January 7, 2020

The best marketing lesson from The Princess Bride.

This ridiculous & clever, slapstick & intelligent, goofy & hilarious story is probably the last place you’d look for a brilliant marketing lesson.  And yet there’s a hidden gem in there too good to miss.

If you don’t know The Princess Bride (book published in 1973, movie debuted in 1987), it has thoroughly earned its fanatical cult following.  The movie has an absurdly all-star cast, and they do a magnificent job of bringing to life this (at its most basic) plot:  peasant boy tackles numerous obstacles on a quest to rescue princess from evil prince and achieve true love.

Here’s the scene all marketers should worship.  In this scene, Westley (blond dude and the story’s hero) is just brought back from the dead by a pill from a Miracle Man (duh), and he’s instantly tasked with figuring out how to storm the guarded castle.

Click the image to watch:

Westley and Inigo solve a problem

Here’s the line that matters:  Why didn’t you list that among our assets in the first place?

See, in problem solving, it’s human nature to reach for the tools we know best and the ones most commonly employed for that job.  It never occurred to Inigo to list “wheelbarrow” or “holocaust cloak” among the available assets because in his mind, he pictured the solution to the problem as a typical one:  three men storm the castle using their own personal strengths to fight their way inside.  His version of problem solving has this anchor:  we use the tools we know how to use, and hope for the best even if there’s only a 50/50 chance of success.

Westley’s version of problem solving is:  what’s a solution that will DEFINITELY work, and then how do I acquire the tools to make it happen?

Here’s why marketers often solve problems more like Inigo than Westley:

  • We’ve made assumptions that tools aren’t right for us, even if we actually know very little about them other than their existence.
  • We’re unaware of the existence of tools that could be useful to us because we’re not always on the hunt to learn about new things.
  • We’re in a hurry, so we choose the easy (known) path instead of taking time to apply strategic thought and creativity to pursue possibly-unfamiliar options.
  • We are wary of risk-taking…and in general, we prefer to do things we’re good at because it feels unsettling to act with uncertainty.

But as a marketer, it’s your responsibility to inject a bit of Westley-like thinking into your approach on a regular basis.

This doesn’t just mean embracing new tools (true, a TikTok strategy may not be the right fit for your brand, but how do you KNOW that unless you understand how it works and how other brands like yours are using it?)…it also means looking beyond the traditional approach and usual tools.  Launching a new restaurant and want to get the locals to become regulars?  Inigo toolbox:  local newspaper/online/radio ads, start an Instagram/Facebook/Twitter, send a press release.  Westley toolbox?  Go door-to-door at local businesses with baskets of free food and special offers.  Send personal invitations to individuals in the community for complimentary tastings.  Offer a different item on the menu free each night for the first month of opening.

Do those things cost money?  Yes.  Is that just a different way to spend your marketing budget?  Yes.  But in certain circumstances, initiatives like that might be a more effective way to reach your goals.  At the very least, they’re worth considering.

Traditional and familiar tools will always have their uses, so don’t throw them away entirely.  Just remind yourself to look beyond them constantly and learn more about what you don’t know.  Then you too can find true love in marketing and live happily ever after.