As marketers, we often feel like we have to be five steps ahead of everyone else. We constantly feel the pressure to provide our audience with all the answers, often at the expense of creating truly original content:
“Here’s why you need this product.”
“Here’s how our brand can improve your life.”
“Not achieving your goals? Here’s what you’re missing.”
While addressing questions like these is important, multiple surveys illustrate consumers’ growing mistrust of brands and advertising. According to a recent survey by Experticity, only 47 percent of consumers say they trust brand advertising, with far more (81 percent) preferring the opinions of family and friends.
So, what does this mean for marketers?
In short, it signifies that we must move beyond our roles as answer providers and venture down the rabbit hole into the unknown. Think about the marketing campaigns you remember the most from the past couple of years. Chances are, they did a lot more than offer you a quick fix to your problems or provide you with a list of reasons a particular product is exactly what you’ve been searching for. The most memorable marketing campaigns touch upon something many adults have lost in their everyday lives: curiosity.
Curiosity is a cornerstone of the Radiolab podcast, whose founder, Jad Abumrad, deeply believes in the importance of following your instinct when creating original content. When coming up with ideas for his podcast, he constantly seeks to recreate that feeling you get when you’re first excited about something, likening it to the “beginners’ mindset of a kid playing with toys.” It’s our job as marketers to capture this childlike curiosity within ourselves, then find a way to translate it to our audiences.
You might remember Subaru’s “Memory Lane” commercial from Carmichael Lynch a few years back, during which a family embarks on a whimsical road trip through Woodstock, New York. Ending with all family members (literally) hugging a tree, this commercial resonates with viewers because it takes them on a nostalgic journey that transcends generations. Maybe you relate to the sentimental grandmother on her quest to capture the childlike excitement she felt many years ago. Or maybe you relate more to the parents, who react to the grandmother’s enthusiasm with equal parts endearment and eye rolls. According to Dave Damman, Carmichael Lynch’s chief creative officer, “It’s rare that in one spot you can have nostalgia, heartfelt generational connections, and everyday ‘That’s my life’ humor. Identifying with the adventurous free spirit not only inspired the concept, but helped a great deal in bringing it to life.”
The curious, adventurous spirit the Subaru commercial captures so perfectly is something that comes a lot more easily to children, perhaps because they’re more keen observers of the world around them. But according to Business Insider, the ability to observe your surroundings is one of the skills that separates innovators from imitators in the field. Think about how excited you were about simple things as a kid. Sometimes walking a familiar path, but making the effort to notice sights, sounds, and smells you’ve taken for granted, can be just what you need to get your creative juices flowing—and to spark a similar awakening in your audience.
In addition to evoking a childlike sense of wonder, the most memorable campaigns aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions or address complicated issues, even if they’re not sure exactly where their final product will land. If observing new details on a familiar path isn’t working for you, it might be time to try a new path altogether. Try posing a question to your audience that makes them stop and think. That will resonate with them so much more than giving them an answer right off the bat.
Jad likens the uneasy, nerve-wracking feeling of abandoning your familiar path to getting lost in the “German Forest,” a term borrowed from composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. He notes that while it does get easier to venture into the German Forest over time, the feelings of fear and self-doubt you get from stepping outside your comfort zone never completely go away. And they shouldn’t: “That sense of being a fraud or not knowing what I’m doing—I see that as a thrust now,” said Jad in an interview with Indy Week. “It’s the thing that propels you forward.”
The German Forest can take many forms, all of which have one thing in common: they involve risk. And while the vulnerability associated with taking creative risks is terrifying—especially in a public setting—the results can be transformative. The participatory public art project Before I Die was started by artist Candy Chang as a way to help cope with her grief after the death of a loved one. Using a piece of chalk, Chang wrote this open-ended sentence on the walls of an abandoned building: “Before I die, I want to _____”, leaving it for passersby to fill out. In doing so, she created a sense of community with her neighbors and inspired people to think about what really matters to them. Even though she had no idea where her final product would land, accepting the risks associated with addressing death in a public forum and taking action on an idea that resonated with her allowed her to reach millions of people all over the globe, creating inspiring, original content.
There’s a reason curiosity is such an effective tactic in the marketing world. It’s a powerful feeling that can often lead you in directions you never expected. How many times have you searched something on Wikipedia, only to find something even more interesting, and then something else—until it was 2:00 am and you’d completely forgotten what you were looking for in the first place?
Creating truly original content always comes with the risk of getting so deeply lost in the German Forest that you can’t remember which way you came in. But when it seems like you’re falling deeper and deeper into the darkness, it’s important to just keep going. A good deal of Jad’s creative process consists of “being lost and taking weird risks and not ever feeling like they would work—long periods of wayward drift, and then things would click, and here we are again.” With every risk comes the possibility of failure. But with every possibility of failure, there’s also the opportunity to deliver something completely new to your audience, something they might have never heard or thought about before. And that prospect alone is worth the risk.
So if you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of information, go back to your original question, and think about the sense of wonder and excitement you felt when you first asked it. As long as you keep those feelings alive through your travels down the rabbit hole and into the forest, you’ll come out alive and (relatively) unscathed on the other side—with a connection to your audience that makes your brand truly memorable.