Marketing Strategy
Brand Storytelling Lessons from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”

Brand Storytelling Lessons from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”

September 1, 2020
6 min read

It’s the element of surprise. That moment three minutes into his hit single, “In the Air Tonight”, when Phil Collins explodes into a groundbreaking drum solo that inspired a decade of imitators.

It’s something that content marketers should keep front and center in their toolbox. It’s the point at which a story turns from despair to hope.

It’s essential for compelling brand storytelling. And it never grows old. Case in point – the resurgence of the iconic Eighties song “In the Air Tonight,” long after big hair and “totally tubular” have fell by the wayside.

The song has resurfaced in a variety of incarnations from Michael Mann’s masterful use of it in the debut of his hit TV show, Miami Vice, to a slew of covers. But in my opinion, there’s no more delightful rediscovery than that by Gen Z YouTube sensations, TwinsthenewTrend.

Again, it’s the element of surprise that blows these first-time hearers away. Although the Collins video is probably the Williams twins’ most viral piece of content, surprise is the one essential ingredient that runs through every video they produce.

It’s the secret to their brand’s fast-growing success.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Use the element of surprise to draw people in.
  • Turn your audience’s pain points into positives.
  • Make your content conversational.
  • Use empathy to build trust.

Use the Element of Surprise to Make Your Content Sizzle

When you think of music critics, your mind runs to ivory towers and snooty critiques in the Grey Lady and PBS. You don’t think of hip twenty somethings discovering the beauty of music hatched long before they were a twinkle in their mom’s eye.

The Midwest-born Williams twins have kicked snobbery to the curb with their take on classic pop tunes. Instead, they’re as excited as kids at Christmastime as they listen to this iconic music for the very first time.

In fact, that’s their entire schtick. “First-Time Hearing” features in most of their video titles, as the pair explore songs they’re hearing for the first time.

It’s also something content marketers should take good notice of. No matter how many times you’ve written about a topic, imagine that it’s the first time you’ve thought of the idea.

Turn Your Audience’s Lemons into Lemonade

Forget the urban legends about the song’s origin. You know, the variations on the theme that “In the Air Tonight” is about a guy Collins refused to save from drowning.

According to Collins himself, the only person who was drowning was himself. Figuratively speaking, that is.

Divorce can do that to a person. Anger. Lies. Rage, even. Yet somehow in all that pain, Collins found the right music to heal himself.

That drum solo and its subsequent crescendo? It was Collins’ heart, finding its way to recovery through music.

Your audience, too, has its pain points. You can’t help them conquer all their challenges, but you do have expertise in solving some of them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be among your target customers.

Through your content, show your audience how they can turn their own lemons into lemonade. Think of yourself as the Yoda who taught Luke Skywalker how to use the Force to overcome his challenges.

Or, the Ahmet Ertegun that showed Phil Collins that he needed those hypnotic drums at the beginning of “In the Air Tonight” to set it up perfectly for the now-famous solo and crescendo that turned the song from “meh” to marvelous.

Brand stories that position your audience as the hero, you as the wise guide, and your product as the sword to slay the dragon, and you’ll have a winning content marketing strategy, no matter what your industry.

In Collins’ case, the product was Ertegun’s mastery of sound. Yet, as in any good brand story, Ertegun let Collins, his target customer, act as the hero.

Through a success story that blended superb musicianship with production artistry, “In the Air Tonight” not only helped Phil Collins soothe his wounded heart. It launched his career as a solo musician, a career that is still going strong.

And now, that career has received a huge boost, in no small part thanks to two the Williams twins. According to Billboard, downloads of the song jumped 1,516% above the three days just before the twins’ video going viral.

The brand storytelling lessons I learned from this song go well beyond Collins’ personal hero’s journey. At its heart, “In the Air Tonight” is a conversation with its audience, albeit a tense conversation at first.

Content marketing, like this song, must be a conversation between you and your audience.

Make Every Piece of Content a Conversation

One of the ingredients that spark the magic in Collins’ hit song is his ability to draw you in. “In the Air Tonight” reads like a conversation you could have with any down-and-out, soon-to-be-divorced guy at some dive bar across town, right? He’s speaking to you, pouring out his heart, just hoping that you’ll hear him.

In content marketing, that conversation can range from just listening to advice to anything in between. The goal, as I’ve stated before, is to draw your audience into a deeper relationship with you and your brand.

Part of that conversation is listening. If you’re not out there on social media with your antennae on 24/7, you won’t see all those questions people ask about your brand.

You won’t see the feedback that makes you wince, and the reviews that make your heart leap. And even more importantly, you won’t have a chance to respond with content that scratches the itch that unhappy customers feel. Neither will you have the opportunity to rejoice with your customers when a piece of content helped them out of a jam.

I feel bad for marketers who put out content that doesn’t enter into a conversation. Often, I see missed opportunities, such as:

  • Overly self-promotional content
  • Third-person yawn fests that read like academic papers
  • Content that never asks questions to draw readers in

How can you avoid these missed opportunities? Treat every piece of content as if it were a conversation. When you do, you’ll learn as much from your audience as they learn from you. And as you know, learning more about your audience allows you to better meet their needs.

There’s yet another brand storytelling lesson you can draw from Collins’ perennial hit. Though the lyrics don’t spell it out, there’s a sense that Collins is reaching out or someone who understands his pain.

Empathy. As Collins’ words meander between the diatribe against his ex and a desperate prayer, you feel his sense of betrayal and his desire for deliverance.

That deliverance comes in the form of that brilliant drum solo and the crescendo that follows.

Though you and your team don’t deliver resolution in musical form, you can deliver empathy.

Let Empathy Guide Your Content Strategy

Learning to feel what your customers feel tops data in its importance to great brand storytelling. Data, however, can be one of the doors you use to gauge how they feel.

Stepping inside their shoes and walking around in them, though, takes a bit more effort than merely pulling data about their pain points, social media likes, and demographics.

Yet when you combine that data with a listening ear and stories that put your brand in their shoes, you can connect. Ask questions to discern what steps they might need to solve their problems and empower them to take those steps.

Help them acknowledge what they feel. Then, put yourself in their shoes and create a brand story that leads them through the problem-solving process.

I can’t help wondering if content marketing had existed on such a grand scale as it does today back in the 1980s, could it have made a difference to Collins’ rocky marital life? Perhaps, if the targeting technology we have today were around then.

An effective content marketing agency can get its message out to practically anyone in today’s connected world. Using data and targeting, combined with a good dose of empathy, they can help show the way out for customers who are drowning in their problems, be they marital woes or a bleeding bottom line.

People have problems – and you have the tools to help them solve them. Use these tools wisely, and you’ll enjoy content marketing success.

We can help you use those tools to tell brand stories that make an impact on your customers for a lifetime.

Remember the first time the light came on in your brain about using customer personas to capture all your customer research in human form? Remember the time you first discovered that content that helps your customers solve problems costs less and brings in more ROI than traditional advertising?

Image courtesy of Demand Metric

You probably felt like a kid on Christmas morning. Filled with delight at the thought of it.

That kind of delight is contagious, as the Williams twins have discovered. Infuse your content with the enthusiasm of one who has just discovered something, and you’ll capture your audience’s hearts.

The element of surprise isn’t the only brand storytelling lesson that content marketers can learn from Collins’ perennially popular number. Look deeper into the song’s meaning, and you’ll see a wealth of wisdom hiding in the music.

If you are ready to get more traffic to your site with customer-focused content published consistently, check out our Content Builder Service. Set up a quick consultation, and I’ll send you a free PDF version of my books. Get started today – and generate more traffic and leads for your business.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.