Classic literature isn’t just full of influential character archetypes, eerily prescient fictions and imagination-sparking adventures — it’s also a great resource for marketers.
Sound strange? Think about it: marketers need to know how people think, and great authors understand human nature better than anyone.
So if you have a shelf at home creaking with dust-covered tomes from times gone by, you might want to think about giving it some attention. Take your old favorites down, clean them up, and see what insights you can pry from their yellowing pages.
Let’s get things moving by drawing some valuable lessons from some of history’s biggest hitters. And don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar — I’ll provide some context. (If you’re concerned about spoilers, well, you’ve had your chance to read them. It’s been long enough!).
The Great Gatsby
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The story of a man who fabricates a perfect life to win back his old love, The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest works on longing, and is beautiful in its dense poignancy. This can be seen in its famous humdinger of an ending, as quoted above, which is a goldmine for writing creative copy and boosting sales.
The Marketing Lesson: Sell People on the Future You’ll Deliver
We’re forever looking for some perfect version of the future that we dreamed up in the past. We might recognize on a rational level that fairytale endings are generally restricted to children’s books, but that isn’t how we feel — and our feelings run the show.
As such, don’t just sell people on what you can offer them today. Sell them on what kind of future they’ll have if you they use your product or service. They want to believe in a future that has their problems solved.
By identifying people’s desired outcomes (their equivalent of the green light that Gatsby gazes hopefully upon), marketers can carefully tweak their sales copy to deliver maximum impact.
To Kill a Mockingbird
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
In covering extremely serious topics, To Kill A Mockingbird advocates empathy and independent thought. This is shown in the sad events of the central trial, and made explicit in the above words that Atticus Finch (a lawyer of great conviction) offers to his daughter.
The Marketing Lesson: Empathize with Your Audience, and Adapt Accordingly
We’re all trapped by our personal perspectives, and we need empathy to help us understand one another. Imagining what it is like to be someone else will help you know them, communicate ideas to them, and ultimately sell to them.
As you come to know what hurts your audience and what gives them joy, you can send the message that you’ll alleviate the former and deliver the latter. You should also get feedback from existing customers, because that data will help you iterate and attract new customers.
If you find an issue, fix it, and tell your audience “Hey, we’re listening, we’ve made things better for you”. It’ll show others that you care about delivering quality, just as Atticus Finch cared about advocating for his clients.
It might seem like an odd comparison, given that the business world contains no shortage of cynical exploitation, but plenty of companies genuinely do care about providing great products and services that will make their users’ lives easier. Let that passion show in your marketing.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“"[The sorting hat] only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "because I asked not to go in Slytherin…"
"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."”
As odd as it may seem, I feel that enough time has passed (and enough of a cultural impression has been left) to class the Harry Potter series as classic literature, and my thoughts often stray to this great bit of reassurance from everyone’s favorite kindly magical headteacher.
The Marketing Lesson: Allow People to Make Meaningful Choices
We can’t all be exactly who we want to be, but we can choose how we direct our lives and, in the end, that’s even more important; we feel better when we make the choices that we intuitively feel are the right ones.
By giving people opportunities to make meaningful choices that are presented in a way that lends them grander significance, you can get them to take action much more readily. Here are a few ways in which you can make an option more compelling:
- Ethically. If your company operates in an ethical way, or even engages in charitable activities, a prospective customer will feel better about choosing your product or service. (Gryffindor is considered the house of heroes.)
- Socially. Glowing reviews, testimonials and usage statistics will give the impression that choosing your product or service will help them fit in with the rest of society. (Harry has always heard great things about Gryffindor.)
- Comparatively. Everyone enjoys feeling like a savvy consumer. The last time I built a website, I read a detailed site builder study first, and felt justified in my final pick. If you offer several product types or service tiers, your customers will feel empowered. (In isolation, Gryffindor sounds good. Next to Slytherin, it sounds amazing.)
If you can make it feel meaningful to take the action you’re suggesting, your customers won’t just be more numerous— they’ll actually be more likely to view you in a positive way because of that initial association with self-determination.
I went with these books and these extracts because I’m familiar with them, but there’s no shortage of viable contenders from throughout human history. Any story you care to read, factual or fictional, has something to say on how people think, feel, and act, and it’s all information that can be dissected to yield actionable sales tactics.
So give these marketing ploys a try, and the next time you feel like settling down for an afternoon with Don Quixote, why not make some notes as you read? You might just find a stroke of promotional genius in the adventures of a silly man who fancies himself a knight!
Author: Half-Finnish, half-British marketer based in the UK. I love to write and explore themes like ephemeral content and experiential marketing. I manage a small team of writers at a boutique agency.