What follows is the text from a presentation I gave at Content Marketing World last week during the 42-Minute Shotgun Session. I was honored to share the stage with luminaries like Jim Kukral, Jay Baer, Barbra Gago, and Ahava Leibtag. Unfortunately, no matter how much I’d rehearsed I didn’t finish my presentation in the seven minutes allotted. After tons of requests, I’ve posted the four lessons here for all to enjoy.
My Dream Job
In 1998, I landed my dream job at The Jim Henson Company in New York. I had the pleasure of working on films like Muppets from Space and Elmo in Grouchland. I worked on Sesame Street and a show on the Disney Channel called Bear in the Big Blue House.
Now, as you can imagine, the Jim Henson Company is a magical place. As a product of the first Sesame Street generation I grinned ear to ear for the first few months on the job.
I didn’t have to work at The Jim Henson Company long to realize that content can drive sales. The Jim Henson Company is more a licensing engine than content creator and for me this was a revelation. They inherently understand that amazing content will drive phenomenal sales.
The Dalmatian Effect
Children’s programming has a long history of driving demand for product sales. In fact, it’s often referred to as the Dalmatian Effect, inspired by hundreds of thousands of dalmatian dogs that were brought into homes after the release of Disney’s film 101 Dalmatians in 1961. Wanna test it? Buy a copy of Finding Nemo, show it to a five year old and after it ends ask them if they want a clown fish. As a point of fact, the release of Finding Nemo decimated the global population of Clown Fish… It’s the Nemo Effect.
As I look back on my time at The Jim Henson Company as a marketer, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I learned working with Kermit The Frog, BoBo The Bear, Pepe The Prawn, Miss Piggy and my all time favorite… Grover.
Lesson #1: Focus Builds Character
Muppets are NOT Puppets. This is a cardinal rule at The Jim Henson workshop. And there’s only one distinguishing trait that makes a Muppet different than a puppet… it’s the eyes. Don Sahlin, the first Muppet artist obsessed over the placement of the eyeballs. The truth is Muppet eyeballs aren’t straight… they’re cross-eyed and placed perfectly in what’s called the magic triangle with the nose and mouth. This unique eyeball design gives the perception that the character is actually looking at you – it’s a phenomenal engineering feat that brings life to every muppet. Jim Henson told every designer that if your muppet has no point of focus – you actually had no character.
Your content, your marketing strategy, like a muppet needs focus. Even if it needs to be a little cross-eyed. Without it your brand has no character.
Lesson #2: See what they see
Now, if a Muppet’s eyes have a keenly honed point of focus, how can you ensure that your hand (in the Muppet) is actually looking where they are supposed to be looking? Remember, you’re shooting a television show and a lot of the content is delivered directly into the camera, so the Muppeteer needs to be able to see the camera, in order to know if he’s looking at it. Jim and his team came up with an ingenious idea. Every puppeteer would have their own video monitor so they could see what the camera sees… Even Muppets like Big Bird have a video monitor strapped to their chest to make sure those eyes hit their mark. Basically, the muppeteer acted as an audience member and a content creator at the same time, so they knew when it wasn’t working immediately.
As marketers we need to spend more time seeing the world from our consumer’s perspective. We need our own monitors strapped to our chest so we’re constantly looking at the world the way our consumers see it, not the way we perceive it.
So remember to take the time to see what they see.
In this video (a behind the scenes of the Muppets on 30 Rock) you can see Joey looking at his monitor to see what they see.
Lesson #3: A Hook Comes First
In 1972, a Sesame Street writer came to Muppeteer, Jerry Nelson with a new character idea. The character was a Vampire, not a real vampire, but a vampire obsessed with counting. Now Frank Oz, the man behind Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear, Grover, Sam The Eagle and Cookie Monster developed a fool-proof process to bringing life to a new character and it all started with a vocal hook. The secret was in the laugh. If you could create a laugh for your character that was distinct, you had a hook that you could build around. Think about a few characters – Fozzie’s Wocka, Wocka Wocka, Kermit’s giggle, Elmo’s infectious laugh, Bert’s start and stop style or Ernie’s typewriter return. Jerry Nelson turned to Jim and started counting… 1 ah ah ah, 2 ah ah ah 3 ah ah ah – and Count Von Count was born.
Good content doesn’t happen on a hook magically, it starts with one. Spend less time creating commodity content and develop a content hook that’s unique. A great hook is easy to build around and it’s what people identify with.
Lesson #4 – Finding Value in the Inner Workings of Your Organization
You don’t have to spend more than half an hour on a set with the Muppets to realize that some of the funniest stuff happens below the characters – with the Muppeteers. They react to what happens on camera or adlib adult-oriented jokes when a take goes awry. The funny thing is that a Muppet can get away with things a human could never say or do. Long after I left The Jim Henson Company, Brian Henson debuted an improv comedy show called Puppet Up. Billed as two shows in one, the live comedy act featured two big screens where you could watch the Muppet comedy as if it was a television show. Or you could watch the muppeteers in action as the comedy unfolded. Puppet Up is hilarious, R-rated, adult comedy and it works. By revealing the inner workings of a puppet production, Brian Henson attracted a new audience, won comedy festivals around the world and is on tour today with Puppet Up.
As content creators in a new media world, it’s time we looked for the content buried deep within the inner workings of our organizations… it’s there, and if you look hard enough you may just find that you have two shows in one.
By the way, Puppet Up is now called Stuffed and Unstrung and is on tour today.
Some of the greatest creative minds
I only spent two years at The Jim Henson company, but I learned a lot about brand building, marketing and content creation from some of the greatest creative minds in the world. Don SaLeen taught me to remain focused (even if it meant being cross-eyed) if I wanted to build a brand. Jim Henson taught me to constantly monitor what the customer consumes. Frank Oz taught me to create a hook first and build content around it. And Jim’s son, Brian Henson taught me that if you look hard enough you’ll always find two shows in one.
I’m Drew Davis and this is just some of what I learned about Marketing at the Jim Henson Company.