As I watched a bit of last night’s Academy Awards, I was struck by how some themes from the Best Picture nominees could be used by businesses – small and large. So, what can marketer’s learn from Oscar-winning movies?

I enjoy watching films, but don’t see too many. Of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I only saw Descendants and Moneyball. That required a bit of research for this blog, reading reviews at the New York Times, the AV Club blog and my personal favorite pop culture critics at the Pop Culture Happy Hour at NPR.

Image quote about why marketers can learn from Oscar-winning movies

So why does it matter to connect Hollywood movies to our businesses? And what can marketers learn from the Oscar-winning movies?

Movies are essentially visual stories and stories allow us to connect with other humans (real or fictional) and their experiences. Stories are a great teaching tool. A lesson disguised as a story is more easily understood. Think back to our childhood and the stories we were taught. For example, the Boy Who Cried Wolf story teaches about the importance of not telling lies.

In the business world, we use case studies – a story – to better understand business challenges and options to address those challenges from the experiences of our peers.

Peter Guber digs more into the importance of storytelling in business in his 2011 book, “Tell To Win.” (Worth the read, here is a link to the first chapter). Shameless plug, but one of the ways I separate myself from the competition is by my storytelling expertise – specifically my background as a newspaper reporter and my experience in reporting and telling more than 2,000 stories several of which were award winning.

What marketers can learn from Oscar-winning movies

So, back to those Oscars…

Let’s begin with a quote from AV club critic Tasha Robinson, “All nine films are essentially uplifting reassurances for troubled times.” This is a good reminder that regardless of how bleak or dark things may look today:

  • The past is not quite the rosy picture we remember,
  • Despite its uncertainty, tomorrow will be better so long as we continue on the right path (the trick is knowing what is the right path).

Here are 9 lessons from the 2012 Oscar-winning movies

While the movies in this post hail from the 2012 awards season, the lessons the offer are timeless for marketers and those responsible for marketing their businesses. And I suspect that we could find similar valuable lessons from Oscar-winning movies from any year (just offer to buy me a beer and we can brainstorm together).

And the nominees are:

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 1: The Artist

Change happens – be ready.

Popular silent film star George Valentin resists the transition to sound and talking movies, while up and coming young Peppy Miller embodies the modern age that leaves Valentin behind. This is a lesson straight out of Slywotzky’s Value Migration and the risk to those businesses whose tunnel vision prevents them from seeing the changes occurring around them – whether in technology, or customer expectations.

A business owner should always be thinking two or three moves ahead. Slywotzky offers some questions to ask: Who is your customer today and how has that profile changed in the last year or five years? How are customer priorities changing? What new customer groups are becoming more important? How do external shocks – from silent to talking pictures, or from a PC-based Internet experience to a mobile-based Internet experience – affect customer priorities? We have a ton of examples of companies of either side this lesson. Recently, we’re watching the end of Kodak. The New York company – which is about or more than 100 years old – is selling off thousands of patents and its camera businesses. (I would argue that the bet it is making on printers is the wrong one, especially when HP reported shrinking profits on its printer units because when you can post directly to Facebook no one is printing pictures anymore; likewise, we could argue that the end for Kodak began in 1975 when after it invented the digital camera and opted to shelve it for fear of cannibalizing its film business). We also can see how the late Steve Jobs transitioned Apple from being a computer company to being an entertainment company.

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 2: The Descendants

Look under the hood, not just at the car’s polished chrome and glossy paint job.

At first glance, you would think George Clooney’s character, Matt, has the perfect life. He is wealthy. He has a wife and two children. He lives in frigging Hawaii. But upon closer inspection, following a boating accident that leaves his wife in a coma and near death, we see that Matt’s wife has been having an affair, that he has no real relationship with his children, and that he is being pressured to turn pave paradise and make it a parking lot.

For businesses, especially those getting started, our long-term success is going to be on the fundamentals of business planning, identifying your target markets, recognizing how you differentiate from the from the competition, proper accounting and so forth. Too often, we are in a rush to get new customers and bring in revenue that we don’t take the necessary time to think through the business fundamentals. I recently attended a workshop for veteran-owned small businesses that was put on by the SBA. There was one gentleman, an Army veteran, who wants to start a food cart. But asking a few questions, it quickly became clear he didn’t know who was his target market, how he would be able to differentiate from the 700 other food carts in Portland or the thousands of other food choices (fast food, convenience stores, fancy restaurants and so forth). Those are important questions that should be answered before making any investment such as buying a food truck or inventory.

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 3: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Do your Market Research.

A young boy is dealing with his father’s Sept. 11 death in one of the World Trade towers. Among his father’s possessions, he discovers a mysterious key in an envelope marked, “Black.” He becomes convinced that finding the lock it opens will help him understand the tragedy of his father’s death.

For businesses, we believe that our product or service is so awesome and in such demand that someone is going to pay us lots of money. While that is a great starting point, it is imperative we confirm this with at least a little bit of market research. The boy in the movie identifies 472 Blacks in the phone book and sets off to interview them and see if the key belongs to them. If you think your target market is soccer moms, attorneys, or Portland hipsters then go and confirm this by a.) selling them your product or service, b.) ask them if they want to buy your product or service (and why or why not).

