Nowadays it’s almost impossible to come up with a totally new idea. The problem is that we were conditioned in school not to plagiarize someone’s work or even copy small parts of it. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t reflect the reality that much of the imagery & design today is borrowed from earlier work. The example in this post’s masthead is of a reused design shows Collective Soul’s 1994 “Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid” (left) and Sondheim’s 1979 Musical Sweeney Todd (right).

So if you don’t have a totally new way of telling a story, do the next best thing: take an old story idea and put a unique spin on it. Stories are reincarnated all the time. As proof, take “Black Beauty,” which retells the story of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus. In movies…Jaws is derived from Melville’s Moby Dick, Castaway – Robinson Crusoe, Sean Connery’s Outland – Gary Cooper’s High Noon, Meet Joe Black – Death Takes a Holiday, Sleepless in Seattle – An Affair to Remember. There are also the countless reuses of stories from Shakespeare and the Bible. And on and on it goes.

How Marketing Uses Stories

So what does this have to do with marketing and advertising? Terry O’Reilly, of CBC’s Age of Persuasion program, recently said: “Advertising doesn’t create a picture of society, but rather reflects one back. Advertising is accused of creating stereotypes and cliches, the fact is, advertising never ever has that luxury. What it does do is embrace stereotypes and cliches as a means of relating to you in familiar terms, as quickly as possible. And I’ll let you in on a secret, when casting an ad, I often embrace cliches.”

When you need to market something new and unknown, it just makes sense to start from the known. For marketing to work, it must translate new information into something you already know. Once that’s done, you can reproduce the essence of that new information in your own words so others can understand and act on it. I’ve personally practised this many times and one example will show why it’s such an effective communications tool.

cinderella_slipperI was creating a mailpiece once, but couldn’t come up with a good message for it. It concerned shipping software that came with a 30-day expiration; I wanted to maximize conversions by reminding every trial user that their software use was about to run out. I told my father-in-law, who works in a completely different field, about this impasse. He listened to me tell him how much time the users saved with the software, since they could reuse every scrap of data they’d entered into it. I didn’t want any users scrambling to create a shipment, only to find the software locked because the expiration date had passed. when I told my father-in-law this, he said ‘that sounds just like what happened to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight.’ That was it. Trial users shortly received postcards with a glass slipper and the heading “You already have the perfect fit – don’t let it slip away!” (I’m a sucker for puns). Well, trial conversions went up 33% and though it wasn’t just the postcard, I’m so glad I listened to his advice. I learned that a complicated concept can be conveyed in a small space with a simple analogy.

How to Properly Retell a Story

I’m not advocating that we directly rip-off other ideas, rather I’m encouraging us to build on their great contributions. I believe that reusing old motifs extends their life-span. Resurrecting them makes a more powerful impact by rekindling their memory, it avoids the appearance of plagiarism that you get when you copy a recent work. Finally, make sure you credit the original work, if only as a courtesy and do your homework to see if it’s in the public domain or under creative commons license.

So to fellow marketers: if it’s your job to take one engineer’s new technology and translate it for large audiences, try basing the message on a story they already know. The world is full of good stories…so use what’s already out there.

image credit: Hippiehead via