Matthew Luhn is a creative artist who helped bring to life some of the best-loved animated movies of our time. He’s also a brand consultant who advises organizations on how to tell their corporate story more effectively.
So, has he ever thought about merging those worlds together and using animation to take a humorous look at business? Luhn laughed. Been there, done that.
“That’s exactly what ‘Monsters, Inc.’ was about,” said Luhn, who spent more than two decades at Pixar Animation Studios. “The characters were working at a company, doing their jobs scaring children, and then slowly became aware of what was really happening. But sure, I could totally see finding another plot line like that.”
Luhn was a key contributor to many films in Pixar’s legendary string of hits — including the ”Toy Story” franchise, ”Finding Nemo,” ”Up,” ”Ratatouille” and ”Cars.” While he continues to work on film projects, Luhn is also in demand working with companies to fine-tune their messaging. And he spoke at the recent TOPO Summit about his favorite subject: The Best Story Wins.
He calls storytelling the most powerful tool in business today.
“In the tech industry, the companies using stories are the ones that are succeeding,” Luhn explained. “When you tell a story about someone who wants to change and goes through obstacles, you will really make people feel something if you do it right. People aren’t just buying shoes, cars and computers. They’re buying a feeling.”
In the B2B technology space, it’s considered gospel that every decision must be based on data. But Luhn contends that purchases are actually made on emotion — and only later are justified by logic. Stories are important, he added, because they make your brand memorable and can serve as catalysts to take action.
The challenge every SaaS company faces is standing out in a crowded industry. Walk any trade-show floor and vendors begin to all blur together. There’s little differentiation. Optimize! Implement omnichannel strategies! Raise conversion rates! Buzzwords get strung together to form gobbledygook.
But Luhn, who helped make Buzz Lightyear a household name, said explaining what your company does through the framework of a compelling, authentic narrative is what people remember – not dry statistics and shrill sales pitches.
“Stories break through the noise and help us decide what to believe in,” he added.
Luhn’s own story suggests that he was destined to work on “Toy Story.” For generations, his family has run toy stores in the Bay Area called Jeffrey’s Toys. Luhn’s father never got to follow his dream of being a Disney animator because he ran the business. But he was quick to nurture Matthew’s interest in drawing when he displayed artistic talent at an early age. By 19, Luhn was working on ”The Simpsons.”
He later was among the first dozen artists at a startup studio that was experimenting with computer-generated animation — Pixar. He would rise to a story artist role where he helped structure the films. But while he loved storytelling, Luhn was interested in business, too. That’s why he began applying what he had learned to the corporate world.
When he talks to business groups, Luhn shares practical advice about how to create a powerful narrative. Every good story, he explains, has four essential elements.
- The main character (or characters) who connects with the audience
- The character undergoes a profound change
- A goal that the character wants to achieve
- A villain, although it simply can be an obstacle for the character to overcome
“Over thousands of years, stories have followed the same pattern,” said Luhn, who left Pixar last year to work on other projects. “I can go from a meeting with a director at Warner Bros. to working with Charles Schwab, and I still keep going back to those four basic things.”
Luhn added that it’s also why the late Steve Jobs always communicated with Pixar employees by using storytelling techniques. He understood that’s how to connect with people. Still, Luhn knows there can be resistance among business leaders about using stories to connect with potential customers.
After all, his films feature heartstring-tugging plots and adorable characters. (Dory, Sulley, Remy, Carl Fredricksen, Woody.) But how do you get people emotionally invested in highly technical business software?
“I agree there’s sometimes a bigger hurdle to get people excited about certain products,” he said. “But there’s always a way to find a trigger for people to emotionally connect with either the company or whatever you’re selling. I always go back to the universal things that we all want. Things like family, falling in love, having a purpose, accomplishing your dreams. You need to connect whatever your company is making to those kinds of ideas. It’s not impossible to find a good story.”
One recent example that Luhn cites is a Mercedes-Benz commercial called “Snow Date.” That ad captures something important about storytelling, he said. People don’t remember statistics. They won’t recall what you said. But they will never forget how you made them feel.
That’s always his take-home message. Evoke passion.
“It really is whoever tells the best story wins,” Luhn said. “That’s always the case, whether it’s a film or a business organization.”