Robert McKee, famously portrayed by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, is my screenwriting hero – not least of which because he’s the author of Story, arguably the most comprehensive and respected explanation on the craft of creating timeless tales that resonate with the human condition. He’s also the only person whose book I’ve ever asked to be signed. On the opening page, above his signature, McKee wrote three simple words that underscore his whole philosophy: “Write the truth”.
It’s ostensibly straightforward, but its intended meaning is one I’ve thought a lot about recently as I watch brand after brand try and fail to align with the good causes that resonate. Mckee meant write your truth: your worldview, your perspective, your beliefs and values. Yet as some brands strive to demonstrate their purpose, they’re ignoring their own truth, replacing it instead with misguided attempts to tap into perceived trends and associated credibility – something I call brandwagoning.
Like screenwriting, advertising exists to tell stories, and the best versions of both revolve around universal and timeless truths. Taken, though not a cinematic masterpiece, was a box office smash because of the primal truth writ large at its core: we’ll do anything to protect our kids. Liam Neeson’s immortal delivery of the threat to his daughter’s kidnappers brought it to life perfectly and has entered popular culture in its own right. In an infinitely lighter advertising vein, Curry’s PC World had Jeff Goldblum remind us we all fake reactions around crappy Christmas gifts with their Spare The Act campaign. Both of these examples resonated long after their conception because they employed themes and emotions familiar to us all. In the case of Curry’s, those themes are also indicative of what the brand itself exists to address, making audience and brand coalescence all the more likely.
Curry’s is one of many examples of advertisers following that classic and central storytelling tenet, finding the authentic truths that connect their brands and consumers. But what we’ve seen too often over the last couple of years is a shift in focus, with advertisers looking externally to find purpose that will inform their campaigns. The transparent desire to re-appropriate someone else’s story has become more appealing than telling their own, with all-too-often cataclysmic consequences.
The brandwagon is at a tipping point, but purpose, handled with care, can right it. Brands that choose to demonstrate their social conscience with authenticity have a better opportunity to make lasting connections with, and enjoy participation from, their consumers.
Vitally, brands must find their truth, the intersection of what is universally recognised and what is personally believed. Truth is the sweet spot that allows us to talk with authority, credibility and conviction. It is a story that is memorable inside your business as well as out. It is the motivation behind which your staff will align and with which your customers will connect. Truth resonates, especially when it’s your own.
REI’s 2015 #optoutside campaign is a great example. On Black Friday, arguably the busiest shopping day of the year, the retailer closed its doors. Instead of capitalising on a retail event, it encouraged its customers and colleagues to head outdoors, in a truly empathetic and genuine demonstration of its purpose. It found the sweet spot and it resonated. More recently, Boost Mobile’s ‘Boost your voice’ election campaign enabled and encouraged consumers with restricted access to polling stations to use Boost stores for that purpose.
Truth has character: boldness, conviction, pride, defiance even humour. As much as it dates me, Errol Morris’ Miller High Life Campaign is a timeless personal favourite. His series of truths on the male condition is a prime example of a brand that looked at who it was and who it speaks to, producing a lasting series that exquisitely and honestly resonates with its target audience through wit, charm and authenticity.
In an age of the all-seeing, all-knowing public, truth is impossible to hide – and there are powerful reasons to embrace it. Jump off the brandwagon, heed the words of Robert McKee, and write your truth.
Kenn MacRae is executive creative director at iris Amsterdam. He has written and co-written five feature screenplays and directed two: The View from Greenhaven and Missing William