A marketer’s tribute to Christopher Nolan

A marketer’s tribute to Christopher Nolan

12th February 2015

If you love cinema, as I do, then you probably agree with me that the first two months of the year are an endless series of not-to-miss-events: festivals like Sundance or Berlinale and awards of all kinds as the BAFTAs, the SAG Awards, the awards of the Writer’s Guild of America, and of course, the Academy Awards.

No! Quiet! It is not my intention to write a new post on how the movie industry uses online marketing to promote itself. Nor it is my intention to write an updated version of my post about how the so-called Red Carpet Economy is one of the most important assets of the entertainment industry.

No, the post you are about to read is a (semi) serious tribute to a director – Christopher Nolan – who people like us marketers should take as source of inspiration.

Christopher Nolan, who rightly is considered as the most serious heir to Stanley Kubrick, not only is a great director able to craft stunning visual stories, but he has the very rare ability of developing very intellectual yet surprising and emotional storytelling.

However, for a marketer like me, the way he uses the cinema tool-set is an almost infinite source of inspiration for how to think about my work.

And the Academy Awards members are stupid for ignoring his value, as they did with (again) Kubrick in the past.

Inception, or about the marketer’s mission

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.


What is an idea?

“A thought”, this is what the dictionary laconically says. Then, it immediately adds “an idea is also a suggestion as to a possible course of action”.

Nevertheless, maybe due to my old philology studies, I prefer the etymological meaning of “idea” as: “An abstract archetype of a given thing, compared to which real-life examples are seen as imperfect approximations”.

Abstract archetype of a given thing… isn’t this what we work with every day as marketers? Personas are nothing that an abstract archetype of a given thing, and – even if we excel in data mining – they will be always too perfect to truly express that imperfect approximation that reality is.

It is in there, in being imperfect, where maybe the secret of real marketing resides.

Because people are imperfect, and – even if people tend to desperately seek for perfection looking at role models (and Brands can be role models), too much perfection tends to be perceived as artificial.

The most successful Brands are those ones able to set themselves on the same fallible one-to-one level with the audience: “I am like you… and I am your friend”.

If Brands want that the projected idea of themselves become friend of their audience, they need to be social.

For this reason, big Brands enthusiastically embraced Social Media in a way that they never did, for instance, with SEO, thought of as a mechanistic form of reaching those same audiences.

Archetypes. Universal patterns of thoughts… they all influence us; just think to the psychology of colors and you will understand what I mean.

Brands work with archetypes. The best brands do it consciously; the less good ones unconsciously.

The most common used archetype figure is the Hero.

The customer is the hero who is facing difficulties that could get him out of his ideal society, but – thanks to the intervention of a deus ex machina (the Brand) – he manages to get that object (the product), thanks to which it will be reintegrated in the society and will reaffirm his status as a hero. Apple, but in general every big brand in retail, fashion and technology, is a clear example of this kind of hero.

Alternatively, the hero is the Brand, a compassionate hero, who attracts a fellowship of other heroes (the customers) thanks to the common values and vision they share. Bearbrand, Betabrand, Lego or Codeacademy can be considered heroes of this kind.

Those are the two archetypal storytelling plots every Brand use, even if we could find others classic archetypes used (but this could be the subject of another post).

Inception, the establishment of something… an idea, which leads to an assumption, which ends in an action or a series of actions.

The best marketing (commercial, politic and ethic) is all about this; the rest is just tools. The marketers, when they fail, fail because they start considering the tools the meaning of their job.

Incepting ideas using archetypes spread socially, this is how we could über synthesize our mission as marketers.

The Brand is the Hero, who reaches the other heroes of the story – the customers – being one of them, becoming their ideal representation of themselves, leading them into a perfected representation of their world and incepting the idea that for making that shared world real, they should use all the representations of that world the Brand produces: the products.

However, be aware that the incepted idea must flourish in the consciences of the customers as if it was their own idea, or the dream (the marketing campaign) will collapse.

The Prestige, or about marketers as magicians

Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge; the magician shows you something ordinary.

The second act is called the turn, the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary.

But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it BACK. Now you’re looking for the secret.

But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.

the prestige

People is simpler than we think and people want to believe.

Even if you are shilly-shalling, remember that skeptics are a minority, and I dare say that skeptics in reality want to believe too.

