How Ethel & Ernest can lead the way into 2017

5 things marketers can learn from a couple of animated characters.

For me, one of the highlights of this Christmas season was the BBC’s screening of Ethel And Ernest, the wonderful animated movie based on Raymond Briggs’ book of the same name.

The movie pays a moving tribute to Briggs’ parents, following their ‘ordinary’ lives over 40 years of marriage set against a backdrop of extraordinary times.

It managed to be both hugely heart-warming and heart-breakingly sad in equal measures. Bringing a smile to the face whilst also triggering the tear-ducts. On many occasions.

The reaction from the viewing public was overwhelming, with 4 million watching it on the night and many more expected to view it on catch-up.

The reaction from TV critics and the public via social media was universally glowing. It clearly made a strong impression on those who watched it.

But I saw some parallels between people’s emotional reactions to Ethel and Ernest and their reactions to the numerous celebrity deaths that we have experienced in 2016.

The sense of shock and sadness surrounding these losses has been heightened in many case, by their suddenness and the way in which such news is shared so widely and rapidly via social media, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Our grieving for the passing of many of these celebrities is, in part a grieving for a loss of part of ourselves.

Often these characters played an important role at a particular stage of our lives, whether that be listening to Hunky Dory or Purple Rain, dancing to Wham, watching Fawlty Towers or Star Wars, or marvelling at the sporting brilliance of Ali or Cruyff.

Whilst we may not have thought about them so much in the recent past, somehow to know that they are no longer with us is to formally acknowledge the end of that era, whilst also providing an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality.

But, as Ethel and Ernest showed us, such nostalgic emotions don’t have to be endlessly sad and maudlin. They can also be uplifting, helping us to appreciate our past and to ensure we make the most of our present and future.

And I think this also has implications for marketers as we enter a new year.

Marketers often talk about trying to build an ‘emotional connection’ between their brand and their customers in an attempt to establish enduring brand loyalty, or at least temporary brand preference.

Well, here we have extraordinarily strong emotions being triggered…but does this represent an opportunity for marketers to try to harness, or is it something they’d be advised to steer well clear of?

One marketer that did successfully tap into this well of emotion in recent years was John Lewis with their ‘Always a woman’ TV commercial which similarly reduced large swathes of the nation to floods of tears as it helped viewers both celebrate and rue the passage of time.

Many others have tried to play the nostalgia card with mixed results, but John Lewis showed that, done well, it can be a highly effective approach.

There is no doubt that 2016 was unsettling for many of us as we saw pillars of apparent certainty replaced by an unpredictable future. And it would be naive of us to assume that a new year will bring any greater sense of stability.

But during times of uncertainty and angst, people often look for something familiar or comforting to identify with and feel good about. And herein lies an opportunity.

So, courtesy of Ethel and Ernest, here are five things for marketers to think about in 2017:

Acknowledge the past – Ethel and Ernest’s story showed that you don’t have to live in the past to appreciate it. How can you tap into emotionally-relevant aspects of the past (both your brand’s and your customers’) and make them a key part of your brand’s current story.

Champion the everyday – Ethel and Ernest were ordinary people going about their lives and that was part of their charm. How can your brand stay accessible by highlighting the small but (hopefully) significant role it plays in its customers’ lives.

Remain authentic – Ethel and Ernest’s story was totally believable. It showed the good and the bad bits of life, without trying to sugar coat either. How can your brand ensure that it presents a well rounded face to the world – honest, transparent and ‘real’?

Celebrate humanity – Ethel and Ernest showed us how important human relationships are to our lives, based around mutual love and respect for others. At a time when there is so much division in our societies, not to mention talk about the machines are taking over, how can you ensure your brand retains a human touch in how it presents itself and in how it interacts with its customers?

Remain optimistic – Even when the bombs were falling and their lives were being turned upside down, Ethel and Ernest managed to retain a positive outlook. How can you provide a similarly optimistic attitude for your customers to identify with and make them feel good about, even during times of such uncertainty.

Happy New Year!


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