Mark Levy received his first Tannen’s Catalog Of Magic when he was just a boy. He bought his first magic trick from that book. The accompanying instruction sheet was mainly a script--magicians call it the "patter story"–to get the audience in the right frame of mind to enjoy the trick. But the script, Levy recalled, was weak.
“Robert Frost said that if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader,” Levy said, “So I had to create my own script, my own surprise. Magic is about discovery.”
And so is defining your brand. “Every business is like a magic trick,” said Levy, now a positioning and branding consultant (and, yes, amateur magician). “OK, here’s the effect, but what’s the story that you’re telling? Are you performing the right trick? What are all the alternate ways to create the context around that? The right story that defines you and your product is almost always a surprise. And you have to find it.”
Today Levy runs Levy Innovation, a New Jersey-based marketing strategy company he founded in 2002. One of his early clients was actually a magician named Steve Cohen. “During lengthy interviews, we found his one thing, his story — he was expert at entertaining the filthy rich,” Levy said.
As a result, Levy co-created New York’s longest-running one-person off-Broadway show, “Chamber Magic,” at the Waldorf Towers. (Levy still serves as the creative director.) Cohen lives up to his brand as “The Millionaire’s Magician”: Sheiks and heads of state around the world bring him in to do close-up performances for their friends.
Levy’s clients now include corporations, professional associations, as well as business gurus and authors, such as Marshall Goldsmith, David Meerman, and Simon Sinek. Levy is also an author. In his book, Accidental Genius, he teaches “free writing,” a method for revealing all of your ideas without editing, until one comes into sharp focus. That technique has come into play with his marketing clients, as well.
Element Of Surprise
Levy’s early interest in magic appears to have provided a foundation for his marketing career, in which the element of surprise plays a huge role. “I don’t go through my day thinking like a magician, but marketing is all about what I learned by producing magic,” he said. “Branding and positioning is about fostering a relationship. . .People can’t see into your mind, so they don’t really see into your product. You need to help them focus, and you can’t bore people into being interested in you.”
Sometimes the surprise can be found in the miraculous. “Before I started Levy Innovation,” explained Levy, “I was asked by a Boy Scout magazine to teach scout leaders a trick that they, in turn, could teach boys at their meetings. I showed them how to make a finger ring slide up a string, apparently against the laws of gravity.”
Levy told the scout masters to encourage the boys to come up with their own stories about why the ring was violating physical laws--perhaps the ring was from a spacecraft from another planet, or that gravity in one part of the room is less than other parts of the room.
The ring moving is just a trick, but variable gravity and UFOs are “a miracle,” Levy suggested. “When I’m positioning a product and I want to differentiate it, I want a miracle, so the story is everything,” he said. “But. . .the story has to be true, too. We have to get more honest about you and your products than you’ve ever been before.”
That's why Levy spends much of his time with a client listening to the mythology about the company and the product, trying to ferret out “what they were born to do.” Marketing executives rely perhaps too heavily on analysis of customer behavior for that information, Levy suggested, focusing on the payoff and serving customers’ goals too quickly.
“The market doesn’t want to think that you’re using them just to make money, just to do a transaction,” he said. “Your story is a piece of theater, its own one-act play. Strangers come into the theater, characters they don’t know come on stage, and after an hour the audience cares about the characters more than their own family.”
Similarly, Levy advises his clients to think less like a business and more like a performer: “There’s an audience. There are people right in front of you. What are the options about how to tell that story or to do that trick? When I’m positioning something, or I’m coming up with what differentiates a product, it’s not just the differentiator. First we have to come up with all the differentiators, so we can pick the right one.”
And this is where Levy turns iconoclast. Focus groups, for example, “can be a corrupting influence. All the audience will ask for is what they’ve already seen, so they’ll never get a surprise,” he said. “If all I let my clients do is talk about their audience, we’ll get commoditized stuff, not something new.”
In Levy’s free e-book, The Fascination Factor, he suggests how to arrive at that surprise: “Analytics is one way,” said. “Are your analytics pointing you to something of emotional importance that wasn’t readily apparent before? Find out what the surprise is and lead with that. Analytics can show you where the insight is and help you create a better story.”
Levy recounted a story from legendary ad man Phil Dusenberry, author of One Great Insight Is Worth A Thousand Good Ideas. In this case, the analytics were done by a researcher who noted the behavior of girls in a café: “In England they wanted to curb smoking among young people. But telling them quitting would make them live longer didn’t work. Girls in the café seemed obsessed with their appearance,” he said. “The [anti-smoking] ad based on this insight was that smoking will make you look less attractive to boys. You’d think people would see smoking leads to dying, but the surprise was that they were thinking about what made them look good.”
Unexpected insights like this can dramatically change a marketing campaign, but if the surprise unfolds too quickly, Levy cautioned, the audience can get lost. “Some of my clients have really interesting, unusual insights—the surprise is ready to launch,” he said. “But do it too soon, and it alienates people. They think you’re bizarre. It’s because your audience is not there yet.”
To focus your audience, you need to guide them where you want them to go, Levy said. “You need to start where they are, where their problems are. Then, when they trust you, you can move them toward, ‘I’m going to help solve that problem for you and here’s how.’ Once you show that you understand them and their world, they’re happy to let you use whatever methodology you want. In magic and marketing, our minds must be in the same place and think the same way.”
Finding The Surprise Among Stereotypes
To find the right story, Levy contends that you have to first identify all the stories about you--that is the premise of his book. Then, by setting most of them aside, the right story will surface and probably surprise even you.
When he’s helping a client create a brand, he uses an exercise that he credited to Michel Neray, founder of marketing communications company The Essential Message: “List all the stereotypes people have about businesses like yours, but not yours specifically. That is, when people meet you, what will they expect? Then, list all the ways you are different from the stereotype—your fees, your philosophy, your products and services, your ways of doing business. Now, what pattern of differences comes to the fore?”
That’s your differentiator, Levy said, and it might even surprise you. “These surprises become part of your presentation and your Web site—it’s the story that defines you,” he added.
Levy recounted his experience with one client, sales consultant Lisa Earle McLeod, whose list of sales stereotypes included the idea that sales managers talk about products and services in terms of how to fill quotas--so their sales people naturally come to see customers as numbers and objects. What Levy captured was a stray comment McLeod made: “I want to bring nobility back to the world of sales.”
“That’s her story, and it has become her focus,” Levy said. “Lisa’s work is not just about features or benefits. It’s about how a sales team changes customers’ lives.”
Levy emphasized his belief that integrity is key in marketing: “Through brutal honesty, a surprising piece of information surfaces that is not front and center anywhere. Often, the surprise is there in your business, but you’ve deselected it, it’s grayed out on your screen, but it should be the only image on your home page. That’s where you need to put all your focus.”
And you don’t need to practice magic to do that.