When I was 13, my dad took my brother and me to see Finding Nemo. At the time, I watched it for pure entertainment. But since then, I’ve come to see how the film was a pivotal work for Pixar: A studio that at one time simply made animated movies for kids suddenly became renowned for its masterful storytelling and meticulous pieces of animated art.
With Finding Dory now out (and my advance tickets already bought), here are a few lessons that we can take from Pixar for great brand storytelling.
Even a fish can forge a strong emotional connection
Pixar characters may be toys, fish or robots, but they think and behave in ways we can relate to. Story artist Emma Coats put it this way when she tweeted 22 rules of Pixar storytelling in 2013: “If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.” It also establishes an important emotional connection. When Ratatouille the rat manipulated a human chef to achieve his own dream of cooking at a fine restaurant, we related because we could see ourselves in him. The same is true in branding: A great brand is like a well-formed character, with internal qualities, an external appearance and a meaningful relationship with an audience. Brands that build emotional rapport and focus on what is important to that audience will always be perceived as more authentic.
Storytelling is more than just words
WALL-E runs 40 minutes before any dialogue begins, and even then the entire 104-minute movie has about two lines of human language. It’s an example of visual storytelling at its best, drawing in the audience emotionally without relying on words. Similarly, the first 10 minutes of UP captures a sequence of raw emotion that progresses from light-hearted playfulness to inspiring love to tragic loss, all without any dialogue. If you didn’t cry watching it, you’re probably not human.
By choosing not to use dialogue, creators can tell stories in compelling new ways—through visuals, colour, hierarchy of information—that can be even more powerful than word-driven narrative. “The lift of an eyebrow, however faint, may convey more than a hundred words” – The Art of Wall·E, Tim Hauser
Grow with the audience
About 40% of Toy Story 3’s audience was 17- 24 year olds. Why? Because Pixar cannily created a movie that would appeal to kids while also attracting the millennials who’d grown up watching the franchise. Having seen the original Toy Story in 1995 as children, millennials packed theatres in 2010 when the new movie came out. They wanted to watch Andy pack up his toys, leave home and go to college, just as they were doing in their own lives.
Monsters University offers another example of Pixar’s smart strategic timing. Its predecessor, Monsters Inc., came out in 2001, when my brother was eight. Flash-forward to 2013, when Monsters University came out. My brother and his friends, now 20 and in university, were keen to see a sequel that offered a relatable view of college life, complete with an EDM-fueled party and an unexpectedly adult ending. In both examples the audience not only relates to the plot but to the films’ characters as well.
Pixar’s respect for the children who grew up with its movies, and who probably still watch them, prevents its franchise films from feeling like tired sequels. And by timing their releases strategically, they extend the potential audience of a film, growing the fan base by engineering a story that will connect meaningfully with viewers of different ages.
If the perfect medium doesn’t exist, create it
Toy Story was the first full-length, 3D computer-animated movie and a milestone for animation. Later on, Pixar created its own software platform to manage projects throughout the production process because its storytellers didn’t want to be limited by external programs that curbed creative potential. That approach has led to Presto, a program Pixar built while it worked on Brave, as well as a library of real-time rendering and modeling tools. Purpose-built mediums can help streamline important creative processes and create superior results.
Pixar didn’t accept the idea that it couldn’t make stories the way it wanted to, so it found a new way to do it — that took it to infinity and beyond.