The Journey: What to Say to Convert Prospects Into Customers
Focusing your messages on empowering the prospect as the protagonist against a common enemy works better than claiming your brand is the “hero.”
Back in the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an experiment. They showed study participants an animated film consisting of a rectangle with an opening, plus a circle and two triangles in motion.
The participants were then asked to simply describe what they saw in the film. Before you keep reading, watch for yourself:
So, what did you see? Of the study participants, only one responded with “a rectangle with an opening, plus a circle and two triangles in motion.” The rest developed elaborate stories about the simple geometric shapes.
Many participants concluded the circle and the little triangle were in love and that the evil big triangle was trying to harm or abduct the circle. Others went further to conclude that the smaller triangle fought back against the larger triangle, allowing his love to escape back inside, where they soon rendezvoused, embraced, and lived happily ever after.
That’s pretty wild when you think about it. Here’s how David Eagleman describes it in his 2017 book The Brain: The Story of You:
They described a love story, a fight, a chase, a victory. Heider and Simmel used this animation to demonstrate how readily we perceive social intention all around us. Moving shapes hit your eyes, but we see meaning and motives and emotion, all in the form of a social narrative. We can't help but impose stories. From time immemorial, people have watched the flight of birds, the movement of stars, the swaying of trees, and invented stories about them, interpreting them as having intention.
The Heider-Simmel experiment became the initial basis of attribution theory, which describes how people explain the behavior of others, themselves, and also, apparently, geometric shapes on the go. More importantly, it reveals that people explain things in terms of stories.
Even in situations where no story is being intentionally told, we’re telling ourselves a tale as a way to explain our experience of reality. And yes, we tell ourselves stories about brands, products, and services.
Whether you and your business are consciously telling a story or not, prospects are telling themselves a story about you and your business. That means you need to tell an intentional story. And more importantly, as you seek to engage older customers and clients who have significant life experience and won’t trust just anyone to understand their challenges, you’ll have to tell a story that resonates with how they think and feel about the problem they want to solve.
Enter the Villain
So far, we have a protagonist (the prospect) and a mentor (you and your brand), satisfying the two key components of the hero’s journey structure.
But every story also needs a villain or an antagonist in order to increase the stakes and highlight the difficult barriers that exist to solving the problem. After all, if it were easy, why would they need you and your product or service?
As we’ve discussed, the most dangerous kind of propaganda throughout history is “us against them” stories where the villain or “other” is a person or group of people. As an example in the longevity economy, we’re literally trying to undo the pervasive effect of that type of narrative from the “never trust anyone over 30” era when the Baby Boomers were young.
The best villains are concepts that represent the problem or a significant barrier to solving the problem. Other times, the villain is an aspect of identity that the prospect wants to avoid.
The Noid: Domino’s Pizza commercials in the latter half of the 1980s featured a strange red-suited creature whose goal in life was to destroy and delay the delivery of hot Domino’s Pizza to your door in 30 minutes or less. He never succeeded, of course, but he dimensionalized the problem of relying on competing pizza sources.
Mayhem: A brilliant recent example of a brand villain is the Allstate Mayhem guy, played by actor Dean Winters. Mayhem personifies all the unexpected things that can go wrong in life with humor while still making it quite clear why we reluctantly pay for insurance in the first place.
The PC: In the Get a Mac campaign, John Hogeman personified a Windows PC as the “villain,” with all its virus-infected technical difficulties. Apple walked a fine line, though, by aiming at the aspirational identity swing users wanted, contrasting “computer nerd” Hogeman with Justin Long as the Mac.
Avoiding an ugly “us against them” theme is why Apple was careful to make sure Long’s Mac character treated the PC with kindness and compassion rather than disdain. On the other hand, the PC would say things like, “Well, Mac, I guess you are a little better at creative stuff...even though it's completely juvenile and a waste of time." Villain.
Another brilliant thing Apple did was make a product comparison that avoided the “Pepsi Challenge” trap of ultimately reinforcing the dominance of the leading brand. The copy may have told you that the Mac was better than the PC, but the imagery worked primarily at the level of identity and asked swing users to choose who they wanted to be like.
These examples from brand advertising use actual “characters” as villains due to the visual nature of the medium. For thought leadership and general content marketing, the villain can be purely conceptual.
During the 8-figure height of Copyblogger Media, we primarily sold web publishing software and web hosting. Our enemy wasn’t the competition – it was what we called “digital sharecropping,” which was about building your web presence on someone else’s land, such as a Facebook page.
In other words, the “villain” was choosing not to invest in a website at all. This villain showed up for us constantly in the news with tales of deleted Facebook pages without reason, rule changes at Tumblr, and ”free” solutions that went out of business without warning.
Bottom line: focusing your messages on empowering the prospect as the protagonist against a common enemy works better than claiming your brand is the “hero.” People are ultimately more motivated by avoiding loss than by achieving gain, so your mentorship helps them dodge the sting of “defeat” at the hands of the villain.
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