Popes, Pitino & Pageantry: 5 Lessons From The Madness Of March

The white smoke rose from the chimney and the camera locked in on the balcony. Commentators filled what seemed like an eternity with a mixture of hushed, reverent, hopeful speculation and facts regarding the unfolding ritual.

I seldom watch cable news, I’m not Catholic and I was not at all invested in the outcome of the papal election, or so I thought. But there I was, in the neighborhood pizza joint waiting for my lunch, and I couldn’t take my eyes off that static, empty shot on the big screen TV above the counter. At that moment, nothing mattered more to me than the man who would soon be revealed to the adoring throng gathered below in St. Peter’s Square.

And then – an old man dressed in robes emerges. The excitement level, already at fever pitch, rises decidedly. Is that the new Pope? No, the commentators tell us – he’s just the one making the introduction. I discern the word “Francisco” from his announcement in Latin, but nothing else. Seems that none of the scholarly experts making TV chitchat can translate. Who will the new Pope be? Oh my – it’s Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires!  I was kind of rooting for an African, but a South American, that’s great too! A thrilling victory for the New World! We’re number 1!

Then the trance was broken by the arrival of my slice of pizza. What happened? Why did I care so much? Why had I followed every aspect of this story in the newspapers and online since Pope Benedict stepped down? How was it that the papal election commanded such an outsized share of my attention?

It can all be explained in one word. Theater.

The Cardinals arriving in Rome from around the world, the red robes, the processions, the chanting, the locking themselves away, cutting their ties to the secular world until their task is accomplished, the black or white smoke signaling failure or success. It’s truly hard to look the other way as the drama plays out.

Electing the leader of over 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide is obviously a spiritually resonant event of enormous consequence.  But the world’s major religions leverage ritual and theater to elevate what could be considered mundane occurrences to the sacred as well.  There are prayers and proscribed ways to say them for everyday meals and almost everything under the sun.

While marketing is decidedly secular, self-serving and capitalistic, the parallels with religion are striking. The essential goal of differentiating one brand from the next is also an exercise in elevating the mundane to the sacred, or at least something very special.

A college basketball tournament – no big deal for much of its existence – is now “March Madness,” a three-week national celebration with rituals including team selection, bracketing, office pools to pick winners and viewing parties. It’s not just a sporting event, but a gladiator-like, win or die effort to make it to the “Sweet Sixteen,” “Elite Eight” and the “Final Four.” Coach Rick Pitino and his powerful Louisville Cardinals (not the same Cardinals who elected the Pope) are seeded number one – but aren’t we all rooting for the Gonzaga’s and Butler’s of the world, the David’s who will knock out the Goliaths?

This is theater at it’s best, riveting a broad cross-section of people, many of whom don’t watch college basketball all season long until the tournament starts, to their TV’s and smartphones.

Marketers have a lot to learn from religious and commercial institutions such as the NCAA who understand how to leverage theater to build stronger ties to their constituents. Here are some rules to follow in your brand building efforts.

1. Embrace Storytelling

Theater is all about story. Tune into the Olympic Games and you’ll see nearly as many segments on the “hero’s journey” of the athletes as actual sporting events.  “A gritty kid with a dream moves from the family farm in Kansas. Having never been away from her parents or more than 10 miles from home, she hops a plane to Dallas, TX at the age of 5 to spend the next 10 years training with the most famous coach in the world. Overcoming childhood disease, injuries and the heartbreak of homesickness, the tears of loneliness and despair now turn to tears of joy as she competes for a medal here in London!”

The upcoming NCAA tournament promises to feature an abundance of similar stories.  “These kids have worked so hard, they never gave up! (Fill in tales of woe and adversity overcome here.) Don’t tell them they’re not the top seed! They believed in themselves all year long!”

2. Be Mysterious

Steve Jobs rivaled the Vatican on this score. Apple kept its new products under wraps, strategically leaking a tidbit or two, and worked everyone up to a frenzy. It culminated in a highly theatrical, live presentation to introduce the new items. The press still loves to speculate on what Apple will come up with next and consumers fret that their iPhone 5’s are obsolete a week after buying them.

The Academy Awards might be a dying brand, but the secrecy surrounding the voting serves to enhance the drama.  According to the academy’s website, “only two partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers (the global accounting firm) know the results until the famous envelopes are opened onstage during the Academy Awards presentation.”

3. Exude Confidence

If you don’t believe in your product or what you’re doing, neither will anyone else.  The rituals you create, the theater you produce, has to be taken seriously. Humor is fine, but self-deprecation can be ill advised. One likely cause of the Oscar telecasts’ growing inability to connect with younger viewers is that the selection of hosts like Seth McFarlane, Ann Hathaway and James Franco has backfired. Younger viewers see right through their phony, self-conscious, Saturday Night Live type tongue-in-cheek performances.

4. Create Your Own Language

Powerful theater and storytelling create distinctive worlds with unique symbols and language all their own. The Church has us staring at a chimney, letting the color of smoke explain its inner doings. In the corporate world, think of In ‘N’ Out Burger, where you have to ask someone in the know or search on the web for how to order like an insider.  There may be only four items on the menu, but the hardcore In ‘N’ Out-ers know how to order “secret items” such as a “Flying Dutchman,” “Animal Style,”  “Protein Style” and other variations on the basic burgers and fries theme.

5. Deliver

None of the first four steps will matter if your product or service doesn’t deliver.  Sure, a lot of theater is smoke and mirrors. But at the heart of every story with the power to move us is a truly meaningful and relevant message.  A sense of the theatrical surly helped make NCAA March Madness what it is, but there’s going to be some really great basketball coming our way over the next three weeks.

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