What Tom Hanks Taught Me About Customer Intimacy and Keeping our Brand Promise

You’re not expecting to learn about customer intimacy or marketing while watching a Tom Hanks movie released nearly 30 years ago. But that is exactly what happened the other evening when I watched the 1988 film Big.

For those who haven’t seen it, the protagonist is a 13-year-old computer-crazy, love-struck boy who is disappointed and embarrassed by:

  1. His parents;
  2. Not being tall enough to go on the roller coaster; and
  3. Not being old enough to drive a car (like the older teen who is dating his crush).

Fresh from the roller coaster embarrassment, our hero plunks a quarter into a carnival fortune-telling machine and wishes to be big. And thanks to a bit of cinematic magic, Zoltar the genie grants his wish, changing that 13-year old boy into a 30-year-old Tom Hanks overnight.

From there the adventure begins, and Hank’s character and his buddy spend the movie exploring adulthood and then trying to figure out how to take back his wish and undo its unintended consequences. And that’s where a bit of magic happened for me, although in my case it was marketing ‒ not movie ‒ magic.

This is a screenshot from the 1988 movie Big. There are plenty of lessons about customer intimacy that marketers can learn from the movie.

Be careful of what you wish for

In your case, the genie in the Zoltar machine may be the sales person on the phone pushing a marketing product or service that you may not need or are not yet ready to use. The result is you often don’t have the time, skillset, or other resources needed to be successful with that vendor’s product or service.

Read our blog post, What You Get When You Buy Technology. In it, we cover eight strategies for buying the marketing technology that’s right for you and your organization. It also includes a checklist you can download and use. And if you’re interested, you can take our Are You Ready for Marketing Automation? assessment.

One of the challenges with quick growth – and the pursuit of a sale regardless if it’s a good fit – is that the customer likely is not going to be happy, and unhappy customers are unlikely to renew.

This lesson really applies to more than just your marketing technology stack. Anyone else beside me sign up for a gym membership they never used?

This is a screenshot of the iconic FAO Schwartz scene from the 1988 movie Big.

Get out of the office

Before the memorable and famous “jumping around on the giant floor piano” scene at New York’s iconic FAO Schwarz, Hanks spends the day at the store, playing with the toys. The owner of the toy manufacturer where Hanks has gotten a job spots him and strikes up a conversation. Together, they look out at the kids playing.

“I come here every Saturday,” says old man MacMillan, played by Robert Loggia. “You can’t see this on a marketing report.”

“What’s a marketing report?” asks Hanks.

“… Exactly.”

We interviewed Brian Carroll for Episode #1 the Rethink Podcast. Carroll is an advocate for empathetic marketing, which he describes like this:

“Empathy is, at the heart of it, letting go of our assumptions, and putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes, and really beginning to identify with what it’s like in their world, what they’re feeling.”

“The reason why we need to exercise empathy is: If you ask customers what steps they went through in the buying process or you do focus groups, you find that customers actually don’t fully understand how they make decisions.”

What Carroll ‒ or the characters in Big ‒ are advocating is that you get out of the office and meet with your customers, hear about their pain points straight from them, and find out how they’re using your product or service to address those challenges.

What’s more, you should be putting yourself in their shoes by actually using your own product or service. At Act-On, we are our own biggest customer and it’s been amazingly insightful for me as a marketer to learn how to use our product, whether I’m creating a landing page or setting up an automated program or performing some other essential task using our own platform and software.

We can quote all sorts of marketing statistics advocating one tactic or another, but as old man MacMillan (from the movie, not Act-On’s CEO) says, “Let’s not lie to ourselves; if a kid likes a toy, it sells.” It may be impractical for someone in marketing who’s based in one city to get out and meet a customer in another city or another country. But you can reach out to your sales and customer service teams, who are in regular communications with your customers, and find out what’s being said and heard on the street.

And for you bosses out there, keep your eyes open to the talent around you. MacMillan had plenty of “Yes” men and women around him, pushing bad ideas. When he encounters Hanks he quickly realizes he’s found someone who has a special connection to his target customer, as well as a passion for toys. A person with such insight is a valuable marketing commodity.

Ask questions

Another great scene in the movie is when Hanks, who by now has been made a vice president at the toy company, is in a room with a bunch of other executives, listening to a presentation for a new product. In this case, the executive is recommending they build transformer robots that turn into buildings.

“I don’t get it,” Hanks asks.

“What don’t you get, Josh?” asks MacMillan.

“The toy is a building that turns into a robot,” Hanks replies. “What’s fun about that?”

The executive responds by showing Hanks a sales chart and explaining that the company is the market leaders in active toys.

When I think about this, I’m reminded about the remote control lesson from the well-known marketing book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, in which they point out that if engineering had its way there’d be even more buttons on a remote control. But just because the technology allows you to add a feature doesn’t mean you should. It’s everyone’s job to push back and question decisions.

And if you’re getting out and getting to know your customers, you’ll have a better idea of whether they need, want, or desire a robot that turns into a building and vice versa.

And while we’re still on this scene from the movie, it’s also important to be able to take and appreciated the feedback you receive from a colleague or your boss on whatever you’re working on.

“What do you think of that?” MacMillan asks Hanks as they walk through the FAO Schwarz toy store.

“Championship hockey?” Hanks replies. “I love it. Only …

“Only what?”

“Only the pieces don’t move … Why did they change it?”

“I don’t know.”

Remember your roots

Eventually, Hanks the adult starts to lose sight of Hank the kid. He begins to wear suits instead of shorts and t-shirts. He replaces playing with his buddy with discussing product manufacturing with his vendors. It begins to dawn on him that he misses being a kid.

It’s important to remember why the business we work at or founded was started. More than likely, the founder was trying to solve a problem he or she was experiencing and trying to remedy. That’s true at Act-On, and it’s probably true at your company.

Equally true is that, as our companies grow, processes, habits, and structures are put in place that help address (incredible) growth. But as that happens, too often those systems and processes can stifle innovation, lose authenticity, or worse yet, make it harder for our customers to be successful using our products.

In the movie, Hanks goes back to his hometown in New Jersey and walks by all the places that are important to that 13-year-old version of him – his school, his playground, his home. He then decides that, despite his success as a business executive, he wants to return to being a kid. Fortunately, he’s able to track down that Zoltar fortune-teller machine and make a wish to become 13 again.

For the rest of us without Zoltar genies, we need to be vigilant to stay true to our core values. This is done through open and constant communications with our employees, with our customers, and with ourselves. Do your customers say you’re meeting your brand promise? Are you solving their problems? Are you making this process simple or hard? Is everyone within your organization on the same page?

Good news. If you’ve read this far, you have the tools to find out. Remember:

  1. Know your business goals;
  2. Get out of the office;
  3. Ask questions; and
  4. Remember your brand promise.

And if you don’t believe me, go back and watch the movie again.

What are other movies that have a great marketing lesson or lessons in them?