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  • Writer's pictureSam Birkett

Is it time to re-build the 'fourth wall of marketing'​?

Right, what on earth do I mean by this article title? Those who know me, know I love drama, acting, directing, writing and so on, which means I was itching to connect marketing and drama in some way, et voila!

Most of us have heard of it, but what is the 'fourth wall'?


  1. the space which separates a performer or performance from an audience.

  • the conceptual barrier between any fictional work and its viewers or readers.

What I mean by rebuilding the fourth wall is creating a connection with your audience that isn't trying too hard, it's natural, it's 'real', it demonstrates the best of your offering, but also its flaws - flaws that help to define the target market you're after. What do I mean by this? Well, let me use one of my favourite things, an analogy, even better, a theatrical analogy!

Let's take a pantomime, for any of my non-British or Anglophile connections, a pantomime is a traditional form of comic theatre which takes place between November - February in the UK. There are a variety of pantomime scripts which are generally based on fairy tales, the usual favourite being Cinderella. The shows involve a lot of song and dance, a hero, a villain and a dame, generally a middle-aged man dressed up as the hero's mother. The shows are built on audience participation, so no fourth wall really exists at all.

Contrast this with a classic stage drama such as Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The whole point of the play is to draw the audience in to the lives of the characters, allowing us as spectators to see all the personal struggles and hidden asides, but with no influence or interaction with the plot. If we did end up shouting to the new Mrs de Winter during the play Maxim's dark secrets, the illusion would be shattered and the play null and void.

One of the key differences between these two forms of theatre is the fourth wall, the invisible unspoken boundary that is either actively smashed and shouted down with huge amounts of energy by the characters, getting the audience booing and cheering, and the understated, consistent obliviousness of the drama's characters.

This got me to thinking about marketing in general. With all forms of marketing, especially content marketing, we create a story and invite a target audience to come in and explore with us. We extol the virtues of the products we're selling, and seek to match its life enhancing benefits with the needs of our audience. Sometimes forcibly, sometimes gently, we introduce ideas and concepts that we believe our audience will identify and wish to be associated with, all usually in a terribly positive light, highlighting why our product is the best thing our audience NEEDS in their life.

However, perhaps in the relentless pursuit of building our lead lists and converting prospects we lose sight of how we're telling our stories. Could we be missing longer-term opportunities to more subtly reveal our brand and the benefits of our products?

Joint pressures of budget and attention.

Attention is perhaps the most precious commodity in today's world of marketing preceded only by trust, and the ROI/Attribution model that works! As marketers we try hard to understand what the benefits of a product or service are, how they meet the challenges and desires of our potential audience, how we communicate this meeting of need and solution, where we communicate it, for what price, and how we measure success. In all this activity, where grabbing the attention is so critical, we are likely to fall more into the shoes of a brash pantomime performer rather than an enigmatic dramatic lead.

Does this matter?

Well, not necessarily, but I think it does need to be deeply considered, especially when you're looking to build a lasting brand and focus on the lifetime value of your customers rather than the quick sell. I also realise there are differences across sectors and markets, yet I believe a solid, enduring best practice for marketers in any sector has to be one which builds relationships not transactions. Therefore, just as we have 'evolved' marketing over the decades to a seemingly highly sophisticated, customer-centric, data-driven, scientific, yet highly creative craft, we should never lose sight of 'being real', or genuine with our audiences, and one way of doing this is revealing rather than projecting.

I know what I'm saying is hardly truly original, it relates to some of the Infinite Games principles of Simon Sinek, where we 'keep playing the game', we don't focus on the competitor, instead we focus on constantly improving what we do. Much like a play, the actor is both aware of their audience, particularly in comedy, yet if they maintain the fourth wall, they are inhabiting a world, and making this world as real/believable as possible. The better the actor concentrates on their fellow actors, and interacts in a 'real' way with them, the better the performance, and the more the audience is drawn in.

The importance of stories

As all contemporary marketeers know telling stories is an essential part of brand strategy and customer engagement. It's always been important, but perhaps it's only recently that marketers have tried to create stories in such volumes and engage audiences in such elaborate ways.

It can sometimes feel that the campaign an agency is running appears to be miles away from what it's actually trying to promote, and could be accused of being too clever for its own good. It depends on whether the emotions evoked at the centre of the story are truly connecting with an audience. Has the story telling come from the right place initially? Is it something that is focused almost exclusively on getting someone to sit up and listen? Is it more about everything the customer wants to hear, or is it relating to something deeper about why you want to engage with the customer?

So, do we just ignore our customers and show them what we do?

No, we can't just concentrate on developing our product and services and ignore our customers. How would we know what they wanted or needed in the first place? We need to have a central purpose to our organisations initially, and properly identify what they exist for and who they are serving.

If we already have a successful business that wants to branch out, do we start by simply amplifying a polished and positive message about all the wonderful things it does, or do we identify what's at the heart of why it exists, and how it's really perceived by the current audience? If we are perhaps a little more subtle and spend time engaging with customers and colleagues we can reveal the true reasons why a product or service is desirable, by what we're already doing.

A good example of how a successful brand has recently looked to reconnect with its customers is Carlsberg, we all know the famous slogan, but now we find some humility and vulnerability of a mighty brand, which actually resulted in greater sales.

'The campaign, devised by creative agency Fold7, was a declaration that Carlsberg had lost its way, an approach the brand was rightly nervous about, but that also showed how vital it is to be honest with consumers.'

The UK Marketing Director summed things up beautifully.

“We were nervous [before the launch] because we haven’t done anything like this before,” Woods explained. “We hadn’t really lifted the lid and spoken so honestly, and I don’t think many brands do, but actually we’ve been overwhelmed with the positive response.”


Are you still with me? Gosh, I hope some of this has made sense and can perhaps influence some thinking. As you can see, this isn't revolutionary, it ranges from fine tuning and adjusting for some, to a bit more of an overhaul for others. It can be summed up by asking you to concentrate on revealing the true stories you're trying to share with your audience rather than trying a little too hard to engineer a perfect fantasy. Embracing some of the imperfections and struggles we have can also help to affirm a stronger engagement.

It's hard work

It's not easy however, and by being the more subtle, quieter brand we risk getting lost in all the noise. We have to be inventive and really mean it when we invest in targeting the right audiences. We should be no less clinical in our marketing planning and campaign delivery, in fact we have to be more so, but always ensuring we stick to revealing the real story.

If we stick close to the reasons we exist as an organisation, and lift the curtain on all we're doing to deliver on that purpose, this more subtle approach will surely have the best chance in establishing lasting and meaningful relationships with our audiences.

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