My career in marketing has been an eclectic one. Over the past decade or so, I’ve planned lavish launch parties for boutique hotels, written blog posts for traveling nurses, and rebranded a TV station. But my hardest marketing job ever took place in a classroom in Brooklyn.
It involved selling a love of English literature to teenagers.
The first six months of my teaching career were spectacularly rough.
Fresh out of a rigid training program, I conducted my classroom with a cold command, employing a strict and exacting persona meant to intimidate students into compliance.
I wore my only suit so frequently one of my students started calling me “The D.A.”
Whenever I was undermined (which was often and well-deserved), I’d remind my students of the utter seriousness of their predicament. Universally, they were reading and writing below grade level. If they wanted to graduate, they’d need to pass a high-stakes state test in June. And I was there to help them pass that test.
It seemed obvious to me that—given all of the relevant data—my students would 1. Thank me for laying it all out for them and 2. Read the next five chapters of a novel about Jazz Age socialites for a quiz on Friday.
They did not.
Finally, I hit rock bottom. It was around the time I minted my own currency.
Inspired by a joke from The Office, I violated federal counterfeiting laws and created Bambrick Bucks. Throughout the day, I distributed the crudely fashioned slips of paper out in a breathtakingly inconsistent manner. Sometimes they were rewards for excellent work. Sometimes they were bribes for silence.
Half of my students had no interest in carrying around photocopied money with my face on it, and often I’d find my smiling face crumpled in the trash.
The other half of my students became maniacal hoarders. Some started shaking me down: “Sure I know the answer… For some Bambrick bucks… ”
The problem with my alternative currency was that it didn’t align with the behavior I was looking for. You could be a Bambrick Bucks millionaire without understanding what simile was.
If I was going to get my students invested in the actual content of my class, I’d need to abandon both rational arguments and extrinsic rewards.
I needed to market my class better.
I genuinely love literature. I’m the kind of person who reads style guides for fun and attends readings at bookstores. In other words: I have long been a member of the geek party.
So, I started rooting my classes in my own enthusiasm. I installed a comic book library at the back of my classroom and invited my introvert students to eat lunch with Batman and Persepolis instead of at the overwhelming cafeteria. I showed clips from Chappelle’s Show to illustrate irony. I told embarrassing stories from my own life to make points about character motivations. And I traded my suit and tie for flannel shirts and jeans.
Slowly but surely, my students caught on. They could see that there must be something special about literature, because clearly it was giving me a genuine (if slightly embarrassing) kind of pure joy.
Soon, my students began remembering what “hyperbole” was. They made their own comparisons between The Great Gatsby and Gossip Girl. And people who’d been skipping for months were suddenly showing up for class.
By my second year, my students had developed a pitch-perfect impersonation of me. Throwing their hands around frantically, they’d shout something like “this is my FAVORITE book of ALL TIME and you are going to LOVE it.” I couldn’t have been prouder.
Great teachers know the same thing marketers do: it’s not their audience’s job to follow them. It’s our job to win over audiences.
Today, it’s my job to convince companies to think about their employees in the same way.
At LOCAL, I craft stories that drive organizational change. Often, I’m asking the same hard questions I had to ask myself as a teacher: Why should folks care about this? What’s in it for them? How can we get them to invest in this change and make it their own?
I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds like a lot of work. And my employees are adults. Certainly, my team can just do as they’re asked. Plus, I’m not giving them Bambrick Bucks over here. We pay out the real stuff.”
If all you need from your employees is to show up and punch the clock, you’re probably right. But if you want a company that grows from within, you’ll need to unite your organization’s goals with your employees’ interests and motivation. Once you do that, you may see something surprising happen: the transformation you had in mind becomes something your team takes to heart. And the lift will become easier.
Call it culture. Call it teaching. Call it marketing. But if you take the time to treat your employees as an audience worth winning, the next change you implement will feel a lot less like homework.