Business-to-Human: How to Add Empathy into the Marketing Mix

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A Q&A with Chris Weldon of Bonfire Labs

The AW360 team sat down with Chris Weldon, Head of Strategy and Creative at San Francisco-based, creative studio Bonfire Labs to discuss the company’s “Business-to-Human” POV and how it can dramatically impact a brand’s connection to its constituents. Chris is a design, content, and business strategist with over 25 years of experience working in film, entertainment, marketing and technology. 

Q: Tell us about your background and your experience in content and business strategy.

CW: I first fell in love with filmmaking while in college working on student films. I started my career in live action production, doing that for about 5 years in San Francisco. Through friends in the right places and a need to pay the rent, I slid into the agency world where I worked on staff and as a freelancer for well over a decade. Seeking something beyond advertising, I then found myself running a business unit for a large online education company, building, running and selling digital platforms and next-gen learning content. But as they so often do, that first love kept calling; and having built an amazing partnership with Bonfire Labs as a client, I came home to spend less of my time building decks for the C-Suite and more of my time telling stories through film and other media.

Q: Briefly talk us through the services Bonfire Labs provides to its customers. What should we know about your company?

CW: Bonfire Labs is a project-based creative studio headquartered in San Francisco that creates content for many of the most well-known high tech brands in the world. Our understanding and ability to quickly and simply express the complexities of today’s hardware and software products and services is born from the fact that we’re both a bit nerdy at heart and because we are based in the de facto capital of technology. We pride ourselves on our flexible model that allows us to slot in anywhere along the creative or production cycle for brands without creative resources or to augment the resources of internal agencies or studios within brands. We can and often work A-Z, owning concept to delivery, or jump in to own pieces of a project, or act as a traditional production partner to execute ideas that are already on paper. Since every client, brand and project is different, and bandwidth shifts overnight, staying agile and fast allows us to adapt, stay hyper collaborative and build long standing partnerships along the way.

Q: Many in our industry view terms like “marketing content” and “content marketing” as interchangeable. How do you feel about that?

CW: Marketing content describes the majority of what we make, as much of what we make does have a primary or secondary marketing purpose. But Content Marketing is broadly known as a specific discipline focused on more written communications in digital channels such as blogs, email, and social.  Our focus is on more direct tactical communications using the lingua franca of the day — video.

Q: Can you explain how your “business-to-human” approach is different than business-to-business or business-to-consumer?

CW: B2C and B2B as traditionally considered are ways to delineate audiences by their context. And though that context is incredibly important in terms of how people make purchasing decisions (emotional for C, accountable for B), the primary focus has always been on the channel rather than the people in that channel. In short, B2C has been unencumbered because brands felt they could appeal to a more purely emotional message, leveraging humor or aspiration to appeal to someone’s wallet. And B2B has been constrained by a “Just the facts, Ma’am” expectation that at work people not only don’t want a personal message and may even distrust it. B2H embraces the constraints of any channel and goes farther by focusing first and foremost on the humans behind those decisions and the universal problems they’re trying to solve. Whereas traditionally marketing has been an application of creativity to business, we aim to inject a primary lens of empathy to the mix.

Q: Videos are an important component of marketing content, but you’ve said you prefer to go beyond that with the creation of what you call “brand documentaries.” Can you elaborate on this term and describe what makes a brand documentary different from traditional content marketing video?

CW: Everyone in the industry touts themselves as brand storytellers on some level, and they’re not wrong. There are so many different ways to tell stories, but a lot of storytelling tends to be one-way: a brand stands on a soapbox with a megaphone and yells as loudly as it can at its audience. Who isn’t a little sick of Common, for example, yelling at us about AI at this point? (No offense to Common, “Be” is still one of my favorite records and he killed it in “American Gangster”). With a philosophy that brands are not stories, but actually ongoing conversations, we know we need to explore ways to make them feel more conversational. We often like to mine the rich history and modern innovations of documentary film to move beyond what we call “MNI” testimonials (videos that all start with ‘My Name Is so-and-so, I do such-and-such, and I use brand product or service’ and instead create a feeling of involvement for the viewer, give them a sense of time and place and a deeper emotional investment in what is transpiring on screen.

Q: Can you cite some examples of the different ways you’ve approached your clients’ stories from a brand documentary point of view?

CW: Some of our best recent examples are probably the IPO Roadshow films we’ve been working on. Historically these roughly 30-minute-long films are nothing more than a celebration of the video camera, capturing stuffy and unpracticed executives giving an informative but deadly boring presentation on the business’s bona fides.

After working on a few of these with the underwriting investment banks and Investor Relations professionals, we arrived at the insight that there are actually two things that the investor audience is judging when deciding to invest or not: the business, of course; but also the leadership behind that business. Boring presentations, sloppy or stuffy performance, reading of a teleprompter, these practices do nothing to instill a sense of knowledge and confidence in that leadership team. By positioning the presentation as the story of the business, the executives become not passive mouthpieces delivering information but active participants in the ongoing creation and success of that business’s story.  Effectively turning them into mini-documentaries of the brand, the leadership, and of course the financial opportunity behind it all.

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