Consumers as Characters: The Method-Acting Approach to Marketing
Having empathy with your consumers is one thing. Being able to intuitively predict their every move is quite another. Angela Capton explores how some of the film industry’s most respected method actors prep for their roles, and how the same techniques could help propel your brand into the spotlight.
Basic demographics. Habits and behaviors. Total assimilation. For most marketers on a quest to understand their consumers, one of these things doesn’t typically, logistically, belong. But for Method actors, getting into character goes beyond simply understanding surface-level facts and mannerisms. These figurative shape-shifters delve even deeper to fully understand the motivation—the instinct—behind every action and reaction, often literally living in their character’s shoes. Marketing and acting may not seem to have much in common, but exploring the method approach to character decoding may just be the key to making consumer decoding even more poignant.
Beginning in Russia in the late 1800s and later adapted for the American actor, the method acting technique has certainly seen its share of evolutions. However, the core principle has always remained true: authentically internalizing a character’s motivations. That is, going beyond simply imitating actions to innately behave like the character.
That innate understanding is where your brand comes in. While nobody’s expecting you to become a method actor, literally going undercover in the local high school or nursing home to get in touch with whomever the character—or in your case, the consumer—truly is, take some notes from some of Hollywood’s greats to see how to tee your brand up for the performance of a lifetime, every time.
Daniel Day-Lewis: Living The Part
Considered one of the best (or at the very least, most committed) method actors of modern cinema, Daniel Day-Lewis knows no bounds when it comes to connecting with his character. In his breakout role as cerebral palsy-sufferer Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” he stayed confined to a wheelchair for the entire filming, demanding to be spoon-fed and breaking two ribs in the process. For “Last of the Mohicans,” he lived completely off the land for the duration of shooting. And, for his role in “Gangs of New York,” he embraced the era, dressing only in period-appropriate clothing and even turning down “modern” medicine when he contracted pneumonia, on the condition that it wouldn’t have been available to his character.
From a business and marketing standpoint, Day-Lewis illustrates a key learning opportunity—you must consume like your consumers. Simply studying a consumer’s relationship with one specific product, brand or media outlet doesn’t paint the full picture of what’s driving their motivations. Every day is bursting with experiences that are intrinsically unique to your target, and each of those experiences has at least some amount of impact on those that follow. Taking the time to commit and genuinely live that journey can give insight into what’s really driving appeal, purchase intent or loyalty in a much richer context than reading data off a page.
LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION! What this means for you: Truly and fully immerse yourself in the consumer’s life. Understand the highs and lows of their routine, the visceral motivations and deal-breakers of everyday interactions. Do they have limitations (time, money, mobility, age)? Embody those challenges and see how you adapt and interact with the marketplace and the world at large.
Robert De Niro: The Voice of Intuition
In his prime, Robert De Niro fervently assumed the lifestyle of his characters—from literally working as a cabbie for the film “Taxi Driver” to gaining 60 pounds and training as a boxer for “Raging Bull.” However, it’s De Niro’s depth of understanding that truly sets him apart. Through his immersive research and commitment to the craft, De Niro would become so intimately connected with every facet of his role that he gained a true intuition, which often resulted in him rewriting the script or adlibbing scenes. (Remember “You talkin’ to me”? Totally off the cuff.)
For brands, De Niro sets the example of what’s possible when your connection to the target runs deep—by becoming intuitively attuned to your consumer’s voice. When brands can achieve an authentically intimate understanding of their target, it stops being an educated guessing game and becomes an organic growth curve. The goal of method acting is to, in the end, not be acting at all, but to be living naturally in the scene. The same is true of brands. So yes, do the legwork and pore over the data, but do so until you can absolutely embody the target—from there, the next step should seem natural.
LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION! What this means for you: Go beyond the stats… it’s not just about what your consumer loves, but how they are talking about it. Read, talk with and listen to your consumer until communication is no longer an exercise in imitation, but a natural and genuine conversation.
Forest Whitaker: Be Thorough, Be Flexible
With a career rich with respected roles, including his award-winning performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker has earned a reputation for taking extra steps in preparing for his characters. But it was his above-and-beyond preparation for “The Butler” that demonstrated his true method acting chops.
Playing White House butler Cecil Gaines over the course of his 34-year tenure, Whitaker studied, and studied hard. Not only did he have to convincingly mimic the demands of his character’s job, but he also had to master the ever-shifting physical and emotional state of Mr. Gaines year to year, starting around age 30 and spanning to 96. From his speech and wardrobe to his disintegrating health and emotional well being, Whitaker had to embody the freedoms and challenges that accompanied each life stage, and also be able to switch quickly between them, depending on the crew’s shooting schedule.
For your business, this means researching thoroughly and thinking nimbly. Whether your brand is aging with your target—meeting and anticipating their needs as they progress through life—or has a more segmented consumer base—touching multiple, disparate targets simultaneously—it’s vital to continually think deep and move fast. Successfully unlocking your target lies in combining Whitaker’s extreme depth of understanding with his deft agility, in order to keep consumers excited, engaged and eager to open their wallets.
LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION! What this means for you: Don’t ever settle for what you know to be true… be constantly digging into what makes your target tick—today. Don’t feel tied to the existing truths… be willing to shift and change course, challenging your assumptions and evolving with (or better yet—a beat ahead of) your target to always keep them passionately tagging along.
Method acting is a true art, teaching us that decoding your consumer isn’t simply about decoding data; it’s about digging in, asking why and incessantly checking in so you can be real, be relevant and be absolutely unforgettable. What are some of the ways that you “get into character” with your consumer? I’d love to hear from you; drop me a note at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
Angela Capton is a Senior Writer at Seed Strategy where she utilizes a range of writing styles and her deeply empathetic nature to communicate breakthrough ideas that engage consumers on an emotional level.