What’s required to make your organization/ business/job “great” from top to bottom? Soup to nuts – customer service to the c-suite and back again? Let’s go to the movies.
Here’s a game: What do the following in common?
Star Wars, Hamilton and Black Panther?
Indiana Jones, Grease and Fifty Shades Freed?
Movies, right? Good job. But look a little deeper.
Think about the music. These are examples of iconic scores (aka “theme music”, Star Wars / Indiana Jones), musicals (Hamilton / Grease), and needle drops (soundtracks that make use of externally existent music, Black Panther / Fifty Shades Freed).
Now think about your job. Think about what aspects you can categorize as a score, a musical, and a needle drop. Imagine your professional daily life as a soundtrack to a bigger (motion) picture. If you can start to think about what makes each musical choice impactful in a movie, then you can steal this framework for yourself and/or your company.
A score provides an emotional bed. It often exists around the edges of your story or characters. Think of the “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).” It’s the backdrop that once introduced, will forever trigger familiarity. It’s the vintage logo, the woodwork in your lawyer’s office, or even the ceremony of waking into the conference room for a presentation. A score is informative without you needing to think much about it. A score sets a tone. Both musicals and non-musicals also have scores, and they use them to create automatic-familiarity of the universe they exist in.
A musical mixes the emotional bed with directly advancing the plot itself. Think of anything from Hamilton or Grease. It’s the magic of the song and dance routine. In business, that could be a stand-alone product pitch, a well-designed PowerPoint, or an office walk-through. Musicals always work best in context, meaning they require a properly expectant audience. If scores create automatic familiarity, a musical is well choreographed to take the story and the audience from one point to another.
A needle drop takes something external (possibly with its own associations!) and inserts it into the scene. Sometimes it has been prepared specifically for the moment, sometimes it just feels like it could have been custom made. Needle drops are hard, but they can be extremely impactful as they match an externally familiar thing (even if all that’s familiar is the musical style) with an internally new thing. Analogies, metaphors, stories from our non-work life that suddenly snap into a work-related framework can make us say, “I get it now.” That flip-of-a-switch feeling is what a needle drop does. Needle drops transform a prior understanding into a new one.
Your business already has a soundtrack. Don’t let it be elevator music. Design and intent matter. Whether you run the company or are a runner for the company, you need to understand the broadest theme of whatever “thing” you are trying to do, and make sure the “music” maximizes the desired impact.
Let’s focus on needle drops since it applies the most broadly, and doesn’t require you to be the owner of the business to implement. Anyone at any company can add their own external input to create internal value IF they understand the theme, no matter where they are on the org chart. We’ll look at the Fifty Shades Freed and the Black Panther soundtrack to dive deeper.
Both soundtracks consistently stay on theme with their films. The soundtrack matches the movie, the movie matches the soundtrack. While both could exist independently, they’re also both better off coexisting together.
Soundtracks are not the new (or the old) playlists (or mixtapes). They have now, and always have had the designated purpose of deepening and widening the universe that the film exists in. Successful soundtracks provide a reminder of the “vibe” of the film itself. Successful singles provide a reminder of their source. Think of “I Will Always Love You,” “Let It Go,” or “My Heart Will Go On.” Best-case examples like those show how a soundtrack can deepen your associations, emotional response, and overall experience with the product.
The corollary to theme in business is the vision and/or mission statement (depending how its framed, we’ll just use mission from here forward to mean either/both). When we admire how on theme the soundtrack or a single is, it’s the same thing as admiring how every detail of a business supports its mission statement.
Amazon says they want to be “earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” Think of the website, the Prime packages, the tape they use to seal them, the telephone customer service when something goes wrong – that’s how you stay on theme.
Like a successful soundtrack, the goal of any business that wants to achieve its mission is to make sure that all of the details, all of the reminders, all of the daily chance AND chosen encounters somebody might have with the business’ broader work – each will support the mission that the business is trying to realize.
It takes work, but ask E.L. James, Kendrick Lamar, or Jeff Bezos – if you can build a universe around your mission, you can reward everyone involved, from the contributors to the consumers. Isn’t that the purpose?
With the thematic concept in mind, now we can think hierarchically in terms of the consumer’s time commitment:
Book – Movie – Soundtrack – Theme/Key Song(s) – Mass Marketing
Fifty Shades Freed (3rd book in a series) or the Black Panther comic books would take you multiple hours and/or multiple days to read.
