Five things brands can learn from Superheroes

I came across some old files the other day (actual files, sheathed in manila). One contained a presentation called ‘Five things brands can learn from Superheroes’. I seem to remember delivering it a Marketing Conference for a brewery client, at about the time Tobey Maguire was a spiderling.

I thought it was still mildly interesting so summarised it:

Superheroes are known for one thing.

This seems to be pretty much universal. You don’t get equivocal superheroes. You tend not to find characters like ‘Batman, who’s also a little bit turtlesque’, or ‘Volcano Man, who’s also quite tornadoey’. Superheroes are known for one thing alone. Why? Because it gives innocent people one reason to remember them, and guilty people one reason to fear them.

Which is handy for brands, too. If you’re known for one thing, you’ll be that much more memorable for customers. And if you’re really good at that one thing, you’ll be that much more feared by competitors.

A good Superhero is a consistent Superhero.

There’s a scene in pretty much every movie in the genre in which the Superhero does something out of character. He spurns the assistance of his one human ally. He reacts with unnecessary violence to an innocent foe. He ignores the call for help when he is most needed.

This is the point at which his superness is questioned. It’s not the severity of the act that matters. It’s the inconsistency. Often it’s nothing more than a change in modus operandi, but the response is usually pretty extreme. The backlash begins. The townspeople revolt. The superhero is ostracised.

It’s because we fear that our heroes will let us down.  And inconsistent behaviour is the first sign that this might be about to happen.

Which also applies to brands. The reaction to inconsistency in brand behaviour is also extreme, because unconsciously we put a lot of faith in brands.  They’re shorthand, simplifying choice.  We know we can buy familiar brands without thinking about it because we know what we’re going to get. We rely on that. So when a brand does something out of character we’re being let down and our reaction is often disproportionately extreme.

A good Superhero understands theatre.

Superheroes are masters of theatre. Capes, masks and the ability to shoot stuff out of your wrists seem to be popular flourishes. You seldom find an understated superhero, for the simple reason that as a superhero your appearances are somewhat limited.  You’re in the business of being extraordinary, and you need to take every opportunity to cement that impression. So you have to go out on a theatrical limb, make yourself extraordinary, accepting the risk that in so doing you might be polarising.

And so with brands.  Your appearances in someone’s life are limited.   So the onus is on you to make yourself extraordinary (assuming this is your ambition). Which means being memorable. Which in turn means embracing the value of theatre, understanding that being memorable in how you present yourself makes it easier to be remembered for what you do.

Every Superhero needs a back story.

We love the story of how a superhero comes to be. It informs everything. History makes sense of the present.  Why those particular super abilities? What is she triumphing over? What will her weakness be? While we like to watch what a superhero can do, we also like to understand why she chooses to do it.

Brands are exactly the same. Every product originated somewhere, every idea was a response to a problem, every graphic symbolises something.  And every brand should strive to have an interesting story to tell.  Because while we’re interested in what a brand can do, we’re also interested in how a brand was created that could do it.

Every Superhero has a weakness.

It’s part of a superhero’s character to have a weakness.  (It’s also handy to have a nemesis to exploit that vulnerability.) This weakness exists solely to make the superhero more human, more normal.  But it’s also often the bit that’s most endearing about them, simply because it’s universal. It plays to the fact that while we admire people for their strengths, we like them for their weaknesses.

Which is something very few brands seem prepared to embrace.  Proud brand managers crave perfection in their charges.  But I think weakness, or even fallibility, is a great thing in a brand. Shared weakness is something we bond over, which is why brands often bounce back so well from a seemingly calamitous public failing – Virgin Blue, Cadbury, possibly even Toyota. Brands become much easier to relate to, and embrace, when they don’t pretend to be perfect. Because weakness, at least as much as love, is the universal language.

Five things brands can learn from Superheroes

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