Picture it. You’re watching a film, a TV show, a live stream theatre production. Your skin is tingling and your hairs are on end because of what you’ve just heard, or seen. “You don’t understand, I could’ve had class, I could’ve been a contender,” “there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” or even “‘you ain’t my mother’ – ‘yes I am!’”. Creating characters that trigger emotional responses has long been the work of talented directors and performers. But it’s a task that’s no longer confined to stage and screen.
Selling a product or providing a service isn’t what it was. Gone are the days of just telling people about what you do and hoping they will listen, then buy into it. Consumers today want conversation, they want insight, they want to feel like the brands they are buying from really ‘get’ them.
The landscape has changed, which in turn has changed the way we need to traverse it. As business owners, entrepreneurs and marketers we all want to elicit an authentic emotional response from consumers, so that what they read, listen or watch compels them to act – be that to like, share, support or buy.
Brands are no longer inanimate objects, but living, breathing entities with the power to make people feel things. The semantics we use to describe them alone point towards their anthropomorphism – brands can now ‘say’, ‘connect’, ‘engage’ and ‘listen’, with all the humanity of a real person. Indeed, when building a brand we frequently ask ourselves, how does this brand speak? What does it believe in? How does it feel?
We are constantly imbuing brands with human behaviours, in an effort to ensure the connection they make with people rings true. Some organisations have got these brand characters right – the much mentioned and emulated Innocent brand character, tone and personality is a great example of this – where others still falter, struggling to match up the way they speak and act, with the reality of what they offer.
“Brands need to look, talk and behave in a convincing and compelling way for us to believe in them. Just like characters in the movies.”
Brands need to look, talk and behave in a convincing and compelling way for us to believe in them. Just like characters in the movies. So what can film and theatre teach us when it comes to shaping characters that count?
In short, plenty. In his seminal work An Actor Prepares, actor and theatre director Constantin Stanislavski explains how an audience will only respond to real feeling, and when an actor gets character right, “invisible currents of sympathy and interest flood back.” Those invisible currents of sympathy and interest between an audience and a character are the holy grail for brands too, so it would follow that taking a deeper look at film and theatremaking practice could provide valuable insights to learn from.
For Stanislavski, the key to authentic character lay in an actor’s complete emotional identification with a part, which later formed the bedrock of method acting – a technique of immersion used by acting greats like Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis. Immersion too, is one of the tools British filmmaker Susanna White regularly witnesses her actors drawing on, when creating characters that will resonate on screen.
Her work with Alexander Skarsgård, who played Colbert in critically acclaimed HBO drama Generation Kill, demonstrates this. “Alexander and I talked long and hard about our fictional version of Culbert and what he would be like, but then Alexander took it on himself to go much deeper,” she explains. “Culbert was such a loner, so Alexander tried to separate himself from people as much as possible. He became a loner when he was developing this role (very counterintuitive to his own nature), which meant he brought things to the character I wasn’t expecting – things that surprised and delighted me.”
“I never want to see any acting going on – I want to feel like it’s entirely believable, 100% of the time,” Susanna continues. “If it feels real to me then I hope an audience will connect with it – I’m the sort of director that wants people to lose themselves in character.” Aside from immersion, Susanna swears by back story as an approach to achieving that believablity factor. “It’s a huge part of the process,” she says. “When working on Our Kind of Traitor, Susanna put in a lot of time with actor Stellan Skarsgård building up the context for his character Dima. “We wanted to feel like Dima’s marriage was believable, especially as Dima’s wife Tamara has no dialogue,” she says. “So Stellan and I talked a lot with Saskia Reeve, who plays Tamara and we created a whole story of their marriage together that you never see on screen.
“An audience will only respond to real feeling, and when an actor gets character right, “invisible currents of sympathy and interest flood back.”
We went into a huge amount of detail about their life, how they met, whether Dima slept with other women, how she felt about it, so that we had a very real thing underpinning every action in the script. When it came to the scenes they could turn on every beat in an utterly convincing way because they knew exactly where it was all coming from.”