Either movie would take you about 2 hours to watch.
Either soundtrack would take you about 1 hour to listen to.
Any promoted/”hit” single from either soundtrack (example, “For You” and “Pray for Me) would take you about 3 minutes to listen to.
The mass marketing of posters, web ads, and memes take a split second to scroll past, and a few more if you want to pay attention or share them.
The big “product” is the story. Time commitments and platforms help determine audiences and consumption (oh yeah, the lifeblood we refer to as SALES). More people will probably watch either of these movies than will read the books. The ultimate purposes rhyme, but the marketing efforts are different. Once you’re in the universe, the tactics shift.
This tactical shift is different from what some call “stickiness,” and even the “once they’ve gotten their hooks in you…” logic. You’re not trapped in this universe, you are voting – with your time – to be there. The tactic shifts from just making you curious to re-stimulating positive associations. Every single person’s job is to understand that tactical objective of re-stimulating (or when necessary creating) positive associations. Drop the needle.
You might be willing to stream the soundtrack at the gym, but somebody else might only hear a single in the back of an Uber, and yet another person will appreciate some meme on Facebook. Every time, you reconnect in at least a little way with the story. Every time you reconnect with the vibe of that universe.
Every business has this capability – to think about their story, their mission, and then the various time commitments and platforms that their consumers/users can be positively reminded of their vibe.
Think about Apple: the history of the company (Steve Jobs), the history of the user culture (Mac vs. PC), the hardware ecosystem (iMac, iPhone, Beats, etc.), the software ecosystem (iOS, iTunes), the marketing (from the iPod ads to the new X ads). Once you’re in the universe, you keep getting reminded of it – and when Apple is doing it best, those reminders are subtle little positive ones.
Apple’s mission statement (of which the evolution from Jobs to Cook makes it worth a Google search) basically says that their purpose is to make great products, to focus on innovation, to be simple and not complex, to own the tech behind the products they make, and to not settle for anything less than excellence. Next time you see an ad on TV, ask yourself if the ad – a relatively small time commitment – is answering that statement in some way. Is the product great? Innovative? Simple? Do you want to be in the Apple user tribe like the people in the commercial?
Then, look in the mirror, look at your business, look at the company you work for – and think about the smallest time commitment from one of your customers/users/clients. Maybe you don’t have fancy TV ads, but when you answer the phone, do you support your mission with the same engineered insistence that Apple does?
Did you create, populate, and curate the universe so that all things trigger an association with the best part of your company’s story? It’s hard, but it’s worth it. I would argue that it might even be necessary to survive.
Depending on your job function – even if you are the assistant to the janitor, you have some ability to either contribute a “single” or at least perform on one. If it’s on theme, someone will notice. If enough people notice, anyone can have a hit single. Anyone. The best organizations realize this emergent star potential.
So let’s take the idea of the mission statement, the overarching “theme” of the work, and how (sized by time commitments) we deliver that messaging both consistently and effectively, and look at 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).
Geek out musically with me for a moment. 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, and it is subtle. 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 – because 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 mission of the story itself. Imagine if “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (by Justin Timberlake, from Trolls) was on the soundtrack – that would be silly, right?
Now ask yourself the question: is what you are doing somehow supporting your 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 make your own needle drops. To be successful, you’ll need to take a chance and just do it. Especially if you’re trying to get noticed – you only have a shot if you’re contributing something special in support of that theme.
Don’t waste your time with efforts that don’t support the theme. Don’t try to force the wrong song into the wrong place. Leaders should define the mission statement, and then give careful consideration to how every encounter with the product / organization can invite an existing or potential customer/user deeper into the universe. Everyone else in an organization can differentiate themselves by doing on theme work, and choosing if they want (or don’t want) it to stand out.
As we’ve seen, the best of the best are already finding ways to be on theme across mediums. To join their ranks – to truly be great – the highest level of deliberate awareness is the table stakes. Know the story, know the theme, and then execute the mission. Think in terms of scores, musicals, and needle drops. Think in terms of tactics and time commitments. Think about how everyone can be made aware of their ability to be “on the soundtrack.” The universe only expands with more people – tell the story that unifies them.