“Can you take cucumbers on an airplane?” I asked my co-worker. Not a typical question to ask during a TV talent scout, I know, but this was not a typical search. The dreary drop ceilings and half-eaten bagels of callbacks had been replaced by the farm roads and neighborhoods of southern Illinois.
We weren’t looking for actors. We were looking for people – real ones – and Ray was one of those on our list. As we toured his home, every photo had a story, every item a meaning. He talked of football, war, coal mines and his late wife. In his humble accounts you could hear the pride of a life well-lived. At the end of our visit, he handed each of us a parting gift – a brown paper bag of cucumbers.
Now, this may seem odd in the context of the commercial world of a TV scout, but it did not seem that foreign to me. As a kid growing up in various regions of America, I can’t tell you the number of bags of cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and string beans my parents were given by their neighbors. The gift that Ray gave us was nothing fancy, but it meant something to him and to us because it was real.
And that’s exactly the point of the campaign we were creating. Corporate packaging and slick media often result in a carefully crafted image that fails to hit its mark. In TV ads and marketing materials, people are caricatures, homes are spotless and perfectly decorated, and conversation is artificial. Real people begin to think, “Hey, these guys don’t know us.” We’re the ones with families and kids and PTA meetings. Our homes have needed a paint job for years. We have photos, appointment reminders and children’s artwork plastered to our refrigerators. We have dust bunnies in the corner. We’re the ones who give cucumbers to our neighbors. You sit up in your ivory towers, and you don’t get us.
Is this perception correct? Of course not. Corporations are made of real people who, in reality, are a lot like those in the market they are trying to reach. So we set out to craft a campaign to combat this common misconception. We wanted to humanize our client, a large Midwestern utility. Who better to do that than everyday people?
“Oh no,” you might be thinking. “Another testimonial campaign with scripted interviews and phony smiles.” Not at all. Scripted, tightly managed testimonials only serve to further plasticize a company’s image.
We set out to have real conversations with real people. We talked to a woman who raised her sister’s children after she died of cancer. We spent a day with a business owner whose love for animals has created a mecca for the dog lovers of her region. We sat in Ray’s kitchen as he talked about how much he misses his wife and does his best to preserve her memory. In those conversations, we were able to discuss the product we were hired to promote and how it intersects with their lives in legitimate, meaningful ways (click here to see Ray’s spot).
Granted, it is risky. You can’t control what people say. You can’t make them stay on message or guarantee they will speak in nifty soundbites. But that’s part of being human. And get this: People like humans. They may resent corporations, but as they see the people those corporations help and the people behind them, their perceptions change. And the response to the campaign has been extraordinarily positive.
So, next time you are looking for a deftly crafted campaign to polish your already shiny corporate image, think about trying something a little different. Humanize yourself. You might find it comes naturally.