50 Shades of Marketing Thematically

As we’ve been thinking about vision/mission statements, the overarching “theme” of our work, and how (sized by time commitments) we deliver that messaging both consistently and effectively, we’re ready to see a real-world example.

In the Fifty Shades of Grey universe, it’s probably safe to summarize the (PG version of the) theme as “a love story, that’s dark – yet complicated.”  Tip your hat to E.L. James for driving that “complicated” aspect home with the name of her lead male. Painfully obvious? Sure, but still – she gets points because we didn’t do it and she did.

Presumably, you already know from the movie posters / book covers how they marketed that theme in a picture with some text. The shortest version of marketing for the story tells you just about all one needs to know to decide if you’re in or out on committing more time.

Let’s assume you’re in and you know the story (no judgement). Enter song-writer extraordinaire, Julia Michaels with the single, “Heaven.” In a few minutes she deepens our relationship with the 50 Shades universe and is SO on theme that her work deserves to be a case study.

Remember, the purpose of a song should be to remind a listener in a positive way about the “vibe” of the story itself. For a non-media example, think of the Coca-Cola polar bear commercials. If the consumer is going to be coming back, you need to keep driving home the positive associations well after the initial pitch. That’s the unstated role of this song – to be a short, positive association that you might bump into unexpectedly.

Task number one is to hit the love story / dark / complicated theme. She’s a pro – so what Michaels gives us is a love song (check), in a dark / sad / minor key (check), which when combined with the presumably optimistic title of “Heaven,” is clearly complicated (check).

At the subconscious level, the song features a descending melody and bass line famously referred to as the “lament bass.” Even if you don’t know your music history, whenever you hear this musical progression you’ve been trained to recognize the sentiment of lament / loss / despair. Other popular examples include, “Stairway to Heaven,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “The Cat Came Back.” She’s priming us with this musical association from the beginning.

Lyrically, Michaels tells us the story of a relationship that has ended, yet she sings, “if you ask me, I would do it again.” The hook and title of the song appear in the chorus, which repeats several times as, “they say all good boys go to heaven / but bad boys bring heaven to you.” Now that’s what I call lament.

To bring the complicated theme all the way home, she gives us a double-shot of lyrical and musical surprise at the end of the first chorus. Fashioning continuous, subtle surprises is a topic unto itself, but just know this song has plenty. After announcing that “bad boys bring heaven to you,” we launch into the second verse – but something very important has happened. Utilizing a technique called word painting, we now realize that the descending melody is symbolic of heaven being brought DOWN to her. Since she is lamenting, this isn’t a joyous occasion – after heaven was brought down to her, the romance ended. Again, love story / dark / complicated.

We’re only scratching the surface here, but hopefully now you see how she made an artfully independent statement of the theme. If you like the movie, chances are you’ll like the song, and probably buy/stream the soundtrack, see the movie again, try the book, etc. It all feeds back into the vision/mission of the story itself. Imagine if “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” was on the soundtrack – silly, right?

Now ask yourself the question: is what you are doing somehow supporting your vision and mission? From the book cover, to the unexpected chance encounter? Whether it’s a customer service call or a trade-show presentation, will your audience walk away with the reminder of your theme, or will they walk away with some other impression? You have control if you want it. To be successful, you’ll need to take it. Don’t waste your time with efforts that don’t support your theme.