Does your brand have a MacGuffin?

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Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction features a mysterious briefcase. When opened the characters are transfixed by a golden light, but we never get to see inside.

The briefcase is a “MacGuffin” – a clever plot device to propel a story forward while leaving us in the dark about the specifics. We are asked to take it on trust that the MacGuffin matters, whatever it is.

It can add a level of mystery and intrigue to a story, and give life to endless debates and conspiracy theories long after the final credits.

Google “What is in the Pulp Fiction briefcase?” and you can fall down a deep rabbit hole. Is it treasure? Elvis Presley’s gold suit? Marsellus Wallace’s soul?

Tarantino is not telling. “It’s whatever the viewer wants it to be,” he told one interviewer.

MacGuffins have existed for as long as we have told stories. The Holy Grail in the legend of King Arthur is one. We know the Knights of the Round Table desperately want it, but we never discover what “it” is. The quest is what really matters.

Alfred Hitchcock popularised the use of MacGuffins in movies. In his 1935 classic, The 39 Steps, the main character is pursued by a shadowy organisation that wants to obtain designs for a silent aircraft.

“The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after, but the audience don’t care,” explained Hitchcock.

The use of MacGuffins is not limited to the world of fiction.

Coca-Cola’s so-called secret recipe (allegedly kept in a vault and known only to a handful of anonymous employees) is a brilliant MacGuffin.

It has helped add a layer of intrigue to a mass produced product for many decades, and the story even features a never-ending quest by dastardly competitors to crack its secrets.

KFC follows the same approach with its eleven secret herbs and spices, said to be known to only a handful of people, even though a simple lab test can reveal the recipe.

The makers of WD-40 took things to another level in 2003, when the CEO rode a horse into Times Square dressed in a full suit of armour and holding the brand’s “secret” formula, having taken it out of a bank vault to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary.

It was absurd, but it created lots of media coverage.

If you work in marketing, does your brand have a MacGuffin? If not, it might be time to discover one.

This entry was posted in Brand, Brand Strategy, Brand Trends, Marketing on by .

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