Every great marketing campaign somehow follows the three acts described in The Prestige:

  1. It takes an ordinary thing, a product not so different from any other of the same kind (a smartphone, a tablet, a sneaker…);
  2. It turns it into something extraordinary;
  3. It makes people want to believe in that extraordinary magic.

The best Brands connect with their audiences in an almost subliminal way. Either we are for Nike or we are for Adidas, and not because Nike’s or Adidas’ sneakers have some considerable difference, but because those two brands represent two different ways of looking at the world, and we (usually) unconsciously agree with one or the other.

And to do it marketers act like magicians (not wizards): analyze, test, launch, verify, optimize and relaunch.

We use a very complex set of tools, architect the infrastructure without which the prestige would not be possible, and we try to make everything run in synchronicity. If a campaign fails, the reason must usually be found in one of those three phases:

  1. Misuse of the tools (i.e.: an incorrect interpretation of the data);
  2. Failing architecture (i.e.: an infographic not optimized for mobile displays);
  3. Loss of synchronicity (i.e.: a poor outreach plan or a disassociated Social Media reinforcement). Here you can find some very good case histories, both positive and negative.

In that sense marketing is magic. It’s a shame many confuse magic with esoteric sorcery.

Memento, or a metaphor of reverse engineering

Leonard Shelby: There are things you know for sure.

Natalie: Such as?

Leonard Shelby: I know what that’s going to sound like when I knock on it. I know that’s what going to feel like when I pick it up. See? Certainties. It’s the kind of memory that you take for granted.


In Memento we see the same story narrated from two different directions:

  1. Forward, as we follow the main character trying to discover who killed his wife;
  2. Backwards, as we rebuild the story of the main character from the closest to the latest sequence of his broken memory.

Leonard, the protagonist of Memento, suffers from short-memory loss, therefore – in order to not forget important things every time he falls asleep, he writes notes using every possible medium, including his own body.

Don’t we do somehow the same when auditing a site or trying to understand how something works in Google?

We start from the last visible evidence, with no memory or knowledge of what happened before (well, also because many times our clients don’t know that either), and dig up endlessly until we discover the “killer” reason, the killer factor, but with the uncertainty that what we discovered may not be ultimately true.

Our experiments are our notes and every single testimony – call it patents or some of the rare and not-nonsensical public declarations of some Googlers – is dissected. In neither case was it the infamous school bio-lab frog.

This is why we do correlation studies (some doing them better than others) and this why one of the most common things marketers agree with is that they agree to disagree with others marketers.

Leonard, then, suffers a mental disease, which could be considered another metaphor of our industry: short-term memory. Citing another classic movie, isn’t for that reason that so many times it seems we are living in an eternal Groundhog Day? An update follows the other or a new hip tactic is followed by another, and every time we live the same hysteria.

Interstellar, or us vs. Google

We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known.

We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.


Look at the image here above. It is taken from the sequence when the spaceship is approaching the wormhole close to Saturn.

What we see in the wormhole is the vision of the other side of the tunnel distorted by gravity.

Apart from being the most credible representation of a wormhole ever made until now (in this great infographic by Space.com you can find more curiosities about the science of Interstellar), that image is also a great metaphor we can use when thinking about our relationship with Google.

We are the astronauts approaching the Google-wormhole with our daily job, but the only vision we have of Google and how it works is distorted. We know there are other planets, galaxies, interstellar gas clouds (call them “factors” if you want, or algorithms), but everything we have is so distorted that we cannot say we really know what we will find on the other side of the tunnel, no matter how much we study Google.

But Interstellar can be considered considered an allegory of our job as SEOs, if we watch it through our perspective.

In fact it says that although imperfect is our knowledge, if we are not brave in our decisions we may are not be able to save ourselves. We must risk, we must dare to know.

However, we must be able to understand that technology (the technical side of our job) without sentiment (the marketing side of it), won’t make us able to really communicate with our audience.

interstellar 2

Hey! You forgot the Batman Trilogy!

Well… and other Christopher Nolan movies too.

However Batman is the only super hero (Iron Man apart), who does not have any super power but fights crime thanks to his intelligence and the incredible tools (his weapons, Batmobile et all) he has access to: what SEO has not secretly thought at least once in his life to be him when “fighting” Google?


Written By
Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.
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