When I say I had the pleasure of working with the Muppets last week as they hosted two Just For Laughs Galas, I say so in the most extreme form of understatement. Watching my childhood unfold and come to life not merely in front of my eyes but being able to touch and converse with it, well...there's a moment for the ages. (Check out this very thorough recount of the shows by one major Muppet maven.)
The lessons of professionalism and hard work (learned a new term: "Hands down!" as in puppeteers letting their hands drop for rest during strenuous rehearsal sessions) were many, but none more staggering than the power of a strong identity.
The people who bring the Muppets to life literally live the characters; their faces and body language below reflect the persinality they breathe into the characters above. Check the photo below of our writing team taking a picture with "Fozzie Bear" and note the similar facial expressions between the beloved furry comic and his human partner.
Said power of identity was profoundly on display each time a new Muppet character made its way onto our Gala stage. The arrival of Animal, Miss Piggy, The Swedish Chef, Bunsen and Beaker, Fozzie Bear et al were met with squeals and shrieks from fans of all ages, but the eruption of Beatlemania-esque joy when Kermit The Frog stuck his head through a red curtain and yelped "It's the Muppet All-Star Gala!" was unlike anything I've ever experienced in three decades at Just For Laughs.
Each character was unique, easily identifiable and most importantly, had some personality trait that resonated with its fan base. Everyone had at least one Muppet to which he or she related to in some personal manner.
The precision definition of each character was a godsend to our creative team, making it (relatively) easier for them to write and create situations for them. Knowing who a character is, what his/her voice is (both figuratively and literally) simplifies the arduous task of writing to it...and against it, for comedic effect.
Great character definition puts things into stark black-and-white contrast. There are no grey zones. A Kermit line is different from a Gonzo line is different from a Miss Piggy line is different from a Pepe the King Prawn line. There is no crossover...except if you want to mix things up for comic purposes.
The sheer beauty of this is that the gold that comes from the mouths of these characters would be considered cliched or cornball if uttered by a human. Consider this intro that Rowlf the Dog delivered for comedian Tom Papa:
"Our next act is Tom Papa, and I've been told that he don't preach, he was a rollin' stone and after he went shopping today, he's got a brand new bag. Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Papa."
You or me or Howie Mandel or Lewis Black say that and people roll their eyes. Rowlf says it and people roar. Clear, strong identities make an "okay" line "good"; a "good" line "great"; and a "great" line Incredible,"
Such is the benefit of creating powerful, unique characters.
Before I wrap this up in a business context, consider the genius of Jim Henson. He created not just one world of characters--more than 30 original Muppets--but two, when you consider the dozens more from Sesame Street. (Almost as impressive are the species created by Matt Groening with The Simpsons and Seth McFarlane with Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show.)
As marketers, as business people, we are in the same boat with products or services. But luckily, we usually can narrow our focus on a spectrum that ranges from a single brand to a handful of them.
Nonetheless, becoming "identifiable characters" instead of merely brands makes it easier to write meaningful and influential advertising, makes it easier to design stores and displays and packaging, makes it easier to ultimately stand out.
The lesson from the Muppets is powerful and simple in theory, but a beast to apply:
Be uniquely recognizable.
Be immediately identifiable.
Be a character.
Or be irrelevant.