Magical Realism: The Foundation for Effective Brand Promises

Successful marketing today doesn't sell features; it sells benefits. This product will save you time. This product will save you money. This product is important for your identity. But successfully selling benefits requires more than cut-and-dry statements. Selling benefits involves making a magical promise (and then fulfilling it).

A great example of a brand that makes magical promises is Coke; they regularly promise happiness. But ethereal concepts (e.g. happiness, liberty, or financial freedom) are only effective when placed in an appropriate context. That's where polar bears, Santa Claus, and long sleepwalking journeys come in.

In fiction this technique of mixing the fantastical with the everyday is called magical realism, and the author most well-known for employing it is one of my favorites. Again and again Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes what is real and tangible and sprinkles in some magic; he is never satisfied with surface level appearances. Marquez's stories push the reader to reexamine the routine in light of grander, more extreme contexts, driving home the emotional truths and themes of the story in a profound way that has made him famous. His friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza says to him:

The way you treat reality in your books... has been called magical realism. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic of your stories but fail to see the reality behind it...This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.

Likewise, when brands venture to make fantastical, complex, deep promises, consumers don't always see the reality. When that happens, they may put up psychological barriers against the brand. Seth Stevenson at Slate gives a great example using a surreal Levi's advertisement:

I've been in movie theaters when this ad played during previews, and the audience seemed transfixed—left in stunned silence when the ad faded out. But a friend says he saw it in a theater where, at the end, someone yelled, to much deflating laughter, "They're pants!"

The magic was spoiled.

But the risk of spoiled magic is a necessity. Levi's may not be associated with America to everyone who wears them, but to someone, somewhere, the distinctly American context, although extreme, communicated a powerful message. The same goes for Coke's promise of happiness, the feeling of fraternity that goes with grabbing some beers, and the drama behind fighting germs in commercials aimed at mothers. Not everyone buys into the magic, but some people do, and that makes it worth the risk.

Without a magical brand promise, products are nothing more than a list of features: some sugar water, a fermented beverage, or a chemical combination that kills germs. It's only when a brand promises a reality that is, as Mendoza says, "more than the price of tomatoes and eggs" and takes steps to support that promise that it has a chance at selling more than me-too products.

Written by Chris Allison on February 11, 2010


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Written by
Chris Allison