In this TCS exclusive, we’re featuring a guest post from the content guru, Ann Handley. Ann is a writer, speaker, and the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs. This post is an excerpt from her brand-new Everybody Writes: Your New and Improved Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.
You might know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a stop-motion animated special that streams on various networks around the holidays. Or maybe you know the words to the song that plays on loop in elevators and in retailers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
But before Rudolph became famous through television and his theme song and a verified Instagram account (just kidding about that last one)… Rudolph was a viral marketing program for a then-major U.S. retailer. Well, “viral” in 1939 terms.
A Quick Recap of the Rudolph Story
Rudolph is a young reindeer buck born in the North Pole with an unusual superpower: a red nose that glows. It’s bright as a headlamp.
Yet no one celebrates Rudolph or his headlamp of a nose. He is mocked by his peers. His flight coach casts him out of the squad. His parents are embarrassed by him.
Only a hot young doe named Clarice shows him any kindness.
Then one Christmas Eve, heavy fog threatens to ground Santa and his sleigh full of toys. A skinny, cranky Santa gathers together the community of North Pole elves and reindeer, intending to deliver the bad news: The reindeer can’t fly through the fog! Christmas will be canceled!
Yet as he starts to address the group, Santa is annoyed by a glow… Of what? What is that?
It’s Rudolph’s bright nose, burning Santa’s retinas like a welding torch. Santa lifts his scrawny arm to shield his eyes.
But as he does, he realizes that the nose—Rudolph’s nose!—is bright enough to cut through the fog! Rudolph could lead the reindeer sleigh team! His nose will be the beacon lighting the way!
“You in?” Santa asks.
“Sure,” Rudolph responds.
Rudolph saves Christmas for Santa and for children worldwide.
(Side note: the story of an adolescent deer who is shamed and bullied by his community until he had something everyone wants is problematic, when you think about it. But set that aside while we talk through the structure.)
The Marketing Original Story
Robert L. May was a copywriter working at the Montgomery Ward & Co., a Chicago-based department store. Montgomery Ward exists today only as an online retailer. (It closed its last store in 2001.) But in 1939, it was as nearly as ubiquitous as Target is today; it had 556 locations scattered around the U.S.
One day early in 1939, Robert’s boss beckons him to his office at Montgomery Ward headquarters. Marketing wants an in-store giveaway to boost foot traffic during that year’s Christmas season, he tells Robert.
Families visiting the Montgomery Ward in-store Santas would get a copy for free, the boss explains; Marketing hopes the allure of the story and the free-book promotion would boost holiday sales more than the generic coloring books Montgomery Ward Santas usually passes out to kids.
Robert wrote the story. And that Christmas season, his original story about the underdog (underdeer?) named Rudolph did go viral: 2.4 million copies of the book were distributed for free to 2.4 million shoppers.
Product Storytelling Framework
So why do I say the Rudolph story is a perfect product storytelling framework for all of us today?
Let’s look at Rudolph through a marketing storytelling lens.
The problem. It might seem at first that the “problem” is Rudolph’s bright, cursed headlamp of a nose. Rudolph is bullied, cast out, excommunicated from the community because of it.
But it’s not the red nose that’s the real problem: It’s the fog on Christmas Eve. The fog is the real, immediate problem—and it’s Santa’s problem. Not Rudolph’s.
>> Every story needs conflict. What’s the audience’s problem?
Why now? What’s the incident that brings the conflict to life? Fog any other night isn’t a big deal. But on Christmas Eve…? When North Pole Air Traffic Control grounds all reindeer? It’s a very big problem.
>> What makes your story relevant and in need of a solution right here, right now?
The solution is Rudolph, of course. Yet resolution of the problem is framed not in how perfect the solution is on its own, but in the good it does worldwide.
>> How does a solution help an immediate problem for the benefit of others?
The community. Rudolph is a hero to Santa and the North Pole elves, of course. But also he lifts up a bigger community:
The Island of Misfit Toys is Siberia to all the weird and psychologically broken toys that aren’t perfect enough to be delivered by Santa. Herbie is the Christmas elf who wants to reject his elf toy-maker genetics and become a dentist. The Abominable Snowman isn’t really mean—just misunderstood.
All of those creatures together are a powerful metaphor for community, where like-minded people live and thrive. In the story, Rudolph becomes everyone’s hero, saving Christmas while also bringing acceptance to misunderstood misfits and lovable weirdos. (And aren’t we all weird?)
>> What’s the story you can tell that elevates an entire community? What’s a specific story that chronicles one person or idea, but nonetheless has broader, universal appeal?
Resolution. Rudolph saves Santa. He saves Christmas. He changes people’s minds about scary snowmen and dentists. And Clarice kisses him.
We root for Rudolph the underdog. That’s why we need to see the kiss Clarice gives him.
Celebrate the real hero. The story is about Rudolph, but it’s Santa who is the real hero. Santa gets all the credit for recognizing Rudolph’s special skill and tapping it. Santa makes children worldwide happy when they wake up on Christmas morning to a ridiculous bounty—once again!
The “product” here is Rudolph.
The “customer” is Santa.
The product makes the customer the hero.
* * *
Mapping this story more simply:
Once upon a time, there was Rudolph.
He has the capacity to light up a room.
Some people doubt it because he’s not like the others.
But one day, there’s a terrible fog.
Which means Santa needs him.
To help the kids believe in the magic of Christmas.
And that matters because Christmas would otherwise be canceled.
Which brings together a community of misfits and North Pole elves.
Someone gets a kiss.
* * *
We can apply The Rudolph Framework to our businesses, too.
It can help us tell a product story through a larger lens.
It can help us identify our own “foggy Christmas eve” moment: Why is your product or service so critical now?
And most important, it reminds us of the true hero: Our customer.
How To Apply The Rudolph Framework to Your Product
A fill-in-the-blank template
copyright Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
1. Once upon a time, there was ____________ (your product).
2. It has the capacity to _____________ (your product’s superpower).
3. Some people doubt it because __________ (what the doubters might claim).
4. But one day, _________ (something happens).
5. Which means __________ (your would-be customer now needs this).
6. For _______ (whom does your customer serve?)
7. And that matters because ________________ (how your customer becomes the hero).
8. Someone gets a kiss.
Give it a go!
Want more from Rudolph and Ann? Get your copy of Everybody Writes (the 10% funnier version) to learn more useful frameworks and formulas from content marketing’s favorite pantsuit queen.