The Fresh Prince of Marketing

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Eight ways actor and musician Will Smith markets himself and connects with audiences of all ages.

Will Smith has played several roles throughout his acting career: an extra terrestrial surveillance agent, a legendary boxer, and, of course, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But his career-long performance as a marketer, may be one of his lesser-known credits.

“I actually consider myself much more of a marketer than I do an entertainer,” Smith said during the Marketo Marketing Nation Summit opening keynote in Las Vegas. “Part of what I do is [create] emotion for people to be excited about a product.”

Indeed, Smith has been riling up fans over his movies, TV shows, and music albums for decades. From winning the first Best Rap Performance GRAMMY in 1989 with Jeff Townes for their single Parents Just Don’t Understand to receiving a 2016 Golden Globe nomination for his role as Dr. Bennet Omalu in the drama Concussion, Smith knows how to entertain audiences across multiple generations.

So how has Smith managed to stay relevant all of these years, and how can marketers bottle up some of his secret sauce? To get to the bottom of this, Marketo CMO Sanjay Dholakia sat down with Smith for a Q&A. Here are eight of Smith’s suggestions for connecting with audiences and prolonging brand longevity.

1. Be a solution to your customers’ pain points.

For Smith, marketing isn’t just about pushing a product; it’s about connecting with audiences, identifying how they feel, and offering a way for them to feel better.

“It has to be beyond selling,” Smith said. “It has take on a broader, global, spiritual purpose of help and relieving the suffering of the end user.”

2. Find the “universally relatable emotion.”

All customers are different, but there are still basic human emotions that almost all customers feel. Smith calls them “universally relatable emotions,” and says they’ve helped him remain relevant to multiple generations. 

He cites The Pursuit of Happyness as an example of a film that leveraged these emotions and experienced success because of it—including one of Smith’s two Best Actor Oscar nominations. According to Sony Pictures Digital Productions, the film is about a struggling salesman named Chris Gardner who takes an unpaid internship at stockbroker trading program to try to provide his son with a better life.

Pursuit of Happyness, at the core of the story, is [about] a father who is trying to feed and care for his son,” Smith explained. “Who can’t relate to the pain of not being able to provide for your children?”

However, Smith admits that not all of his movies centered on these heartfelt emotions and some of them flopped for it—like the film Wild Wild West, which had a domestic gross of nearly $ 114 million despite its $ 170 million budget, according to Time’s “2009 Top 10 Disappointing Blockbusters” article. 

“That movie sucks bad,” Smith said.

3. Stop asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Posing this hypothetical question is one of the worst things marketers can do, Smith says, because it involves pushing their own ideals instead of focusing on the customers’.

4. Spend time with your target audience.

Smith admits that he struggles to understand the millennial audience—even though he has a few “test subjects,” his children, at home. To better understand this age group, Smith spends time engaging with those who fall within this demographic, such as by attending concerts and shows with his kids. Smith advises other marketers to spend time with their target audiences to better understand them from a heartfelt perspective, not just an analytical one.

“Data and analytics are really important,” he says, “but you can’t beat sitting in a crowd and feeling it.”

5. Focus on authenticity.

Technology has forced marketers to be a lot of things: more agile, more reactive, more personalized. But Smith argues that it’s also forced them to be more authentic.

Once again, he uses his films as evidence to support his argument. In the 90s, he says, production companies could stick an explosive scene into a bad film to draw box office sales opening weekend—before people could tell their friends that it was a dud. Today, he notes, people can tweet out a critique 10 minutes into the film from their seat—putting the pressure on production companies to make better films. 

The same logic applies to marketers and their product campaigns. 

“The smoke and mirrors are over,” Smith said.

6. Don’t view failure as a failure.

As previously noted, Smith knows that not all of his movies or albums were hits. But that didn’t deter the entertainer from pursuing his next venture. Failure shouldn’t deter marketers either. Instead, they should view it as a learning opportunity and use that knowledge to better position themselves to achieve their business objectives.

“I’ve gotten used to failing,” Smith said. “I actually look at failure as the way I succeed.”

7. Put yourself in the “hot spots.”

One of Smith’s most prominent failures occurred after he won his GRAMMY in 1989. His next album was a self-described flop, and Smith said that he had “accidentally not paid the IRS,” resulting in the government agency taking most of his stuff.

“It was an oversight,” he said. “It’s important that you give them their money.”

About 20 years old and “negative broke,” Smith knew he had to come up with a plan. So, he started spending a lot of time at the Arsenio Hall show and forming connections, including one very important one: Benny Medina—the “real Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”—who helped Smith land the TV role.

Smith advises marketers to find their own epicenters within their industries—where things are happening; then, stand there. As he put it, “Find the hot spot and go stand in the hot spot.”

8. Be fearless and relentless

There’s a lot of risk taking in both the marketing and entertainment industries, and not all of those risks are going to pay off; however, it’s how professionals learn and carry on from those setbacks that determine their success.

Perhaps Smith says it best, “If you’re fearless and relentless, it’s really hard to not get to a good place.”

Correction: The name of the conference is Marketo’s Marketing Nation Summit, not Marketo Nation Summit as previously listed.

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