What can marketers learn from writing fiction (if they don’t already)?

I’ve been writing for a while now, and every now and then I think about how what I’m doing relates to what I used to do as a marketer. Certainly the process is different, and the solitude of a writer stands in marked contrast to the social interaction inevitable in the marketing profession. But…there are also some interesting and surprising comparisons and contrasts, of which I am sure the creatives in advertising agencies are well aware.

In many respects, marketing is, indeed, closely related to fiction writing. After all, marketers often create a fictional need. We don’t really need cosmetics, expensive cars, bigger houses, and Qantas Club memberships, do we? As in novels, those needs are often driven by motivations that can be sourced back to the seven deadly sins: greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, pride, and certainly lust (perhaps less so wrath, although note the commercials that promote the benefits of satisfaction that comes with getting back at someone or something).

Many marketers use a hero, sometimes real (eg celebrities) and sometimes fictional to personify a product or product’s user. Think of Ronald McDonald, or perhaps the fictional lovers in that famous Nescafe commercial. In some cases, marketers create a fictional antagonist, which the protagonist hero (the product) will defeat in the final showdown (Louie the Fly in the Mortein TVCs; German car makers in the Kia Cerato ad).

Plot, of course, is critical to any novel. But we don’t generally think of marketing as being about plotting, with all the negative connotations of that word. It is not one of the four P’s – product, price, promotion and place. However, marketers often consider how we would like to plot a relationship with our customers. Thinking of it in novel terminologies, is our product plot a short story (travel), scene by scene (occasion purchases), a series of sequels (car purchases) or a long running soap (telecoms).  How do we want our hero/product’s relationship to develop with our readers/customers over time?  And what are we doing to our product to adapt to the changing perspectives of our customers as they age?

Which brings us to the issue of segmentation. One thing the publishing industry understands is the segmentation that exists with readers. While individuals vary hugely in preferences for writing style and storylines, there are well-established genre that describe reader segments; for example, romance, action-adventure, comedy and the omnivorous literary fiction. Within a story, characters represent different segments of society.

Then we have dialogue. Dialogue in a novel seeks to advance plot or character. When marketers have a dialogue with their customers, it is generally about reinforcing the reputation of the product (eg L’Oreal), identifying new aspects to the product (Colgate), or novel applications for it (cleaning products). How do marketers think of plot in terms of dialogue? I guess tag lines that reinforce the character of the product are the obvious answer, but over time some marketers seem to develop a stronger dialogue with the consumer using a variety of methods (eg Dairy Farmers with the family owned commercials, and the Farmer Wants a Wife commercials).

Where does reality end and fiction begin in marketing? Leaving aside issues like making false claims, there is so much scope in playing to the hopes, aspirations and fears of consumers that perhaps we should spend more time considering how marketing might be more effective as entertainment and less about rational representations. Yet I have to confess, I’m not truly comfortable when I see a cross-promotion with a character from a television show appearing in a commercial during the show (eg Packed to the Rafters).

Most fiction has a basis in real life situations and relationships. In marketing, we can learn a great deal from fiction and use it to improve our dialogue with consumers and the depth of character of our products and services. This can make marketing more fun and more entertaining at the same time as being more effective.