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A splash of drama

Adam Morgan
Challenger enthusiast
Eat Big Fish

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Adam Morgan is the author of Eating the Big Fish in which he coined the phrase ‘challenger brand’ and outlined a process for ‘doing more with less’. In 1999 he founded brand consultancy eatbigfish.

Adam Morgan expounds on the strategic imperative of drama for brands that want to get noticed

One day last summer I walked into a falafel shop in London called Pilpel. We were early for a client meeting in a part of London I don’t visit very much, and needed to find lunch before we kicked off.

We stand in the light drizzle of a London summer in the falafel queue, the line shuffling slowly along till I’m at the counter. I give my order to one of the four falafel fluffers who are serving. He’s just started fluffing my falafels nicely when, all of a sudden, there’s the noise of a gong. All the falafel fluffers lift up their heads and cheer simultaneously, and then get back to preparing the grub. There’s no other acknowledgement of the gong at all.

So, when I walk up to the till to pay, falafels in hand, I ask the cashier about the gong. “Oh”, she says, “We have a loyalty programme here. If you collect ten stamps we ring the gong, everybody cheers and we give you a free falafel. Would you like a loyalty card?”

Now I don’t mind a falafel, but I’m not crazy about them. And I hardly ever go to that part of London. And, even if I did, my chances of remembering my loyalty card for ten consecutive falafels is almost non-existent.

So, of course I said yes. Who doesn’t love being gonged?

The brilliant thing Pilpel has done here is to understand the power of a little drama: to take a banal and clichéd loyalty mechanism and turn it into something I not only find appealing, but am actually sitting here and writing about for several thousand complete strangers. We live in a world of continuous partial attention. What were we all doing in the line while we were waiting for our turn at the counter? Looking at our phones. How much collateral did we look at while we were waiting? Zero. If they wanted us to notice anything about them, they needed to be a little dramatic.

Some brands use a continuous series of moments and ideas to keep themselves high on our radar

We think of drama as a creative act, and historically perhaps it has been. But in the attention economy, a world of three screens and continuous partial attention, using drama well has now become a key strategic discipline: an experiential moment that makes us engage, even if we’re not looking, and focus on a key attribute that the brand wants us to notice about them. The dripped red wax that signals that Maker’s Mark is genuinely handmade. The cardboard suitcase outer that shows that Propercorn is a cut above the ordinary popcorn. The Brexit NHS ‘£350 million’ bus that helped swing the public’s decision around the referendum.

Sometimes these are one-offs, key focal points. And some brands use a ‘rolling thunder’ of drama, a continuous series of moments and ideas that catch our attention, to keep themselves high on our radar. Across the Atlantic, the master of this is, of course, Elon Musk and Tesla – from live, on-stage comparisons of how fast it is to change a Tesla battery (versus refuelling an Audi at ‘the fastest filling station in LA’), to offering a ‘Ludicrous Mode’ on the Model S and a ‘Bioweapon Defence Mode’ on the Model X. Everything Tesla and Musk do has a splash of drama. Do we, by contrast, have any idea of what’s interesting about the next generation of Mercedes or Jaguars? Do we hell. Do we care? No – we’re watching Tesla.

Oh, and the masters of drama over our side of the pond? The people who’ve brewed the world’s strongest beer, filled another with substances banned at the Olympics, dressed bottles in road kill, and driven a tank through the streets of London. BrewDog. Which, it has just been announced, is now valued at £1billion just nine years after being launched into one of the most traditional, congested (and low-tech) categories imaginable.

It pays to be dramatic, it seems. Strategically dramatic, of course.