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Throw everything you know about marketing out the window

Once you know the rules of a genre, you can break them for a reason.

Breaking the rules of form in order to get a message across in the most powerful way possible is an art form that marketers, more than anyone, need to master, writes Hallie Donkin.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it’s well worth repeating: one of my favourite university lecturers once said to me, “Once you know the rules of a genre, that’s when you can break them for a reason”.

She was saying two things. Firstly, she wanted me to stop breaking the rules of form willy-nilly without first showing that I understood those rules and my reasons for breaking them. Secondly, she was encouraging me to think hard about how a chosen form impacts the effectiveness of a piece of writing’s function.

Perhaps this small conversation (combined with seemingly endless class discussions on form and function, and the roles the reader, the writer and the medium play in any act of communication) is one of the reasons that some of my favourite content today comes from people who throw the rule book out the window, after a very careful read of its pages, of course.

One of those people is the writer Jonathon Safran Foer. I’ll keep this simple: he’s a genius. The young-ish (for his achievements, anyway) New Yorker brings a little of himself and his family’s history and present to every piece of writing he produces.

Safran Foer can dream up a damn fine tale but, more importantly, he doesn’t just tell that tale by following the rules. He thinks hard about form and function. He considers all three aspects of that complex communication relationship: himself as the content producer, his audience as interpreting what is put in front of it, and the medium as something that can be bent to his will.

The most obvious example of Safran Foer bending a medium to his will is not my favourite of his books (that title goes to Everything is Iluminated – I could just about read nothing but it, back to back, for a year). It is his most recent work, Tree of Codes.

In Tree of Codes, Safran Foer has created a die-cut book out of another book, Street of Crocodiles, removing some words and phrases, leaving others to tell his tale. The story he then weaves speaks of far more than itself.

“For years, I had wanted to create a die-cut book by erasure, a book whose meaning was exhumed from another book,” says Safran Foer. “I had thought of trying the technique with the dictionary, the encyclopaedia, the phone book, various works of fiction and non-fiction, and with my own novels. But any of those options would have merely spoken to the process. The book would have been an exercise.”

Street of Crocodiles is one of two surviving works by a Jewish schoolteacher and prolific artist who was captured in 1941 and was killed during the war.

“I was in search of a text whose erasure would somehow be a continuation of its creation.”

The form Safran Foer chose, then, brings real wartime oppression and the horrors of genocide into Tree of Codes, a tale of the last day of one person’s life. The form of the story doubles its function, bringing the story of Street of Crocodiles – both the content in the book and the context of the book – into it.

What on earth does this have to do with marketing?

So, you’ve stuck with me thus far; you either quite like novels or are very patient. Here’s the marketing part.

We all know that when marketing, it isn’t enough just to have a good product, you need a story that tells your customers what a good product it is, and that story must be told in an engaging enough fashion that they get through it.

No one is going to listen to you bang on about how your forklift can lift stuff. All forklifts can lift stuff, I assume. I don’t really know much about forklifts. But I do know you need to offer those clients something else so that, while they are consuming that thing, they will also see that your forklift lifts stuff. The more interesting you can make that something else, and if you can deliver it in a way that encourages them to consume and share your content, the better.

My favourite recent example of a brilliant marketing campaign that threw the rule book out the window comes from the US.

When a small town in Michigan was struggling to afford to keep its library open, a small tax increase was put to a vote. A very vocal group that was against the tax hike created a strong campaign to win over the public, and those standing for the library turned to Leo Burnett Detroit for help changing the conversation from one about taxes to one about books. You must watch the video about the campaign they created.

Sure, they could have done a million things: a PR team could have arranged column inches for the pro-library side to talk about why a minute tax increase is a small price to pay. A billboard pointing out that it’s a small tax increase could have been erected. And so on. None of this would have changed the conversation from taxes to books. None would have sparked (if you can excuse the pun) the kind of emotional response that spread like wildfire (too far?) through the town.

So, what can we take from this, apart from awe at creative geniuses? The knowledge that creative genius is only so because of someone’s ability to read that rule book, think about whether the rules will help them achieve their goals, and then throw the book out the window in search of a better way.

DISCLAIMER: not a single book was burned in the making of this blog post.

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