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 4: The Help

Customer Service starts with a smile.

I don’t want to simplify the bigger themes of race, gender and economic inequalities that this movie touches on. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, a young white Southerner convinces a group of black maids to relate their experiences working in white households. Those maids – led by the dynamic Viola Davis – know the system is screwed up; that they are the cogs that make their employers’ households run smoothly; and that they will likely never be recognized for their efforts or their equal-ness as fellow humans. Instead, they smile and keep smiling, knowing to do otherwise may cost them their job or worse.

Some of your business customers are going to be unhappy with your product or service. You are going to come across valid complaints; folks who are just having a bad day; and some total jerks. And they are going to call you out, either in person, on the phone or on the web. The lesson we can learn from The Help is to start that engagement with a smile and seek to find a resolution to their problem.

But when you come across those jerks – you should politely but firmly let them know that while you would be happy to address any problem they may have with your product or service, you will pass on doing business with them if continue to be a jerk to you. (One additional point regarding jerks is to avoid engaging in a back-and-forth discussion on the web with them. Acknowledge any problem or complaint and offer to address it offline through a phone call or meeting in person).

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 5: Moneyball

Be open to new ideas, and don’t ignore the data.

Baseball general manager Billy Beane recognizes his Oakland Athletics will never be able to compete against the deep pockets of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox in paying expensive contracts for the best ballplayers. Instead, he adopts a revolutionary concept to use a statistics-based formula for choosing potential players. But change is hard and he repeatedly told by so-called experts that his “radical” ideas will never work, even the players he’s selected don’t quite understand. The positive results he is seeking don’t occur  until he and his assistant general manager began to explain and teach the system to the players.

For businesses, we have two takeaways from Moneyball.

First, just because your business or business industry has always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way out there or at least room for improvement. Seek input from your customers and your employees on ways to improve. And pay attention to other industries or businesses that are creating or adopting new innovations. In 2006, Gary Vaynerchuk transformed his father’s New Jersey wine shop into an international business when he was an early adopter of YouTube and other social media.

The second lesson we can learn from Moneyball is the importance of collecting and analyzing the data around our businesses, and then using that data to predict future results. I got totally turned on by this concept during my statistics classes with Professor Mike Hand at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. Mike is both a baseball and statistics geek and its appropriate he’s referenced in a business statistics conversation about Moneyball.

Data analytics can be complicated, but doesn’t have to be. There are some great, easy to understand, resources at the public library. You can also tap into Internet-based resources, too. For businesses on Main Street, you can use data to see when are the days of the week or year to stay open longer, or to offer special discounts. Shoot me an email and I will be glad to discuss other ideas on how you can use data for your business.

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 6: Hugo

Be imaginative.

Hugo Cabret is a young Parisian orphan who lives hidden away in the great Gare Montparnasse train station. He seeks to find mechanical bits and pieces to reassemble a toy given to him by his late father and that he hopes by making whole will answer questions as to why he now alone. His adventures lead to creative escapes, creative partnerships and creative ways to rebuild this toy.

For businesses, you are not going to have perfect timing, products or services, market place or just about anything else. You will find that for every step forward you take, something challenge will present itself. Rather than taking two steps back, can you find creative solutions to make a course correction and sidestep or minimize those challenges?

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 7: Midnight in Paris

Quit procrastinating and accept the present for what it is. On a trip to Paris with his fiancée, a screenwriter is filled with nostalgia for the Paris of the 1920s, when artists and writers flocked to the City of Light in a celebrated period of creativity.

The business owner – like all of us – is prone to talk about how great it would be to open a second store, retire early, or quit their jobs and start a new life as an actor. In a way, this gets back to concept of planning but in this case we’re spending the time to identify our end goal. Tony Hsieh discusses this concept in Delivering Happiness, as does Tim Ferriss in his Four Hour Work Week. What would be your Vision 2020? Identify that and work backwards to create the roadmap you will need to get there.

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 8: The Tree of Life

Are you asking yourself the right questions.

The Tree of Life contemplates the meaning of life, human existence, and eternity. Sometimes – perhaps more often that we think – we should get offline and ask ourselves the hard questions about our business, our customers, our business goals and even our personal goals. I am often reminded of another movie, Staying Together (not an Academy winner). In that flick, after 25 years running a chicken restaurant, father McDermott informs his sons that he has never eaten chicken in all that time, that he hates the buggers and that he’s sold the business. In the last year, I have really learned the importance of doing what you love rather than just grinding it away.

What hard questions do you need to answer?

Oscar-Winning Movies Lesson 9: War Horse

Tell us your story, not your sales pitch.

In the War Horse, we are creatively told the story about the horrors of war through the eyes of a valiant horse. One of the reasons, Seven G Media offers its Internet Marketing Videos is because we believe this is a creative way for businesses to tell their stories.

So, what have you learned from Oscar-winning movies this year?

How are you telling your story to customers, and potential customers? Is that story authentic to you? Don’t just give us the usual elevator or sales pitches – though you need those, too. Be creative and original with your story.

Those were the lessons I pulled from the Oscar-winning movies of 2012. What would be the lessons you gleaned from this year’s crop of Oscar winners?