How Method Planning can transform brands by unlocking our powers of empathy.

How Method Planning can transform brands by unlocking our powers of empathy.

I’ve always loved the Oscars: The glamour of the red carpet, the acceptance speeches, the celebration of some of the world’s greatest storytelling and, my personal highlight, the ‘Best Performance’ awards.

Over the years, these have consistently been received by actors and actresses who have practiced a revered approach called Method Acting or simply, The Method.

Robert DeNiro gained 60 pounds to play retired boxer Jake LaMotta and won his Best Actor Oscar in 1981. Hillary Swank lived as a man for a month to prepare for Boys Don’t Cry and won her first Best Actress Oscar in 1999. Daniel Day Lewis stayed in character both on and off set while filming Lincoln and won his third Best Actor Oscar in 2013, to name but a few.

The Method is famous for actors who live in character, but it is much more than that. It’s an entire system of training and rehearsal techniques, based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski and developed by Lee Strasberg, that seek to encourage the delivery of sincere and expressive performances through identifying with, understanding and experiencing a character’s inner motivations and emotions.

On the surface, this definition strikes a remarkable resemblance to the field of marketing, branding, innovation and communications, and when you peek behind the curtain you discover that its congruence continues: Sense Memory Exercises delve into the multi-sensorial details of physical objects; Affective Memory conjures up deeply evocative emotions, and a variety of Character Exercises enhance empathy with various psychological states, all to portray stronger characters.

The more I learn about The Method, the more there appears to be a real opportunity for those working in marketing, branding, innovation and communications to learn from this system and apply it to our field, with the Account Planning discipline being a prime candidate to take the leading role.

An approach we might call Method Planning.

The idea of Method Planning would be defined as: Helping transform business performance by creating richer brand experiences via a systematic approach of techniques for developing empathy and imagination through understanding, experiencing, and identifying with the inner motivations of brand characters.

It's been argued that Method Acting was an artistic revolution on par with other mid-century advances, transforming film to become one of the most influential ideas in American culture. It therefore seems well worth considering how applying these systems to the Planning discipline could have significant potential for the branding and communications industry.

At a time where technology is enabling ‘Google Planning’ to become increasingly convenient and popular, and COVID-19 has encouraged us to be more socially distant and less in the real world than ever before, Method Planning could be a very timely catalyst to help our industry rehumanize.

“Method Acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.”

Lee Strasberg

Some may instinctively practice elements of Method Planning already, others do it more consciously, using specific tools and techniques, but many more aren’t doing it at all. By amalgamating these skills and building them into a formal discipline, with specific techniques and training, Method Planning could unlock greater empathy for individual practitioners and possibly our discipline as a whole.

In the same way that The Method helps actors transform their performances it could enable Planners to elevate their capabilities: providing them with a personal arsenal to help generate empathy, emotions and ideas as well as helping them enter a more imaginative state, manage creative roadblocks, and enhance their expression, all in service of connecting brands more viscerally with their audiences.

To illustrate how Method Planning can be effectively applied in our own work, here are a few examples where Method Acting techniques could be being used.

Long before Brendan Fraser donned his fat suit to win this year’s Oscar for Best Actor, Ford car designers wore a ‘Third Age Suit’ that simulated the physical feelings of old age. This helped designers empathize with older drivers and understand how things needed to be designed to cope with their specific needs. 

Sainsbury's employees impersonated a stir-fry to help develop a new product concept: adopting the roles of the spatula, cooking oil and various ingredients. By doing so they realized that the timing of adding each ingredient was key to cooking a perfect meal and changed their product design accordingly.

Planners constantly work with emotions, like freedom, bravery, disgust and fear, yet typically only engage with them on a conceptual level. Method actors use the Affective Memory technique to relive moments from their past when they experienced a strong emotional state and then trigger those feelings so they can imbue them into a character’s behaviours more authentically. This approach could allow us to appreciate the emotions we work with more deeply to create more meaningful, passionate and authentic brands.

How could you deliver more empathetic, relevant experiences by going beyond observing and listening to your audience to experiencing their lives first-hand? Living off the same income? Working their jobs? Re-enacting their media diets? How could these experiences be built into your organization’s standard practices?  

How often do you or your team experience your brand in the real world? When was the last time you imagined being your product for a day or physically enacted being your product to uncover unique perspectives about its relationship with the world around it? 

How could you experience the emotions you’re aiming to evoke so you can imbue them into your brand more effectively? How can you make your team feel the brand’s emotions themselves? If you want your brand to evoke tear jerking nostalgia, how could you help your team experience this emotional state? If you want your brand to be ‘The Jester’ how can you make your team laugh?

These are just a few of many Method Acting techniques marketers could be using to enhance their own performance.

The Oscars never fail to inspire me. I’m excited that this year they’ve sparked a curiosity far beyond which films to add to my watch list.

I would love to hear from anyone who is already blending the world of acting and branding, especially if you have examples and experiences of applying The Method or similar techniques in your brand and communications work. Lastly, if you’re inspired to give any of these a try ‘Break a leg’ and let me know how it goes!

Oliver Gibson

Image Credit: Chris Murray

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