere we go online and off, it’s easy to forget that, as consumers, we still control our most valuable asset—and the one brands crave most: our attention.
More than a quarter of consumers use ad blockers online. Apps like Freedom and StayFocusd help us restrict the time we fritter away on social media. Nearly three-quarters of Americans have taken steps to distance themselves from Facebook. Meanwhile, Netflix draws more viewers than ad-supported broadcast cable—or YouTube (even Netflix’s dominance may be short-lived, with Disney’s new streaming service set to launch in November).
As marketers, we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s not enough to tell good stories or even authentic stories. We’ve got to think more fundamentally. We have to start by understanding what stories a brand has permission to tell, to associate with and to participate in.
A consumer will grant those permissions to a brand’s story on certain conditions. The story has to ring true to direct or adjacent perceptions of the brand, what it stands for, and how it behaves in the market. And most importantly, the story must be able to credibly extend into other media and topics, usually in the form of entertainment or infotainment, that the consumer values.
We routinely see brands self-inflict damage by trying to go places where they don’t have permission to be. A burger chain didn’t have permission to recreate “E.T.” back in the 1980s. An auto brand built on brawny good-ol’-boy trucks can’t just waltz into today’s conversation about civil rights and expect the association to be credible.
Other marketers appear determined to continue to get consumers’ attention by interrupting them. Even when media platforms offer innovative new ways to participate in contemporary culture, brands respond by producing more 30-second commercials–hoping they can skip the permission step and simply butt in to those conversations. And anyway those new advertising products are really just incremental steps toward engaging consumers without earning their permission.
But when a brand does get permission, when it participates in a way its audience actually trusts, and creates IP they actually want to participate in, good things happen. The Lego Group has earned permission to make movies about the adventures of characters in worlds made from its products; when those movies align with Lego’s whimsical brand, and when they amuse and entertain us in ways we expect from big studio films, we’ll accept and even welcome Lego’s participation. Then we’ll go out and buy more Legos—25 percent more, in fact.
Participation With Beer Geeks
In spring of 2018 a documentary about craft beer made its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. “Brewmaster” opens a window on craft-brewing culture by following two characters: a New York attorney who quit his high-paying, big-firm job to chase his passion for bespoke brewing and a young brewer striving to earn his designation as a master. Along the way the director, accomplished documentarian Douglas Tirola, creates a narrative so immersive you can practically smell the hops, weaving in a wealth of detail about the craft-beer business, its culture, and its characters.
The critical reception was positive, but not as ecstatic as the reviews that craft-beer geeks wrote on their blogs and in streaming-service comment sections.
The fact that the film had been brought to audiences by Pilsner Urquell and its parent company, MillerCoors, and the fact that our team at ICF Next (an agency!!) developed the strategy, created the concept, executed the marketing campaign, and helped produced the film did nothing to detract from the audience’s experience. That’s because we stayed true to the documentary film format and avoided falling into the classic advertiser’s trap of making the film about their brand; rather we focused on adding value by building around the film and creating a superior consumer experience for those who committed to attending a film showing at a theater or screening a video release.
Understanding the Brand’s Role
A European brand owned by a global conglomerate needed to earn permission to participate in the conversation about craft beer-making. At the moment that conversation is dominated by, and revolves almost exclusively around, scruffy American artisans. Pilsner Urquell, a 175-year-old European brand with stagnant U.S. sales, didn’t have obvious permission to participate.
Earning that permission meant engaging a reputable director, giving him the freedom to tell the story his way, and understanding what role the brand could play.
Tirola organically wove together stories from brewmasters around the world, including some of MillerCoors’ biggest competitors, a handful of the hottest microbreweries and Pilsner Urquell. Tirola also understood that Pilsner Urquell had a place in the craft-obsessed conversation–as the first pilsner-style beer, created in Czechoslovakia in 1842, it had been a keeper of the craft for the better part of two centuries. Even more importantly, Pilsner Urquell understood that while its brand could credibly play a part in the story, it was not the story itself.
The end credits showed the brand’s logo as the filmmakers thanked the company “for their support of this film, belief in craftsmanship and artistic freedom in all of its forms.”
With “Brewmaster,” Pilsner Urquell took a giant step toward earning permission to participate in the craft-beer conversation. Following SXSW, the documentary screened at 16 more independent film festivals, played at theaters in 25 cities, and achieved a 75 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Pilsner Urquell used it as the centerpiece for 16 consumer events before it became an Amazon Prime feature in March 2019.
“Brewmaster” worked because Pilsner Urquell took the time to understand where it had permission and what its audience wanted before it just ran out and made a movie. And when it did go make its movie, it did so in a way its audience appreciated. It built valuable IP it could activate around.
As marketers, we hope that other brands will follow those steps because it will lead to true participation and engagement. As human beings, we hope they’ll do it because, frankly, everything else is just noise.