Dustin Lance Black, Coca-Cola
Storytelling Innovator Series

Interview: Dustin Lance Black on Marketing to the LGBT Community

For any LGBT community member, there’s something surprising every time we see a brand include a same-sex couple or pro-LGBT message in its national advertising. Heck, it’s surprising for anyone, gay or not. But recently, we’ve seen brands tell stories of their customers–all their customers–and embrace LGBT people openly more than ever before. At the forefront of this is the Coca-Cola brand, which recently completed its “Crossroads” series, ending with the tear-jerking “EL SMS” clip.

The series, written and directed by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, embodies all the principals of modern-day brand storytelling: relatable characters, realistic settings, turning points, and resolve. I was fortunate enough to speak with Lance by phone this week about the series, the effect video marketing and stories have on audiences, and the lessons he learned early on in his career.

Lance is a natural storyteller–I could hear the passion in his voice as he talked about his support of the The Trevor Project, his work toward LGBT equality, and his hope for the messages this series conveys as it ripples across the world. You can watch an integrated campaign recap on Pereira & O’Dell’s YouTube channel.

Question: Coca-Cola’s “Crossroads” series was a huge leap for the brand, which is often so product focused in its marketing. Where did the inspiration for this series come from for you?

DLB: The first conversations I had were with the advertising agency Pereira & O’Dell’s. They were focused on this moment of decision–this crossroads moment–particularly for young people who are put in situations where they can go in one of two ways: They can be supportive, or they can take the easy way out, make a joke, and basically bully the person who is in that tough situation.

I spent years on the board of The Trevor Project, which is focused on helping at-risk youths. There, you hear so many stories from young people who are in a crisis, and so often they’re being bullied, whether it be at school, at church, in their own families, or certainly online. So when Pereira & O’Dell’s pitched me on a series that asked, “What if we just take a look at these crossroads moments for young people?” the message is what grabbed my attention.

The fact that it was Coca-Cola made it all the more appealing because it’s a global brand. I felt the message could get out in a way that it might not if it wasn’t attached to a brand, frankly. The brand would help push it out, the brand is recognized globally, and this is a message that certainly isn’t exclusive to the United States. In fact, when it was pitched to film these in Spanish and Portuguese, I thought it was a great idea.

I have dedicated years of my life—in fact I stepped away from film-making for four years—to work on LGBT equality. The fact that one of the three areas they were considering was going to address an LGBT crossroad moment was all the more appealing to me—all the more personal.

In the third video, “EL SMS,” a pretty powerful message is delivered. How did you connect this message back to the Coca-Cola brand, and were you concerned the product/brand would dilute the message?

No, it wasn’t a concern because from the onset the folks at Coca-Cola–and they’re not paying me to say this!–were so incredibly understanding. There was this wisdom there of how these things work. They didn’t want their product to intrude on the message, and so there was never a conversation where anyone was insisting that the product be even more present.

Having Coca-Cola be part of these messages of acceptance–and a brand that is seen and loved in countries where being gay is still a capital offense–was meaningful to me. There are places in the world where people drink and love the product, and they don’t yet understand LGBT people. Because the Coca-Cola legacy is so often about family, friends, and uniting the world, to then see them wrap their arms around the LGBT community this way was meaningful, and it sends a message of acceptance to places in the world where it’s much needed. It’s no accident that these were in Spanish and Portuguese.

As a writer originally, how does film/video give your writing and vision life? Is there something special about video that allows you to connect with your audience?

Absolutely. It’s funny you’re asking that question of the guy who is known as the writer, but I gotta say, you can use a lot fewer words in storytelling and it’s far more emotional. Video online, more than the written word or maybe a still image, gives you the chance to see into the window of the soul—the actor’s eyes in a way you can’t on just a page. As a storyteller, I’m always trying to access the emotion and the heart in a story, and I can do that through video in a way that I can’t when I’m sitting in from of my computer typing.

There are challenges there: you have to work really hard to find a cast who can deliver on that emotion. Both the brand and advertising agency has to be patient in order to get those performances, too. Thankfully, in the situation here, you can tell when you watch the series that there was that kind of support from Coca-Cola and Pereira & O’Dell’s to take the time to find the people who could really convey the emotion and make these stories feel true, real, authentic.

Do you see brands working with directors and writers like yourself more often to create these types of inspiring, far-reaching stories?

I don’t have a ton of experience in the advertising world, I admit it. I do these when they seem like they’re going to, in some way, be progressive and helpful. That’s with everything I do.

What I have seen is that brands are coming to me when they want to invite in the LGBT community, and to stretch their arms a little wider to include the LGBT community. I’m pleased to see that happening; it’s certainly something I couldn’t have imagined when I was growing up as a military kid out in Texas in the Mormon Church. I never thought I’d see Coca-Cola, TYLENOL, and all of these others start asking about how to include LGBT people in conversations with their brands.

Yes, they want LGBT people to feel comfortable buying their products, but I also think they understand that they need to reflect back to America what young Americans are experiencing at school, what they’re dealing with every day. Right now a lot of those conversations are around the LGBT community and who we really are as people. To not include LGBT people in your advertising today is to absolutely date your product; it makes them products of the past.

That’s appealing to LGBT folks, but I also think that message is appealing to all young people. Brands are showing them that they see where the world is going and they’re along for the ride.

Is there a single piece of advice you received early on in your career that you refer back to whenever you’re in a creative rut or making a tough decision?

It’s actually the opposite. I got a piece of advice constantly when I first moved to Los Angeles that I figured out was dead wrong, and by flipping it I think I figured out a way to find and make my voice “marketable.”

The advice was that if we were in a period when horror films were doing great, “Oh, go write a horror film.” Or, if we were in a period where romantic comedies were doing great, they’d say, “Oh, go do that!”

And I had to ask myself, “Why am I riding on this wave of interest? That’s not who I am.”

I tell my students at UCLA film school to figure out who they are first. What makes them the only writer in the world who could write that screenplay that’s in their head? And if they can’t answer that question of why they’re the best writer in the world, the only one suited to tell that story, they need to find a new story. I tell them to look for something that is so undeniably them.

When they find that story, it doesn’t matter how many times they’re told its a bad idea or that it’s not marketable because when the script is complete they’re going to insist that people read it. That kind of passion is attached to the work that comes from who you are personally, and that passion is what helps a script break through. It’s because when you’re working on something personal, you don’t accept “No.”

And every single thing I’ve done in this business through to today is because I was able to hear all those no’s and ignore them until I heard that one yes.

If you’re just trying to work in a genre you see as marketable, you will fail every time because there is someone out there who loves horror films more than anything in the world. They’re going to kick your ass—that’s who they are. I tell my students to go out there and be who they are, and it gives them the advantage—it makes their work absolutely unique, and it makes their work marketable.

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