When the Formula Becomes Formulaic


There was a period in professional wrestling when catch phrases became all the rage. Stone Cold Steve Austin had his bottom line, we all smelled what the Rock was cooking, and the live fans at the arena couldn’t wait to play along. Since professional wrestlers are paid by their popularity, it didn’t take long for the rest of the locker room to catch on to the financial impact of what was happening: the wrestlers with the best catch phrases got more air time and sold more merchandise. All of a sudden you had mid-card talents trying to shove their latest slogan down the audience’s throat, hoping that by sheer force of repetition it would stick. If one didn’t work, they’d back up the truck and attempt to ram a new one through. Before long, every show felt like déjà vu, the exact same dudes saying the exact same things they said the week before, following the most formulaic and dumbed-down marketing strategy they could think of in order to increase their television exposure. That’s about the time that I stopped watching.

I have no issue with repetition in certain consumer experiences. There’s a reason people say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When I order a burrito at my favorite taqueria, I want it to taste the same every time. Ditto for the can of Modelo Especial I drink with it and the orange salsa I pour over it. That’s called consistency, which works for a limited number of consumer products up to point. It’s whether or not the consumer base for that consistency is large enough or sustainable that generally dictates any potential change. When it comes to storytelling, however, repetition can quickly turn into complacency, especially when you underestimate your audience. To use a whiskey analogy, there’s a finite number of times I can hear about a forgotten cask or a lost recipe before I start to get bored. Cleverly recycling story archetypes and tropes is an art, not a recipe. You can’t simply choose “crisis and quest” or “tragedy and rebirth” and fill in the blanks. Charisma, passion, technique, and pace are vital to success, which is why the Rock is now a Hollywood superstar and Rick Steiner is doing whatever he’s doing. It’s not solely because the Rock had the better catchphrases, it’s because he knew how to mix it up and keep things interesting.

Consumer loyalty only goes so far. In order for Apple to convince millions of customers to upgrade their iPhone every year or so, there must be a compelling new reason to do so. Every brand has it’s built-in consumer base, but even the staunchest fanboy has his tipping point. Case in point: my obsession with Candace Cameron-Bure holiday films on the Hallmark Channel. What was once a much-anticipated dose of ridiculously wholesome, family-friendly goodness now seems like an excuse for consumerism. This year’s release, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, feels like it was made out of obligation rather than excitement, a far cry from the fantastic Christmas Under Wraps and the wonderful Let It Snow. If you think I’m being ironic here, I assure you I am dead serious. Christmas Under Wraps is an utterly brilliant Hallmark film, capturing the small-town hokeyness of a show like Northern Exposure with the self-snarky wit of a show like Gilmore Girls. I’ve watched it at least fifteen times at this point, usually accompanied by a bottle of wine or a large glass of whiskey.

The reason I became so enamored with CCB’s Hallmark holiday films in the first place is because they transcended the genre and exceeded expectations. What I expected to be little more than cheesy, formulaic fluff was actually delightful and satisfying. That’s the dynamic I look for as both a marketer and a salesman. I want to discover a product that has a low-level of expectation, that gets lumped in with all the other stuff, but in reality has something brilliant to show the world. Why? Because it makes for a great story. It’s one you’ve probably heard before. The kid who gets picked on by bullies, shunned by teachers, but in actuality is a genius. The orphan who is scorned by his foster parents, attacked by his adopted siblings, but underneath it all is a wizard. You get it. I convinced dozens of friends to watch Christmas Under Wraps even though they thought I was crazy. Ninety percent of them came back telling me how much they loved it.

When I was a wine and spirits retailer, it was no different. I’d find an overlooked whiskey that no one had ever heard of, I’d make the case in spite of the odds, and I’d win over new consumers as a result. Everyone loves an exciting new face. That being said, keeping yourself relevant once you’re at the top is no easy task, which is why no one stays on top forever. Brands catch on, they grow, they scale, and thus it becomes harder to maintain the same level of quality they began with. Delivering delicious 12 year old whiskey to ten million customers is much more difficult than doing so for ten thousand. You have to adapt. Maintaining the same level of passion and energy once you’ve made it is hard, which is why so many filthy-rich CEOs leave multi-million dollar companies to start again from scratch: they miss the excitement of building that momentum. I think that’s a cop out, however.

Getting people excited about new stuff is fun, but we don’t need more new stuff. What we need are people committed to running dependable businesses that maintain their quality while avoiding the pitfalls of uninspired repetition due to scale. What I want is to be able to watch the WWE again because it’s exciting, cutting edge, and interesting, not because it’s the only game in town. What I want is a selection of ten really good whiskies on my bar, not fifty mediocre ones that offer little beyond a flashy new marketing gimmick. And what I want more than anything is for Candace Cameron-Bure’s Hallmark team to make a new holiday film because they have a really good idea for a script, not simply because another year has gone by and the investors think it could be profitable. I took a step back from the booze business because I felt like I was falling into that same trap. Ultimately, I’d rather walk away from any project than continue down a path where I couldn’t deliver quality.

Marketer Seth Godin recently wrote about the three types of corporate mediocrity, noting: “Uncaring mediocrity is the most common form, and it often accompanies scale. It’s the accidental outcome that comes from trying to emulate an organization that’s focused on its mediocrity. Focused mediocrity is different. It’s intentional. It’s the act of chasing the banal, so that the largest possible number of people will be satisfied enough not to complain. This is the sieve of deliverability and the sword of mass. The third kind of mediocrity happens when someone is uninformed. When they’re too busy or too lazy to pay attention to the taste of those they seek to serve or they don’t care enough to deliver it with quality and humanity.”

He finishes by saying that corporations should “at least have the guts to be mediocre on purpose.” I’d ask why not have the guts to be better at the expense of quick profits?

-David Driscoll