What is this Show About? Marketing Lessons from Fiddler on the Roof

Wonder of WondersWonder of Wonders by Alisa Solomon is a rare book that provokes thoughts about many historical experiences. If you have the slightest curiosity about the nature of the creative process and how to create unforgettable messages, read it.

Solomon explores the different ways Fiddler on the Roof was used by people as diverse as American communists, Israeli socialists, theater teachers, Hasidic groups in Brooklyn, and modern day Polish actors and directors. It also reveals the marketing brilliance of Jerome Robbins.

Leading the Team

The moment recorded in the book that most impressed me was not how Robbins created the bottle dance in the famous wedding scene or how he worked with his uber-talented collection of collaborators, but the way he led the team in designing the enduring message of Fiddler on the Roof.

The role that Robbins played was that of the ideal practitioner of content marketing. He, not unlike Steve Jobs, used “peer pressure of one” to force clarity on the show. Because of his passion for quality and his prickly dissatisfaction, he inspired those working on the show to keep thinking about what they were doing until the show’s true identity emerged.

Robbins was not involved in Fiddler from the beginning. He joined when songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and scriptwriter Joseph Stein were working with a producer who was eventually replaced by Hal Prince.

Robbins met with the writing and composing team regularly as the show was coming together and he kept asking, “What is this show about?” This question should be framed and hung on the wall of every marketing department.

At first, the book suggests the team didn’t take the question too seriously. The impression you get was that the creative team replied, “It’s a story about a milkman and his daughters in troubled times. What more do you want?”

Jobs and Robbins: Two Peas in a Pod

But it is clear from the book Robbins wanted more. This reminds me of Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Robbins pressed the team. Like so many stories about Jobs, it is clear Robbins did not see it as his role to come up with the solution. Instead, he kept insisting that the solution fell short and demanded more of the team, inspiring them to get the core message of the show just right.

And so, Robbins kept asking. The book doesn’t provide examples of how he pressured the team, but the life of Steve Jobs provides many examples where people felt exhausted under the withering energy of Jobs to push them to higher levels of performance. It seems that Robbins and Jobs both had the authority, energy, and drive to inspire people to go beyond their perceived limits.

Traditions Break Down

Robbins pressed the team, rejecting superficial and glib statements about the identity of the show, until someone, as Solomon explains, “…uttered the words that finally provided the answer to Robbins’s persistent question. ‘It’s about the dissolution of a way of life.’ Robbins leaned forward. ‘That’s it! That’s it!…. ‘It’s tradition,’ he asserted. ‘Yes, that’s it. We have to establish the traditions at the beginning and then the audience will see how they’re breaking down. That’s the show.’”

Solomon continues, “Instantly, Robbins saw how this theme could give him a pliant and powerful dramatic tension around which to stage the action. The forces breaking down the traditions would press from both the inside and the outside…. Robbins sent Bock, Harnick, and Stein away with instructions to make every scene relate to the theme of traditions breaking down.”

This led to the opening number of the show, “Tradition,” and to an engaging story that made the show popular with audiences in dozens of countries around the world.

The Lessons for Marketers

The lesson for marketers is that we need to find a way to ask the question, “What is this show about?” and to lead our companies to a better answer. (And, as Mark Lorion, CMO of Apperian suggests, you must never stop asking that question. See “CMOs: Why you need to talk with your customers like you’re a new hire” and Stage 4 of Evolved Media’s Survivor’s Guide to Tech Startup Marketing.)

But how can we do this? Robbins was a proven genius with West Side Story under his belt, a show he conceived and guided to its success. Jobs, of course, had a mighty track record, and even before he did, was a force of nature with unmatched passion for great design.

Few people in any role in most companies have the authority to drive people beyond their comfort levels. But as marketers, we must aspire to this role. We must keep asking the equivalent of “What is this show about?” until we get an answer that rings true.

If we don’t aspire to this role, what are we doing anyway?

Of course, few of us are going to be able to demand better work and strike fear in the hearts of the rest of the company. Each of us must find strategies that reveal when the identity of a product is muddy and confused. We need to get in touch with the demanding, perfectionist spirit of Robbins and Jobs, the part of us that can listen and test and seek the true identity, the sticky and unforgettable message. This is the process of design, one that informs both marketing and the capabilities of a product.

Connection Fulfills on a Promise

But in the B2B content marketing space, products are so complex that it is not possible to separate the identity of the product from the way it is explained. The message, the content, and the explanation are part of the product. When it rings false, the users feel the disconnect once they start using the product. When it connects, the product is a promise fulfilled.

Fiddler succeeded because its core message about the sadness of losing touch with tradition, of saying goodbye to a beloved world in which life was better and simpler, touches so many of us, across boundaries of culture, language, and ethnicity. Jobs succeeded because his products promise joy and a direct connection to something you just realized you always wanted.

As marketers we must find a way to be politely dissatisfied, to convince the company to channel their own inner Robbins and Jobs and to seek with ruthless dedication the identity of the product. Then, our job is to create content to communicate messages so that we find the right buyers. If we do that, everyone in the company will know what the show is about.

Work with us to find out what your B2B marketing show is all about.