Beyond name or image recognition, there is more that Hitchcock did to build his brand. Before anything else was intentionally accomplished, it was important for Hitchcock to specialize quickly and stick to it. Other than Psycho and The Birds, the rest of Hitch’s films are suspense. And even Psycho and The Birds are suspenseful as well (but skew more towards the horror genre than suspense-thriller. Hitchcock specialized in the art of suspense. And you can learn more about this specific subject by reading the book Suspense with a Camera by Jeffrey Michael “the Hitchcock Whisperer” Bays. Having grown up in the silent film days, Hitchcock took the visual storytelling techniques used in those films and adapted them to “talkies.” Interestingly, while so many were turning visual films (a bit redundant since films should be visual) and including expansive dialogue (on the verge of sounding like a stage play), Hitch embraced the power of silence and minimalist dialogue that was truly an extension of the plot itself. The camera was the unspoken star of the movie.
Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but was also a master at surrounding himself with talent. A quick glance over his prolific filmography (approx. 50 feature films plus many TV shows) reveals that he almost exclusively worked with the best talent on screen and behind the camera. Princess Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, Gregory Peck, and more. Hitchcock worked to forge relationships with the actors he wanted to work with. He made himself out to be someone they wanted to work with too. Of course, his reputation preceded him so many were predisposed to wanting to work with him even before meeting Hitch. This concept is referred to as branding by association. And you and I engage in this practice everyday on social media by following, commenting on, and tagging other users. We hope to be noticed, or we make ourselves someone that other influencers want to engage with. If you do all these actions under your name, then you are building your brand.
Creating engaging content, in which you are specialized, without knowing your audience can end in a lackluster performance. As a former marketing and sales professional, Hitch knew that he needed to identify his target audience to craft a story that would instantly resonate in a call to action (i.e. buying tickets). Through his studies and experience in marketing research and development, he knew how the human imagination worked and what cinematic elements would impact the audience most. Hitch started with the end result he wanted and worked backwards. Researchers call this inductive reasoning. By approaching his films this way, Hitch knew that the elements he chose to use and the method by which to execute them, he would achieve the desired result. The end result points us back to the “specialization’ step in the branding process because Hitch mastered the art of suspense with a camera evident in his ability to achieve it consistently. No one knew his audience better than Hitchcock did.
Although all the steps in Hitch’s branding process are vitally important, one step stands out in particular as perhaps the most important element. Take credit for your work. In no director today–or ever, really–have I witnessed a better and more entertaining example of taking credit for one’s work than Hitchcock. Between his famous cameo appearances and his show running of his title television program, which is largely what is responsible for making him a household name outside of cinephiles and film buffs, Hitchcock injected himself into our theatres and living rooms. And it’s that TV show’s opening that made the nine stroke profile sketch of Hitch world famous. In addition to taking credit for ones own work, there is also a need to allow others to promote you. And that’s where the critics and television hosts come in. Because of Hitch’s sense of humor and his mastery of cinematic storytelling, he was always a crowd favorite. Even though he never won an Academy Award (though, nominated several times), he was bestowed other awards in the US and UK. In fact, he was knighted by the Queen! So, we really should address him as Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
When many writers and directors were going full-talkie after Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, in order to stand out from the crowd, Hitch made the decision to hold back on dialogue. Sometimes, Hitch would even have extended periods of near silence to place emphasis on the visual aspects of the conflict. Hitch described this practice of holding back on the dialogue, as holding back your cards. Using a poker game analogy, don’t lay all your cards on the table. Hitch desired to add multiple layers of conflict or dramatic irony to each scene. This process layers the story by adding new dimension to the conflict and dramatic irony. Hitchcock made it a point to guide the audience through the story versus telling them what was happening. Practices like this reinforce the idea of the Hitchcock brand.
Hitchcock’s mastery of suspenseful cinematic storytelling is demonstrated through his lack of detail-giving throughout his stories, whether we are talking his films or television shows. This action contributes to just why his films and shows are brilliant! In many ways, Hitch provides opportunities for the audience to figuratively contribute to the dialogue in the films. There is a high degree of anticipation as the audience does throughout the story; and it’s this heightened sense of anticipation that contributes to to engagement factor. Again, it may seem that there are other directors who have also done this, but Hitchcock was the first. And this is part of his brand.
What sets Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries as the first director to brand himself, is the important step of the branding process that requires the content, service, or product creator to elevate the product or service to an art form. We have plenty of examples of this today such as Apple, Lego, Disney, and yes even Michael Bay. Think about it. As soon as I mention Michael Bay, you instantly form an image of his style of motion pictures to mind. Furthermore, you know precisely what you are going to get (and not get) and you’re guaranteed to get more than two hours of explosions, homophobia, over-sexualization of women, lack of coherent plot, car chases and more. In fact, the concept of an explosion is synonymous with Michael Bay; it is his brand, so to speak. Hitchcock accomplished creating his brand decades before Bay. Whether talking about Hitchcock films today or back when they were first-run movies, the general public knew precisely what they were going to get with a Hitchcock film. Interestingly, this is why Psycho was such a big deal because Hitch broke some of his own rules to redefine the American horror film. And it’s this breaking of cinematic rules that made the film a success then and now.
Just because you have a logo, a recognizable name, and a record of successes, that does not mean that you are a brand. It’s like this: just because you have all the ingredients to make that fancy dish you had at that exclusive restaurant, that does not mean you can replicate the dish. You need the recipe that details the order and amounts. That is not unlike becoming a brand in the art and science of motion pictures. Part of being a brand goes beyond the product or service in which you have demonstrated specialization; you have to take all the respective elements of brand building, and then create an experience for the audience. Motion picture director branding is experiential. More than a couple hours of exceptional entertainment, the audience desires greatly to experience the director’s vision. Through his understanding of audience, Hitchcock knew how to activate movie goers and create an emotional connection between his name and image and what they desire for the best cinematic experience possible.
While the knowledge for motion picture producers and directors to use logos, color pallet, typography, iconography, design, and imagery strategically was not new with Hitchcock, he was the first director in Hollywood to combine the power of all those elements and the others that have been mentioned in this essay. Separately, each of the aforementioned elements can be influential tools; but combined, they are extremely powerful for developing a brand.
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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