What Pixar Can Teach Marketers

What Pixar Can Teach Marketers

Pixar made me do it…

A friend of mine had kids a few years back which meant he spends a lot of time watching children’s movies. One of his son’s favorite movies is Pixar’s Up and one winter his son probably watched the film with his father six or seven times… okay, probably more. If you have kids you understand what I’m talking about.

One day I talked to my friend and he told me he had decided that he was going to quit his job and move his family to Paris for a year.

“Wow,” I said to him, “That’s a big, sudden change… what brought that on?”

Up,” he said, “My wife and I couldn’t take delaying our dream of living in Paris any longer after watching Up.”

If you’re not familiar with Up then I assume you’ve been living in Papua New Guinea studying hunter gatherer societies–so welcome back to civilization.

Otherwise, you are probably very familiar with the first 10 minutes of the film–the 10 minutes that leave you a sobbing, drippy, gooey mess wishing you had a hundred tissues handy.

The folks at Pixar are master storytellers and they know exactly how to punch you right in the emotional gut. The core message of the film is to seize the day, to have an adventure, because life is too short and too precious to let slip by. It’s a beautiful message delivered in a story that is gripping from its very first moments.

The story is so powerful and so strongly connected to its message that it got my friend to quit a senior executive job at a Fortune 200 company and move to Paris.

Well done, Pixar.

So, what can Pixar teach marketers?

One big lesson for marketers is clearly the power of the well-told story.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 10.28.32 AMIn fact, Pixar’s storytelling chops have made it one of the most successful movie studios of all time—their films have brought in an average of almost $600 million dollars. Their biggest clunker, 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, made more than $330 million and was still one of the biggest grossing films of all time. That’s a track record of epic proportions in Hollywood.

Pixar’s movies all tell stories using the classical elements of quality storytelling—think Aristotle. But there’s also much in the process that Pixar uses that would help marketers tell better stories about their brands.

In his book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, describes the process by which Pixar arrives at its emotionally resonant and beautiful stories. There are an absolute ton of really great takeaways from the book that are useful, but one of the most important is patience.

Pixar never puts a product out in the market that they don’t really, really believe in.

They believe strongly that putting something out into the world that isn’t the best it can be does more harm than good and wastes a whole lot of time, effort and money.

A prominent example from Pixar’s history illustrates this wonderfully: Toy Story 2.

After the success of Toy Story, Pixar inked a collaborative deal with Disney to produce several films—including a sequel to Toy Story. But, as work progressed on Toy Story 2, many people realized that the story they were telling wasn’t working. It wasn’t gripping. It was flat. It needed to be completely reworked.

So, they started over with the story. They went back to the drawing board and reworked the story.

Unfortunately, they’d made commitments to Disney and distributors that the film would be ready by a certain date. That meant hustling to get the film done in time. That hustling took its toll on the team that was working on the film. There were dozens of cases of repetitive stress injuries on the staff, tremendous psychological strain, and burn out. Ed Catmull later admitted that the pressure created by the external deadlines had disastrous results for the staff, but the end product was fantastic because ultimately they refused to allow a terrible story to go to market.

They did what they had to do to make sure that they were telling the best possible story.

How Do They Do It?

The idea of telling a really captivating story and of not compromising on the quality of the work both represent two Pixar values that inform every decision they make. Achieving the same kind of results from your own marketing campaign requires the same attention to those values.

Accomplishing that attention to values isn’t easy. It’s the work of a lot of people being very honest with each other and not being afraid to speak up.

Pixar manages to create this kind of attention to their values by creating what they call a “Braintrust.”

Every quarter (or so) a group of 20-30 people, trusted storytellers all, sit down and talk through the projects that they’re working on. The idea is to encourage look at each and every one of the stories that’s being told and to think critically about them in an environment in which people feel free to speak their minds because they are assessing the stories themselves, not the people creating those stories.

Assembling a group of smart, talented people free to speak their mind about the story that you are telling with your marketing campaign is incredibly important and this is integral to executing effectively on the aforementioned core values.

What should I take away from Pixar’s example?

The three most important things to learn from Pixar’s example are:

  1. There is incredible power in a well-told story.
  2. Only with patience and adherence to the idea of doing the best work possible can extraordinary results be achieved.
  3. To make sure you’re doing the best work you should assemble a group of trusted people who are empowered to be honest with each other about the state of your project.

Now, enjoy this amazing moment from Up… If it doesn’t make you tear up just a little bit we think there’s a good chance you’ve been replaced by a robot without knowing it.

To read more about Pixar’s process and their many other insights into process and storytelling we suggest reading Ed Catmull’s terrific book, Creativity Inc., or this excerpt published in Fast Company.

Richard Kotulski
Richard Kotulski is the co-Founder and COO of After Dark Cookies, is the Founder and Chief Ambassador of the Empire of Australia, and is a Marketing Manager at Sightbox (acquired by Johnson & Johnson). Past experience includes Business Development & Strategy for Stillmotion and Muse Storytelling; Marketing & Communications at the CenturyLink Innovations Lab; Business Development at Savvis. Richard was the VP of Operations/COO at venture-backed startup AppFog. Richard has more than 13 years of web development experience. Also a creative, Richard had a 10-year career in professional theatre working in casting and literary management at some of the biggest theatres in the United States. He lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon where he works every day to keep Portland weird.