Former creative director, performer, and founder of Kneehigh, Mike Shepherd agrees, explaining that in the Kneehigh process they encourage exploration and consideration of the universal experiences we all share to help shape the back story for their characters. “You’ve got to sensitise yourself to the world around you and draw on all sorts,” he advises. “Don’t describe or prescribe character, instead play with different approaches to find what fits. Try randomly choosing different aspects of your character’s appearance, a long coat, a pair of shoes, and think about how your character might behave with these objects. Be daring, look for differences.”
“It’s the tiny, precise details that are revealing about a character, that’s the key that unlocks exactly who a person is,” Susanna qualifies. From Ralph Fiennes labouring over finding the right moustache for his character in Nanny McPhee Returns, to Benedict Cumerbatch using a nineteenth century map of Rye to help him capture the spirit of Christopher in Parade’s End, Susanna has seen accessories, mementos and other objects form the hook into the characters her actors are trying to inhabit.
“Don’t describe or prescribe character, instead play with different approaches to find what fits.”
It’s a process that can be effective for brand development too. In recent years innovative theatremakers like Punchdrunk have run workshops and events for everyone from Sony and Stella Artois to Grey Goose and Virgin Media, encouraging them to use similar techniques to discover the character and stories that sit at each brand’s heart. “Marketers increasingly need to learn and apply storytelling to their work, as consumers are more discerning about their content, and need to be surprised and delighted,” Paul Davies, Microsoft UK’s director of marketing communications explained to Campaign writer Kate Magee at a Punchdrunk workshop in 2014. “Marketers who embrace this cultural movement are the ones who will gain brand share and equity from their audiences.”
Defining and building your character is one thing, but bringing it to life is quite another. And that’s where the wider context in which that character exists must come in. For Stanislavski it’s all about constantly keeping the ‘super-objective’ of the plot in mind. “When you are developing character, serve the story at all times,” advises Mike Shepherd, “and always consider what the scene demands.”
If a brand’s character doesn’t take hold in today’s competitive consumer landscape, it’s all for nothing. Premium gin brand Hendricks has understood this delicate balance and found the right personality for its products. Quirky, eccentric, anachronistic and humorous, the team behind Hendricks has constructed a brand character that feels enticingly ludicrous and entirely authentic, but that also speaks and responds to a wider story – a world where gin production is surging, where everyone is looking for something different and where eccentricity has to be carried through at every customer touchpoint so it doesn’t feel trite or try hard.
Similarly clothing brand Howies hit upon a brand character that worked by understanding consumer frustration and the increasing demand for provenance and ethical thinking when they launched back in 1995 and has built on it ever since. Immersing itself in the interests, behaviours and actions of its community and its team, Howies has maintained an authentic personality that connects, leading to beautiful marketing material that sings out from the noise.
By digging deep to understand every facet of the brand, creating a believable back story, ensuring the details ring true and serving this wider context or story, these brands create characters that make sense, make us look and ultimately make us feel.
A smile. A laugh. Even a goosebump or two. If brands can trigger those sorts of responses from people who interact with them, that’s the springboard for a consumer relationship that really counts.
Live it first
Immerse yourself in the brand. Think about its values and vision. Deeply. Imagine how a person with those values would behave – what would they read? How would they treat people? What would catch their eye when they walked into a room?
Build back story
Where does your brand character come from? What’s their family like? Are they in a relationship? What would they do on a Monday night? And a Friday? What frightens them? What makes them smile? Draw on founders’ stories, consumers’ experiences, or use your imagination. Creating a life for your brand character that makes sense will help you understand how your brand should act, talk and behave.
Find the hook
Seek out an object that feels right for your brand character. Something that they would pick up and keep. Why does it resonate, what does it mean to that character and why do they care about it? Write about the object as your character would write about it, using your immersion and back story as a steer.
Always consider what the scene demands
Get real. Think about the context your brand character exists in. What is the landscape they need to navigate and what narrative are they part of? Your brand character has a purpose to serve in the wider world, so pin that down and make sure every action you have them take delivers against that purpose.