We’re All in Show Business

If businesses are stages for customer experiences, we’re all in show business and better become good at it.

The first rule of show business: Know your audience. (Image credit: Netflix)

This Sunday, the 91st Academy Awards ceremony will celebrate the best films of 2018 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. But that won’t be the only stage honoring the great contributions of cinema. Much of the work in digital innovation stands on the shoulders of great storytellers that came before us.

A century after Hollywood became the face of American cinema, show business has found new life through connected mobile devices. Customers have all been armed with cinematic ways of seeing the world. And they all see themselves as the heroes of their own epic adventures. With access to more information than ever before, they have the power to shape their own narrative with the products and services they pull into their lives.

While many companies have followed the long-held belief that the customer is always right, this rule of thumb no longer goes far enough. The new power of customers means they can demand to have transforming experiences that enhance and fulfill their fantasy lifestyles.

Welcome to the Cinema of Customer Experience.

In this new world, customers are the heroes. And brands have a golden opportunity to capitalize on this shift by playing the role of the mentor in the hero’s journey. Modern brands must listen to their heroes (i.e. customers), understand what they hope to become, and dispel their fears and doubts. They should stage transforming experiences for their heroes by providing enchanted products and services that enable them to overcome their obstacles and achieve their desired goals in life.

In theory, you may not be persuaded that taking a wide “show business” view of your business is a sound strategy. But contrast the customer experience of Peloton versus a traditional brand in the home fitness space and consider where you’d put your money.

Those who don’t transform will go the way of Kodak.

Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and lost naming-rights to the building that hosted the Academy Awards, because they failed to move into the digital world fast enough. If Kodak had focused on fulfilling customer fantasies of discovering, capturing, and sharing the world’s moments, rather than selling film products, Lady Gaga might be connecting with her fan base through an end-to-end Kodak experience from the Kodak Theatre on Sunday, rather than Instagramming from the Dolby.

Roger Ebert once observed,

“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

The same should be said about your business. The only sustainable competitive advantage is to gain an empathic understanding of your customers’ realities and to stage an epic transformation that fulfills their dreams of what they hope to become.

There are a number of questions a business must answer to get this right. I’ve placed these questions in three acts…


Act I: Understanding the Reality

Who is your hero?

According to story consultant Robert McKee, “True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma.” How your customer chooses to act when faced with a job-to-be-done is who your customer is. By getting out of the building and observing your customers in the context of their environment, you can witness truths that none of your competitors would ever consider.

What is the treasure he seeks?

The key to understanding the true character of your customer is to understand his true desire. And behind every desire is a motivation. Humans are complex and often irrational creatures. But they’re usually marked by one or two dominant values. The sooner you understand what your customers truly value, the sooner you can create, deliver, and capture that value. Understand what your customer truly hopes to become.

What is the obstacle he must overcome?

Although the customer may be willing to take action to achieve his desired goals, his world is often riddled with multiple levels of conflict. Obstacles often arise from his own emotions, personal relationships, and extra-personal conflicts, which could include people, environments, tools, and resource constraints. The greater the value, the greater the risk he’s willing to take.

The second rule of show business: You’ve got to get out of the building to know your audience.

Act II: Staging the Transformation

What is the story arc?

When you look at the condition of the customer at the beginning of the experience and compare it to the end of the experience, there should be a sweeping life change that results from the offerings of your business. You can think of the story arc as an absolute change statement, from x to y, which refers to the customer’s condition before and after the experience.

How does the experience build emotional momentum?

The next step is to determine the sequence of events that will enable your customer to make progress from his current state to his desired state. It’s not good enough to purely think of this from a functional perspective. From initial discovery to the final climax, the experience should progressively delight the customer to greater and greater magnitudes. Keep the emotion rising.

How does the experience climax for the hero?

A sequence of events should progressively move the customer, emotionally and functionally, to a climax moment that brings about an absolute transformation to his well-being. It’s the moment in which the customer overcomes his greatest obstacle and is cured of the suffering. As observed by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, a great ending is a perfect blend of “truth and spectacle.”

Act III: Fulfilling the Fantasy

How will the experience be implemented?

The structure of the internal organization should be aligned with the customer’s activity to support each stage of the customer’s transformation. What core competencies, distribution channels, and relationships with partners and allies need to be in place backstage to fulfill a complete transformation for the customer front-stage?

How will the change be sustained over time?

A true transformation should be irreversible. One of the most important lessons around sustaining change can be learned from one of the longest-running children’s television series in history: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mister Rogers sustained a transformation in the psychological well-being of children by giving his audience something that no one else on television was giving them: constant concern and care. As Fred Rogers pleaded in his famous congressional testimony: “For 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care. I give an expression of care every day to each child.” Your business should follow through with the Mister Rogers method to ensure an enduring transformation.

What’s the sequel?

Great brands do sequels. As learned earlier, the experience should build to greater and greater magnitudes. The next obstacle that your customer faces should be more powerful and more important than the one he just defeated. Study the Marvel Cinematic Universe map. As corporate storyteller Shane Meeker points out in his Story Mythos workshop, it’s one of the best examples of brand planning ever. Each hero is building to a larger and larger story. How will you build your story?

The third rule of show business: There are no other rules. (Image credit: Peloton)

And the award for staging an epic digital transformation goes to… Peloton.

In an industry where broken resolutions to exercise more have become cliche, Peloton has a 96 percent one-year retention rate. The business enjoys broad subscriber engagement and growth by delivering an enjoyable and enduring experience for its members. When asked to define the company’s streaming fitness content and new hardware subscription model, Peloton co-founder and CEO John Foley said,

“We’re becoming a media company akin to Netflix.”

First, Peloton understood the reality that it’s becoming harder and harder for parents with young children to go to the gym. They understood many of these parents want access to fantastic instructor-led boutique fitness classes, because they provide inspiration, guidance, and community. But in an “always on” work culture, when both partners are living busier and busier lives, they need to work out on their time and on their schedules from the best seat in the house. Peloton set out to fulfill customer fantasies of becoming more unstoppable, by eliminating the obstacles that prevent busy people from working out at home.

Second, Peloton staged an experience that moves people. Daily workouts provide guidance, ritual, identification, community, reflection, spirituality, ceremony, and music — which progressively moves their members from a state of feeling overwhelmed by daily setbacks to a state of feeling more unstoppable through daily wins. It’s a total body transformation.

Third, Peloton implements the experience through a unique, vertically integrated business. They control the hardware, software, content, retail, and logistics unlike other companies in the fitness industry. An engaged community of riders, led by celebrity fitness instructors, enable customers to feel like they are part of something greater than themselves. As a sequel, they’ve extended the brand to other workouts beyond cycling to include running, bootcamp, outdoor, and strength.


If businesses are stages for customer experiences, we’re all in show business and better become good at it. Our task, in the Cinema of Customer Experience, is to become less like Kodak and more like Netflix. In the end, your business will be better if you focus on fulfilling the customer’s fantasy first. It’s the perfect blend of truth and spectacle.

T.J. Berry has blended a career in digital innovation by combining years of original content development and production at HBO in Los Angeles with product strategy and business design for leading companies in Silicon Valley. He holds a master’s from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelor’s from The University of Texas at Austin and enjoys innovating at intersections of technology, media, business, and design at Handsome in Austin, TX.