What Screenwriters Can Teach Marketers About Sticking to Themes

Perhaps one of the most legendary screenwriting mentors—heck, philosopher is more like it—was Blake Snyder, renowned for his Save the Cat trilogy that helped countless poor saps like me crack the structure of screenwriting.

Blake’s books are chock-full of wisdom on how to write a good story, beat by beat. As marketers, we understand that story is crucial to conveying our brand to the audience in a way that feels both essential and personal.

Blake’s most pertinent wisdom for screenwriters, which applies to marketers as well, is the beat that needs to happen at the beginning of every film. It’s the lifeblood, the “why” of the story. He terms this the “theme stated.”

Theme stated is the line of dialogue often said to the protagonist in the story by minute five that encapsulates the lesson of the story—that is, what the hero will understand by the story’s end.

Of course, as marketers, we don’t have 90 minutes of our audience’s attention. We’re blessed with a 15-second pre-roll. This makes communicating the theme or “essence” of our product or service mission-critical.

Theme Stated in Flicks You Already Know

Understanding theme stated can be mystifying, so let’s see a few examples from cinema.

  • “If we don’t evolve and grow beyond our natural ability, we’re gonna go down.” Big agency boss says to Mel Gibson in What Women Want.
  • “Men and women can’t be friends.” Harry says to Sally in When Harry Met Sally.
  • “Make each day count.” Leo DiCaprio says to Kate Winslet in Titanic.

Theme stated is what Harry told Sally, what Leo told Kate, what that agency boss guy told Mel…and it’s what you should be telling to your audience.

Your theme stated should be in all your marketing materials. Each word, apostrophe, and indentation should be on point…on theme.

But, why? Why is this concept of theme so crucial for marketing?

Theme Builds Awareness

I’ll never forget the advertorials for the 1997 film Gattaca. Ethan Hawke plays the role of a human that was conceived without the aid of genetic engineering in a future world where parents who don’t practice eugenics are seen as unethical.

The movie? OK. The advertising? Unmissable.

Upon release, Gattaca’s promotion campaign included fake ads with the tagline, “Children Made to Order.” The ads included a phone number people could call to learn more about genetically altering their embryos for enhanced, designer babies.

Thousands of people called the number interested in learning more. The ads prompted debate about genetic engineering—ethical or unethical? Which was precisely the theme of Gattaca.

Theme yields a consistency in marketing that contributes to creating a memorable and recognizable brand. The same goes for commercials by Old Spice or Progressive Insurance. These brands are easily recognizable in large part due to their consistent and distinctive aesthetic, and for always sticking to the theme.

Theme Builds Trust

A magical thing happens when brands lean into their theme—trust and rapport with their audience. Humans trust what they are most familiar with, whether that be familiar faces (family, friends, or famous celebrities) or a vociferous duck from the Aflac commercial.

When audiences recognize the brand, they’re more likely to engage and purchase. We hear a lot of talk about sticking to a consistent visual look and content schedule (i.e. publishing blogs at the same time consistently and regularly).

It should go without saying that theme must play a large role in generating reliability and trust as well.

Theme Creates Recognition

Repetition is powerful.

OK. I put this on myself. Just by typing “Aflac” I seem to have summoned the ducky demon. The quack-quacks have hijacked my synapses now, I’ll be lucky to get any sleep. Just as we rely on flashcards and mnemonic tricks in school, so too marketers worth their salt hone those jingles and quips—whether they be uttered by human, beast, or fowl.

To get into the heads of your audience, you must think, say, BE the theme. Imbue the theme in every breath of your brand. It better be in there. Because if your audience doesn’t see the theme then they may miss your brand entirely.

What is Your Marketing Theme?

Theme can be difficult to pin down, but when you’ve identified it you feel it in your bones. Here are some tips on finding your marketing theme…

1. Identify and Leverage Conflict

What is the conflict in story parlance that your product or service solves? Your customers have everyday and long-term challenges—use those pain points to inspire your theme.

2. Understand the Brand Experience

Your theme doesn’t necessarily have to be verbally stated in your marketing. Your theme may be expressed in how your “protagonist/hero” (i.e. audience representation) changes over time. Or, the BEFORE finding your product and the AFTER may give you an idea of your theme.

3. Play Off Motifs and Symbols

Look at the motifs or symbols you already use in your marketing materials as these often support the theme and may indicate what your theme is.
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Your marketing theme needs to be the driving force behind everything you write and express to your audience, like all of your content. Your theme is the anchor or heart of your brand. It’s why your brand exists.

We often consider the audience as the heroes in this journey, so let your theme be that truth your audience must understand about themselves, their life, and their role in it. And of course, that your brand may be the vehicle to help them achieve this transformation.

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