Four things brands can learn from superheroes.
From the moment, blurry decades ago, that I perused my first superhero comic (The Mighty Thor, no less), I knew that this brilliant (yes, brilliant) storytelling format would be forming a large chunk of my reality. I like to think my profound notions of truth, justice and chivalrous way have as much been nurtured by Spiderman, Batman and The Hulk as by my elders’ wise counsel.
So what can these hyper protagonists who run, jump, fly, teleport around in underwear over spandex teach us about creating brands stronger than speeding trains and faster than speeding bullets? What can they teach us about thriving across generations, transcending gender, age and social class?
About creating equity and value to rival Google? About growing from fibs created to impress children to becoming multi-billion dollar concerns in entertainment? Okay, class is in. Let’s see if we can’t unravel a thing or two about how these figments of modern myth have become so enduring and profitable.
Lesson 1: Extraordinary Abilities
Every superhero possesses a super-enhanced human ability and/or super-dooper equipment that put them above mainstream humanity (obviously, that’s why they are called super). Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Dare Devil, Wolverine, The Fantastic Four, the list is virtually endless, all posses
super abilities ranging from super strength, invincibility, stamina, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, manipulation of the natural elements, the list is as endless and wondrous as the uncharted regions of the galaxy.
Others like The Mighty Thor and Wonder Woman combine super powers with super weapons, while heroes like Batman, Iron Man and The Green Lantern do not have any natural super powers. They depend on highly developed abilities like forensic, scientific and strategic genius, above-expert
proficiency in martial arts, combined with the possession of highly advanced scientific or magical equipment to help them save the earth from destruction and teach the bad guys the error of their ways.
Homework: What’s your brand’s super power? I think we can call this your USP, for lack of a better term (We’ve all heard about it, Unique Selling Point, or points, as the case may be). What can you do better than anyone else for the customer’s benefit? How have you honed this power to deadly
effect deploying structures and processes to help you consistently deliver and improve on this benefit to the customer and blow the competition to some intergalactic negative zone from whence they may never return?
So there’s some needle to be unearthed from some accursed haystack, who you gonna call- Google. There’s a hard road in need of some hard running and you wanna look pretty and respectable doing it, you got it- Nike, Adidas etc. Okay, I’m sure you get the story, so let’s turn the page.
Lesson 2: A Strong Moral Code and
Motivation Superheroes normally use their abilities for the good of humanity (that’s why they are called heroes, duh). In the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The Green Lantern is living a calling to a higher order, Superman is driven by truth, justice and a strict moral code about the sanctity of human life, even evil human life. A belief also shared by Batman, although he is not averse to breaking an evildoer’s limbs or ribs as he forges on in his relentlessly vengeful vendetta against evil wherever it may lurk. Even hardcore heroes (or anti-heroes, as is the official comic terminology) like The Punisher and Wolverine, who embrace wholesale murder in achieving their noble ideals, will not deliberately take an innocent life.
Homework: What’s your brand’s moral ideal. What line will your brand never cross in it’s quest for world domination? What ethos shape and determine how your brand presents itself to your customers? What will you never compromise on? How does this stand you apart from the competition and why should your customers care? How does it resonate with their motivations and aspirations?
Will you cut quality, just so you can improve your margins? Or so can charge less and be more competitive? Will you live up to that burdensome and costly promise of fair trade produce, non-conflict diamonds, organic ingredients, painstaking flawless quality, money back guaranty and bar none
customer experience? I’m sure in the long and storied history of comics, some valiant character must have uttered the famous word: “It’s not a principle, until it costs you.”
Lesson 3: A Distinctive Visual Identity
Superman’s S on his blue and red costume. Spiderman’s spider motif. Captain America’s star spangled banner-inspired garb. Batman’s cape and bat signal, Bat-orang, Batmobile etc. The Fantastic Four’s 4. The X-Mens’ X. The Green Lantern’s green lantern. The Punisher’s skull. The list is rich.
In the superhero universe, the most important decision you probably have to make, after surviving a super-power-giving mishap, is what to wear for the rest of your super-powered life. This is a critical success factor, a career-defining decision. If you are going to be wearing your underwear on the
outside, you’d better make sure you pick the right colour.
Superheroes’ costumes and visual symbols are patented cues project and strengthen their identity and purpose. These symbols over time have become powerful icons that embody the attributes of the superhero with whom they are associated. When criminals see the bat-signal in the night sky, they
know it’s time to start running. Commercially, these unique identifiers are probably the strongest element that make multi-billion dollar mass merchandising possible.
Homework: Do your brand’s logo and other patented visual symbols complement, project and strengthen your brand’s identity, essence and purpose? How have you used them to empower your brand’s story over time? Does the sight of your logo bring memories of your great adventures and
conquests flooding the minds and hearts of your customers? Will your customers wear a t-shirt with your logo on it? Will they buy a t-shirt with your logo on it? Do they even know what the heck a t-shirt with your logo on it looks like?
Lesson 4: A Powerful Enemy
This is the reason superheroes even exist. To kick the crap out of super powered villains. The stronger the adversary, the mightier the victory and the more epic the story. This is the very essence of any self-respecting myth. Every superhero is defined by the quality of the super villains they battle and
conquer. No true superhero’s legacy will endure if he’s only knocking out wimps. How can you lay claim to a being Superman or an Incredible Hulk if you can’t bring down tall buildings, wreck cities and threaten entire planets in epic battles that end with you standing bruised, bloodied and battered but victorious over your vanquished archenemy half buried in a smoldering pile of rubble and debris.
Ah yes, the archenemy. The most intractable villains in the superheroes’ rogue gallery. The bane of their existence. No matter how many times the hero beats the archenemy, they always come back with new and more terrifying schemes, contrivances and intrigues to rob our heroes of rest and sleep in an endless strings of feuds and re-matches that are the backbone of money spinning continuities.
Wolverine vs Sabretooth. Superman vs Lex Luther. Spiderman vs the Goblin(s). The X-Men vs Magnetto. Batman vs The Joker. Ironman vs The Mandarin. The Fantastic Four vs Doctor Doom. Thor vs Loki. Superheroes must constantly hone their skills and review their strategies if they are to continually thwart their unrelenting nemeses. Indeed, some critical reviews of the superhero narrative, for instance Batman, have suggested that the hero may indeed be responsible for creating the villain, for this is the only way to give their own existence meaning
Homework: What is your enemy? What is the one thing that your brand must constantly fight and beat? And in so doing, achieve success by helping your customers defeat this foe in their own existence? What human condition is preventing your customers, whom you have sworn to protect and
serve, from living the life they should have? Ordinariness? Mediocrity? Complexity? Boringness? Lethargy? Distrust? Doubt? Uncertainty? Weakness? Ugliness? Against what unique enemy are you locked in an eternal battle for supremacy that keeps you up at night, coming up with new schemes and strategies? Is your enemy powerful enough to force great battles that can give you epic victories? Is your enemy also the enemy of your customers?
What is Toyota’s enemy? Nike’s? Dove’s? Apple’s? Samsung’s?
No, Apple is not Samsung’s enemy. Okay, well they are, but that’s not the kind of enemy we’re talking about. Your enemy is a human ideal of negativism just as your essence is one of heroism.
Okay, enough of the heavy stuff. In the words of Stan Lee, Excelsior.