The Art Of Marketing: Story Telling Lessons From A Civil War Battlefield

Images tell storiesIt’s 89 degrees, the sun is glaring and 10,000 men and woman wearing wool are standing in the direct sun of an open field with no shade. No, this isn’t a nightmare, it is a live reenactment of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and thousands of us are standing in the same sweltering sun watching history unfold before our eyes.

As I sip, now very warm water, looking around at the crowd it strikes me as fascinating. My husband is a civil war re-enactor so I spend a lot of time talking with him and his peers to understand why they chose not only to re-enact battles, but to camp out in period tents, cook on an open fire and go without showers for days. The ability to acceptably play solider as an adult aside, the men and woman who re-enact history do so to memorialize the war and to honor those who came before them. These tributes take unimaginable coordination and dedication. Those of us who get to watch are engrossed because of the experience that surround us. We learn more because we are a part of the story, not simply reading it.

Believe it or not, surrounded by cannon fire, tick infested tall grasses and in desperate need of ice water my marketing senses were tingling. Marketers can learn a lot from the art of re-enacting. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Authenticity Counts – If you have ever attended a living history event you’ll note one thing instantly. Participants become their character from every button and buckle, to their posture, hair style and even way of speaking. We believe and learn because the experience is authentic. Re-enactors are doing much more than dressing up and “playing” soldier. They study history. They know the facts. They live the context – building fences, marching for miles and sleeping on the ground.  We must do the same with our products and services. How will our customers use our products? Are you describing your capabilities and benefits with complete authentic context?

Plan Ahead – We don’t always know when we introduce a new product to market how people will use its features, but we do our best to anticipate the needs of our buyers and build in facilities to accommodate them and make change easy to implement. We build flexible platforms that let us grow. These soldiers do the same. They set up sutlers to sell authentic food, they stock plenty of water and despite it’s lack of authentic history they make sure plenty of port-a-pottys are around to contain the mess!

Honor Your Heros – Who are the leaders in your field? How can you bring their lessons to life? Listening to “Abraham Lincoln” read the Gettysburg address is so much more powerful than reading it in a book. Why? Because it honors the man, not just the words. Can you record a video interview with a “hero” of your own? What customer support rock star deserves a blog of their own? Heros come in all shapes, size, roles and locations. What’s important is that you make it easy for your audience to honor their wisdom.

Make It Interactive – My favorite part of any re-enactment event is watching the soldiers and period civilians interact with passers-by. They tip hats, answer all kinds of questions and tell stories. But they also do more. They encourage you to taste period food. They teach you how to load a cannon. They hold signal flag lessons for adults and kids alike. We learn when we watch. We learn when we listen. We even learn when we read. But we become when we are absorb with touch, feel, sound and sight all at once. Go ahead – let your audience touch, feel, test and enjoy what you have to offer.

Encourage Your Evangelists – Let’s face it. We know the outcome of the Gettysburg battles. The Union soldiers hold the high ground and while a turning point the war goes on for two more years. These re-enactments don’t draw thousands because of the plot line is a surprise. They draw an audience because thousands of historian evangelists passionately tell their story – both well-known, and with lest often heard tidbits. They in fact ARE the story. At every organization you have passionate story tellers. Give them wings and unleash the power of their enthusiasm through writing, speaking, blogging, video, cartoons whatever drives them – it truly can be contagious.

Maximize Sharing – At Gettysburg you can take pictures and record as much video as you want. You are encouraged to share what you learn with anyone who might be interested despite it being an expensive hobby for participants. Ticket sales help fund the next battle, but they know first hand if you are swept up in the moment your engrossed images and experiences will encourage others to attend. Whether you are in line for the shuttle or in the first row of spectator stands these living historians want you to share what you are learning more than anything else. At your next event give them something to take pictures of — where it is a funny picture they can place their face into, or a famous author signing books. The more your audience wants images, the more likely they are to spread the word.

All in all, I learned a lot on the battlefields of Gettysburg. I’m struck by the challenges of face to face battle conditions, horrified by the amputations and limited medical treatment the injured suffered and struck by the honor and bravery of a time gone past. Civil War re-enactors bring history alive through their dedication to preserve and their passion to play. The experience made we want to be better. May all of our story telling be as compelling, even if less “big”, reminders of what our customers gain by engaging with our offerings.