Marketing's Russian Doll Strategy

Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 22, 2011

Marketers are up against it. Mass markets have fragmented into niches. One size no longer fits all. Consumers respond to customized messages or they don't respond at all. Big messages just bounce off.

In a perfect world, every brand would contain a variety of meanings, the better to speak to a variety of consumers. The trouble with stuffing the brand this way is that the meaning that works for one consumer can bewilder or antagonize the next. Building a brand with many meanings can sometimes fail spectacularly.

Everyone creating popular culture is trying to solve this question. So marketers have something to learn from non marketers. Specifically we have something to learn from Hollywood, which I believe may serve us as a kind of laboratory.

Take the TV show called Psych (USA Networks, Wednesday, 10:00). The creators and producers, Steve Frank, Chris Henze, and Kelly Kulchak, struck on an ingenious way to solve the "many markets" problem. They nested a variety of shows within this show, the better to speak to a variety of audiences.

In effect, Psych is a series of Russian matryoshka dolls.

The biggest doll is a classic Who Done It. Every episode of Psych begins with a crime and it ends with a solution. The criminal is caught. The crime is solved. This is the outermost layer of the show. It is big and easy. No matter how tired I am, I can follow the details.

The second doll is a Buddy Picture. Spencer and Gus (the two leads) are childhood friends who now run a psychic detective agency. This too is pretty standard stuff. We've all seen hundreds of pictures from this genre. We know the drill.

The third doll is a Caper Picture. As Spencer and Gus acting as buddies pursue Who Done It, mayhem and chaos ensues. This too is well known territory, although rarely coupled with the Who Done It and the Buddy Picture.

The fourth doll is word play. And now things get a little more complicated. Psych dialogue is witty and sometimes difficult. It depends on turns of phrase and logic. The listener has to be on his or her toes. Occasionally I have to hit "replay."

The doll at the center of things is Spencer's making sometimes-obscure references, as if under his breath, to other popular culture artifacts. Some of this is wickedly clever and will test even the most passionate fan's knowledge of TV and movies.

The last two dolls are dispatched so quietly and swiftly that it hardly matters if we don't quite catch it. It's just Spencer muttering comically to himself or Gus. What did he say? Who knows? Who cares? Let the games continue.

In effect, Psych is five messages. If we are very tired or not very bright, we can tune in for the Who Done It. We don't need to see the other dolls . . . and that's OK. The more alert and intelligent we are, the more deeply we can find our way to the other, deeper dolls.

The genius of the Psych approach is that it manages to speak to smart without alienating (or antagonizing) dumb. It can speak to demanding audiences without offending undemanding audiences. It can stay broad for maximum audience and go narrow for maximum engagement. Psych is at once easy and companionable, and witty and interesting.

And this makes the show a small communications miracle.

Psych can teach us something. It has found a way to insinuate almost coded (or concealed) messages into the show. Those who don't quite get it don't really mind. Those who do get it love the show and the characters for daring to beam a secret message in open air.

The question is how brands can take a page from the Psych playbook. As marketers we have no choice: we must create a Russian doll strategy of our own.