Marcel the Shell is a Masterclass in Brand Messaging

by Emily Cox, Content Strategy Director

Stop reading right now and go see the movie Marcel the Shell. I’m serious. Walk away from your work (keep this post open in your tabs, of course), go to the movies, and see it. He’s the friend we need.

I went into the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On mockumentary expecting to see a cute but somewhat surface-level movie that took advantage of a nostalgic Internet icon. Instead, what I got was one of the best movies of the year, and a reminder of the factors that make truly good, effective brand messaging. 

Reveal a hidden world

When you build a brand, you build a world. Your organization exists because you see the world a little differently than everyone else, so you have a unique way of solving problems. (This is one reason it’s really important to be grounded in a brand purpose.) 

But you have to help people become aware of that world before they understand and value your solution. 

In Marcel the Shell, we quickly and easily become aware of context. In this case, the view of the world is that, unbeknownst to us, there are shells with shoes on who talk and have homes and relationships and live amongst us. They are not snails. They are shells with shoes on. And just because we haven’t seen them before doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We come to understand this, not because someone tells us, but because we see it with our own eyes. 

The worlds in which our businesses operate are often invisible to others. Until recently, I had zero idea that America’s hunger for sushi was unsustainable. Or that trees communicate and share nutrients. Or that the Midwest is quietly becoming a tech hub.

Show, don’t tell

Which brings me to the next brand messaging tenet that Marcel so beautifully illustrates. It’s not necessarily an intuitive one in an article about messaging, but it’s this: words are just words. Your audience is smart. They pick up on things and read between the lines. They form their own conclusions. Expect this and structure your messaging accordingly. 

So often, key messages become lists of things we want people to think are true about us. But unless your audience is made up of idiots who believe anything they hear, you’re not going to change anybody’s mind with that strategy. 

Nobody says, “Marcel and his Nana are close.” We, as an audience, come to that conclusion by watching the way they speak to one another and interact. We don’t hear, “Shells with shoes on are intelligent and creative.” We learn that as we watch the methods Marcel and his Nana have built for survival. 

You can do this with your brand messaging, once you understand that your behavior, content, interactions, and words are not there to make a point; they’re there to help an intelligent audience come to their own positive conclusions about your brand. 

Keep it balanced, keep it real

One reason this movie and its main character are so impactful and engrossing is that the characters are not one-dimensional. Through watching and listening to him, we find that Marcel is giving, curious, humble, resilient, and positive. But he also has a wicked sense of humor. He’s unafraid to disagree politely but openly. And he levels some amazing zingers at friends and strangers alike. 

He even makes fun of a YouTube commenter for supporting peace and love. He quips, “No, I sign all of my letters with ‘war’.”

If Marcel were just some goody two shoes (pun actually not intended there), we would think he was cute, but we probably also wouldn’t root for him so hard. He has personality and some off-color characteristics, so we want to be his friend. 

Do you think people would want to be your brand’s friend? That’s a harsh but important question to ask yourself. 

Speak to somebody, not anybody

Anyone who had a connection to society in 2010 remembers what a sensation the original Marcel the Shell video was. It racked up hundreds of millions of views. The same thing happens in Marcel the movie. Millions of people watch Marcel’s videos, and his YouTube live stream. He gets hundreds of comments about how cute he is. People show up at his house every day to take pictures and videos. But out of the millions he reaches, nobody helps him accomplish his goal, which is to find his family. 

That is, until 60 Minutes comes calling. 

Early in the movie, Marcel and his Nana have made it very clear just how much they love 60 Minutes and journalist Lesley Stahl. They know her well, and they know the characteristics of Lesley that make them love her so much, including, [b]ecause Lesley Stahl is fearless.” 

I won’t spoil it for you but, in the end, in order to accomplish his goal, Marcel only really needed to capture the attention of a few people. Good brand messaging works the same way. Connecting with millions can be wonderful, but it’s expensive, and it doesn’t necessarily help you grow. Connecting with the right people in meaningful ways builds relationships and moves you toward your goal. 

Know your audience. Listen to them. Fall in love with them. Root for them. Becoming a fan of your ideal audience is often a better strategy than trying to turn your audience into fans for yourself. 

As the Hollywood Reporter said of Marcel, “It’s impossible not to see the world differently after meeting him.” That’s true. And maybe, also, it just refocuses us on the things that are truly important, in brand messaging and beyond.