Our festive list of Elf-inspired marketing tips

Our festive list of Elf-inspired marketing tips teaser

Date published 16 Dec 2021

Season’s greetings. Are we all sitting comfortably? Now that Christmas is upon us, so is the slew of schlocky movies. Our streaming services and feeds are full of them. Most feel like a weird 90-minute clash of the Hallmark Christmas card section and ads for festive food and casualwear. Style (of some kind) over film-making substance.

Before I sound too Grinch-like, if our loungeroom at home is anything to go by, many of you will move away from the schmalz of Christmas movies present and get your festive viewing fix from Christmases past.

For our family, this means Elf. And we’re not alone. Elf is frequently listed in the top 10 Christmas movies of all time. It has also inspired several spin-offs, including a Broadway musical and a cartoon version. Elf’s success is made even more impressive by the fact that it’s director, Jon Favreau, was a relative newcomer and largely unknown for directing at the time of Elf’s production.

As with many a fine film, there’s quite a story to tell in its making. And there are some parallels – seasonal gifts as it were – for those of us in marketing to reflect upon.

Remembering where you came from
The emergence of Elf was testament to the tenacity of its original screenwriter, David Berenbaum. A 10-year period of seeking movie-making backers and adding nuances to the tale (while defending key story attributes) elapsed between script and screen. Berenbaum’s family experiences, which informed the story, focused his passion and belief in the message. It was a story he felt had to be told.

The marketing takeout?
 
For smaller brands especially, remembering the origins and motivations of why the business emerged in the first place is very important in guiding decision-making, as the business seeks to grow and develop. Vary off-track and you risk eroding what made you successful and appealing to customers in the first place.

Committing to a distinctive direction…
The aesthetic of Elf has its origins in some of America’s most well-loved cartoons of the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, the seasonal productions of Rankin/Bass, who combined stop-motion animation techniques with a captivating creative direction, leaving an imprint on the minds of children at the time, not least Berenbaum. Berenbaum and Favreau were exacting in their commitment to this look and feel throughout Elf, stirring the feeling of nostalgia from parents, while introducing a contemporary appeal through the movie’s current-day setting.

The angle for marketing?
Brand recognition and distinctiveness really matter. Creating communications that people associate clearly with your brand – logos, colours, music – integrated within a creative idea that stands out, play an important role in people remembering your brand when they need it.

… but being open to use it in fresh and creative ways

Berenbaum was also smart in understanding what within the story could flex and what was non-negotiable. Although the message remained largely the same, the tone of the story evolved quite significantly in production, becoming more light-hearted in nature. Both director and lead actors – especially Will Ferrell as elf Buddy – shaped elements of the screenplay, introducing a humour and quirkiness absent in the original concept.

The takeaway here is that while distinctive assets should be sacrosanct and enduring, it does not mean the creative idea or “wrapping” must replicate this. From time to time, fresh ways of communicating a brand’s positioning (involving the brand’s assets) can serve to refresh and renew the brand in people’s minds.

Adhering to your brand positioning
Favreau was not shy when it came to making tough decisions. Despite the possibilities and practicalities afforded by computer generated imagery (CGI) in some scenes, it was felt the movie’s charm and authenticity would be lost in the world of bits and bytes.

And so, some of Elf’s most striking scenes were created. Complex set builds employing forced-perspective, or optical illusion, construction techniques ensured that Will Ferrell as Buddy was seen as a relative giant among his fellow elves, without the artifice of CGI.

Based on his paternal experiences and observation, Favreau also tailored some of Buddy’s storylines and behaviours to reflect those of his own child. This nuance was central to creating some of the most humorous scenes between Buddy and his father as they try to reconcile their differences.

Adhering to your brand positioning is the takeaway here. Ensure you are faithful to your brand and don’t risk diluting it. Each piece of communication should serve to reinforce it. A new or innovative tactic may introduce some benefits to the brand, but if it compromises or is unauthentic in relation to the brand’s overall positioning, the tactic may do more harm than good.

Welcoming divergent voices and opinions
The production of the movie was characterised by an undercurrent of tension. Frostiness was felt in the off-screen exchanges between actors as much as it was seen on the set backdrops. But rather than being a force of disruption, the tension between the actors helped accentuate the frustration, anger and ultimately affection in the storyline, influencing the memorable exchanges between the actors.

Teams and structures that encourage binary or very similar thinking references often close the door to debate, possibilities and ideas that lead to progress. Discomfort on the other hand – be it in the form of creative tension or divergent thinking – in a marketing context is often the key to bringing out the best performance in a group environment.

So, there we have it, the gift of Elf keeps on giving. Time for one more viewing this festive season?

See you in 2022.

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