Campaign Development: Who’s Your Hero?

My oldest daughter’s preschool class has been learning about a number of concepts related to storytelling, including terms like protagonist, antagonist, setting and plot. As a book lover, this thrills me to my core. My daughter quickly picked up that the antagonist of a story is the character who causes a problem, and the protagonist is the one who solves it. Or, more simply, the antagonist is the villain, and the protagonist is the hero. Good stuff.

All this talk of heroes and villains got me thinking about the ways in which marketing campaigns are designed. Predictably enough, many companies develop campaigns in which their own products are forced to serve as the protagonists. This is perfectly understandable, of course. Every company naturally imagines its product is heroically wonderful, and that the world should be able to clearly see that value once it is demonstrated. But in my opinion, the best marketing campaigns are not about a product per se. They are about a positive experience in which customers (and even more importantly, potential customers) are given interesting opportunities to self-identify.

Let me share an example from my recent past. My team and I were asked to develop a campaign whose ultimate goal was to drive wider use of a specific type of pipeline isolation tool. Among other things, the tool in question often enabled pipeline owners to perform necessary maintenance work, such as changing out leaking valves on offshore platforms.

We could have gone two ways here. We could have chosen to cast the pipeline tool as the hero of the campaign. We could have designed the campaign so that it was all about enumerating the tool’s features and benefits. We could have delivered reams of great information about how the tool functions, how robust it is, and how adaptable.

But in my experience, it is exceedingly difficult to make an inanimate object heroic in any true sense of the word. People can be heroic; objects simply exist. Unless your last name is Disney, it is very tough to animate an object – such as a pipeline isolation tool – with enough personality and interest to carry any kind of story. What’s more, we were also not promoting a glamorous luxury item – like a new car – that people naturally want to spend lots of time fantasizing about. The tool was a means to an end. Safe and reliable, but ultimately utilitarian.

Our other option – the one we chose – was to create an episodic campaign story in which the hero was a prototypical customer, the very type of person we needed to pay attention to the campaign. Our protagonist – a pipeline project manager – had to overcome the antagonism of a leaking valve. By casting our intended customer as the hero, we gave our audience a real chance to self-identify as the story progressed.

Plus, we gave ourselves the chance to create a cinematic campaign with vivid characters, drama, and – best of all – a satisfying conclusion when the hero overcame a number of challenges – including a frightening offshore storm – and eventually prevailed. The fact that he would not have succeeded without the help of the pipeline isolation tool was not ignored, but by focusing the story on a person rather than a product, we were able to create something that even my four-year-old could get excited about.

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