What’s Your MacGuffin?

Everybody wants something.

The next time you walk out of a movie, finish a great novel, or shut off the TV after your favorite show, ask yourself:

  • What drove the hero to action?
  • What drove the villain?

There is a good chance that both sides wanted something. And the desire for the coveted prize is what drove both parties to take action. Even more so, as you were following along the story, you might have found your own interest in that prize growing—specifically in wanting the hero to claim it.

In fiction, this prize is known as a “MacGuffin.” It’s a common plot device that takes the form of a person, place or thing (Yes…I know…that’s also a noun) that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) pursues. While the term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, it can also take a more abstract form such as wealth, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some other force.

Which begs the point of my question. In business, your MacGuffin is not about what YOU want…rather what your prospects and clients want. This is something we should never forget in our customer communications.

Sometimes this wanting—which often is not a conscious choice—is to acquire something new; more often it is to want something negative to go away, or a problem to be solved. Effective messaging and story-telling that serves your prospects will focus the audience on this prize…the MacGuffin. When done properly, it doesn’t shine a light on something the audience already wants…it causes the audience to want it. It grows demand.

whopperLet me share just one example: Back in early 2009, Facebook was escalating in popularity, and at the same time, redefining the meaning of the word friend. While average Joes who lived with their mothers were enjoying the rush of suddenly having hundreds, if not thousands of “friends” in the Facebook universe, the folks over at Burger King (okay, their agency) decided to have some fun with it, do a little social commentary, and, oh yeah, increase demand for their Ultimate Burger.

Within the Facebook desktop environment, they created an online app called Whopper Sacrifice. It showed you the Whopper…the ultimate prize…the MacGuffin.

The message (I’m dramatically paraphrasing here): “You want one of these for free, don’t you? Give us ten of your friends, and you will be rewarded.”

As another ingenious catch, participants were warned: “Each friend will be notified, so choose wisely.”

Brilliantly, the program forced participants to evaluate who among their Facebook friends were really friends, and who were not. What happened to those sacrificed? No doubt that, in their notification of being un-friended, they too were invited to participate so they too, could get a free Whopper.

Since this “notification” function (which was brilliant viral promotion built right in) violated the website’s user privacy terms, Facebook shut it down after ten days. But in that time, Burger King gave away 20,000 free Whoppers, sold plenty more (I am sure), and created a runaway media buzz.

This is a simple, fun example of what one could call “MacGuffin Marketing.”  It’s all around us (Chipotle does it all the time when they give out free burritos). Heck, even the prize in your box of Cracker Jacks (or breakfast cereals when we were kids!) are similar examples.

Further, it’s more than making people want things they don’t necessarily need, or to make impulsive choices. But I think it’s a lesson we can apply elsewhere—especially in cases where some simplification is in order. Like I said earlier, everybody wants something. And if you have what your prospect wants, and you can show them a way to attain it, you engage them first by helping them keep that prize in their sights, and top of mind.

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