Whether you’re marketer or mom (or both), the mere mention of Pixar will send most into wide-eyed declarations of admiration and awe. And with more than fourteen critically-acclaimed and cherished-by-audiences films under its belt over the last twenty years, it comes as no surprise that the animation powerhouse has nearly perfected the art of storytelling. Pixar has a well-published formula that helps them make cinematic magic (Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.) However, there are a number of larger lessons content marketers can learn from the audience love Pixar has cultivated over time.
Lesson 1: Always honor your roots. Those with a keen eye may have noticed A113 pop up in every Pixar movie. It’s the license plate on Andy’s mom’s car in the Toy Story franchise, the courtroom Carl goes in to defend his mailbox in Up and even a tag on a lab rat in Ratatouille. But what’s the significance? It’s the first year graphic design studio and classroom at CalArts where many Pixar employees started their creative journey. Giving a nod to your brand’s heritage in content not only helps build trust with consumers, but gives them a glimpse into your history and pride.
Lesson 2: Reward the people who love you most. Of course, the A113 reference is just one of many easter eggs found in Pixar movies. In fact, there are so many that the most dedicated fans have constructed a theory that all Pixar movies exist within the same universe. While the assumption itself is a bit of stretch (and documented as untrue), it still acts as positive proof that Pixar animators fill frames with references that surprise and delight their fans. But their love doesn’t just extend to audiences: at the end of every film, all of the babies born during its production are cited in the credits. Create a culture within your organization that celebrates your biggest advocates, both internal and external. Invite them in to the process and include them in the conversation, from start to finish.
Lesson 3: The smallest details are as important as the big picture. In Monsters Inc., one of Pixar’s most successful franchises, hero monster Sulley has more than 2.3 million hairs on his pink-spotted, furry body, which would require up to twelve hours of animation for a single frame. The Pixar team eventually created a new fur simulation program and a specialized department to tackle such complex problems. By paying close attention to something as microscopic as a single hair, Pixar is able to create realistic movement that is simply spellbinding, but find bigger solutions to operationalize their processes.
Lesson 4: Respect the struggle and embrace your flaws. Each of Pixar’s heroes has a character flaw. In Toy Story, Woody is overly confident of his position as Andy’s favorite toy and Buzz is often erratic and unemotional. In Brave, Merida is impetuous and headstrong. Up’s Carl is a grumpy curmudgeon. Even Marlin in Finding Nemo is an overly cautious and smothering father. But in each of these stories, the hero overcomes his challenges through teamwork and friendship. Part of the content creation and distribution process is about testing what works and learning from your mistakes. As your organization evolves, remember Pixar president Ed Catmull’s thoughts that every idea starts as an “ugly baby.” Put in the time, effort and love to help it turn it into something truly remarkable.
Lesson 5: Strive to be better, even when you’re at the top of your game. Every Pixar feature (with the exception of less-than-stellar Cars 2) has become more sophisticated and successful in its technological advances, artistry and storytelling techniques. Why? Because every employee, from technicians to directors (and everyone in between) is committed to making a great movie and giving feedback every step of the way. Even if your organization has a legacy of incredible, successful, applause-worthy content, continue to push your team to do a little better and be completely transparent in the process. Who knows? Your next blockbuster could be a few brainstorms away.
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