Making Retail Theater
My star turn as the cow in the Braddock Elementary School’s watershed third-grade production of Jack and the Beanstalk changed me. (And shut up. The cow was a pivotal role in the piece, setting characters and plot into feverish motion and inevitable conflict.) At the tender age of eight, my worldview shifted. I began to see the theater in everything.
I still do. Call me over-dramatic (many have and do), but the need to regularly entertain an imaginary audience bumps the tension and keeps a plotline humming. Drama raises the stakes. Great swaths of desire, uncertainty, longing, wonder and jubilation are the elements of a life well lived.
And of a retail marketing program well-executed.
There are great similarities between what transpires in the theater and the drama that unfolds in a store window. Both need audiences. Both seek to be emotionally resonant. And each has a narrative.
This has never been truer than it is today, as the old-school shopper experience evolves into the story-driven Shopper Moment. Smart retail marketers must now think like the dramatist, crafting in-store interactions and displays with stage-worthy plot twists, passion, conflict and satisfying resolutions.
What are some foundational playwright’s beliefs and practices that can inform the work of the retail marketer? We’ll start with these 15:
- Good playwriting is collaboration – between inner selves and creative partners. Hear all the voices and consider all the ideas.
- Theater is about poetry and music. So is the exemplary Shopper Moment.
- Don’t get caught up in the “why” of an embryonic idea. People write plays and creative marketers build Moments for all sorts of reasons. To organize despair and chaos. To live vicariously. To play God. To project an idealized version of the world. To remember and to forget. To play. To dance with language and form. To beautify the landscape. To fight loneliness. To inspire others. To imitate heroes. To bring back the past and raise the dead. To fight the powers that be. To provoke conversation. To engage in the conversation. To make money. To sell a brand.
- Each line of dialogue and every lovingly placed object is like a piece of DNA, potentially containing the entire story and its thesis.
- Risk your entire reputation every time work is freed out into the world. Without that tension, the resulting creation is it’s not worth the audience’s time.
- Vary tone as much as possible. Juxtapose high seriousness with earthier viewpoints. Mix raunchy language with lyrical beauty with violence with dark comedy with awe.
- Invest something truly personal in the work.
- Create your own realism. The playwright and the marketer are in complete control of their fictional universes. What are its physical laws? What’s gravity like? What does time do? What are the rules of cause and effect? How do characters behave in this altered universe?
- Create from the gut; from the eyes, the heart, the muscles, the soul. Create from the brain last of all.
- Educate your team. Seek aesthetic and emotional compatibility with those you work with. Understand your decision-makers’ worldviews, as they will color their understanding of the work.
- Strive to develop a unique genre. Great plays represent the genres created around the author’s voice. The Williams genre. A Mamet genre. Top brands are also created around charismatic personalities. An Apple or a Heineken genre.
- Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the Shopper Moment in the form of its delivery.
- Don’t be afraid to attempt great themes: death, war, sexuality, identity, fate, God, existence, love. (Retail marketers might do well, however, to avoid politics.)
- Strive to be mysterious. Which does not mean confusing.
- Create in layers. It’s smart to have as many things happening in a play in any one moment as possible. The same goes for a store window. Of course, this doesn’t mean visually busy or overcrowded. Some of the layers a retail marketer should work with are emotional.
And I’m not even finished yet. Come back Thursday for Part Two.