Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty is a hero, and like all heroes, he has an origin story.
The official story is that Gritty lived underneath the Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers play. Construction forced him out of his hideout and into the sunlight, where a public that was initially horrified, then deeply empathetic, embraced and elevated him.
The real-life story is even more implausible: Gritty came out of an open-ended brainstorm. In The Ringer, Michael Baumann reported that a team led by David Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic, dreamed up Gritty in collaboration with representatives for the Flyers.
When’s the last time you heard of an open-ended brainstorming session that actually yielded something so valuable? As far as I’m concerned, a bunch of corporate types sitting in a room and creating out of whole cloth something that actually resonates deeply with its intended audience is a miracle.
I’ve written before about how content strategy is the practice of empathy in web content. Good content strategy yields results that, like, Gritty, strike a chord with audiences, speak to a primal emotion, and fill a need.
Tell a story.
In that magical brainstorm, Raymond instructed the team to focus on stories rather than specific images or ideas. He added, “And the roots of that story should be mined from the history of the organization, the most successful people and events in your organization’s history, and urban myths and legends. Then do the same thing with your community.”
What does this mean for teams that are trying to create something more…pedestrian than a googly-eyed mascot? Well, story still matters, but the story isn’t about your brand. It’s about your audience. The story is that your brand makes their lives better somehow. It makes something easier, or it makes them see themselves in a new light, or it gives them a chance to do something different.
What’s your audience’s story? And how can you ensure that story is grounded in the reality of your audience’s experiences?
Make your audience feel seen.
Baumann writes that “Gritty was designed … to stir up a deep emotional connection with Flyers fans, to reflect back something they already felt about themselves.” Raymond explains, “You’re only going to get people to care about anything if you demonstrate that you care, and you demonstrate that you understand the people you’re reaching out to.”
How well do you know your audience? Do you know how they feel when they’re interacting with your brand? How can you make them feel validated and guide them through any anxiety or fear they might have?
Here’s a very simple example: On a recent visit to Boston, I wanted to take a public bus, but I wasn’t carrying change or a bus pass. The MBTA anticipated my anxiety about whether I was about to embarrass myself. A quick search pulled up detailed information on its website: “On all MBTA buses, you can pay your fare in cash with coins or bills, up to $20.” It goes on to describe exactly how to pay and how you’ll receive your change.
What’s stressing your audience out? What makes them feel comforted and confident? Sometimes the answer will be an incredibly detailed description of a minor social interaction, and sometimes the answer will be a huge googly-eyed monster.
Don’t hide the ugly.
On his time as the Phanatic, Raymond says, “I knew the psyche of Phillies fans because I was one… I suffered the insecurity. I’ve suffered the disappointment.” And he channeled all those feelings of Philadelphian frustration into Gritty.
Part of making your audience feel seen is acknowledging that things don’t always go according to plan. That’s OK. Make it part of the story. Those gnarly details and weird nuances will make the operation feel more organic, less contrived. In short, this is what makes Gritty seem human, despite all other evidence to the contrary.
Go forward with confidence.
When the Flyers introduced Gritty to the world, they did not stutter. When the public recoiled in horror, Gritty did not transform himself into a more huggable, palatable personality. He went ahead and threatened to murder another mascot.
Yes, brands do make mistakes sometimes, and sometimes it’s necessary and valuable for a brand to walk back a public misfire. Sometimes content can be tone-deaf, insensitive, or otherwise embarrassingly oblivious to audience’s needs and interests. But if the backlash you’re seeing is trivial – if the feedback is that your content is too eccentric or too nuanced – trust your audience research and your strategy. Give it time. It’s all part of the hero’s journey.
Featured photo credit: duluoz cats on Flickr.