Have you ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 opus Pulp Fiction? Did you leave the cinema, or turn off your TV, wondering what was in the damn suitcase? Yeah? I felt the same. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta spent half the film carrying it around, chasing it and generally worrying about it. 

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been obsessed with that suitcase ever since I started work in technical PR and marketing.

You see, the suitcase doesn’t really contain anything at all. It’s a MacGuffin. For those of you who didn’t major in film studies, here’s an explanation of what that means:

"A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction". The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot."

As you’ve probably guessed, the MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction isn’t really the one I’ve been obsessed with for well over a decade.

The one I’ve been carrying around, chasing and generally worrying about is more of a marketing MacGuffin. In fact there’s been at least one for every campaign I’ve ever worked on. It’s the cornerstone message, the fundamental, overarching thing that catches the attention of the potential customer in every campaign. It’s the thing that makes the reader sufficiently interested to overcome their innate unwillingness to be sold to and make an enquiry.

It’s the interplay between message, medium and mechanism. It’s exactly the right balance between repetition and over-exposure. It’s every single one of the five Ps.

But how does one go about figuring out what the MacGuffin actually is? My feeling is that if you are going to find an answer, you will probably find it by asking your customers and your staff the right questions about what your company or product is all about. The reality is that the MacGuffin might well be different for every product or service you offer.

Just don’t stop looking for it, because when you do, that’s when your campaign will go stale. After all, why should anyone else be interested in what you have to say if you don’t know what’s interesting about it yourself.

Maybe the MacGuffin is the second prompt, from just the right person, to follow up on an e-mail campaign. Maybe it’s the right response mechanism in an advert. Maybe it’s the right meta-tag description on a Web page, which presents exactly the right message to users when they type a particular term into Google. Maybe it’s just speaking your customer’s language. And if you don’t know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in France, now’s the time to find out, metaphorically speaking.

Maybe it really is whatever’s in the bloody suitcase.

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