BATMAN: Then why do you want to kill me?
The Joker starts laughing. He laughs so profusely, it almost sounds like a sob.
JOKER: Kill you? I don't wanna kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers ? No. No. No! No you- you complete me.”
- The Dark Knight- Interrogation Scene
“The Joker is the Batman’s most implacable foe, a mad criminal genius whose bizarre rampages baffle even the world’s greatest detective.”- Alan Moore writes about the clowned prince of crime in the ‘The Killing Joke’.
Sometimes, your most implacable foe defines you. And no better place to experience this than the world of iconic brands. And if you are on the verge of creating one, I would strongly recommend to identify that foe.
Identifying the Villain
If you are creating or transforming a brand, ask what enemy are you fighting? And then wage a relentless war until you win!
But before you give in to the immediate urge to name your competitors, let me stop you. Don’t! Don’t name your competitors. Because we are not talking about market players here. That is the conventional way of looking at it. And you won't get much from the market these days being just the bigger, better and faster ‘me too’. Especially, when you are the zillionth brand in an over exposed category.
We are talking about a more magnificent villain. An epic bad.
We will get to that, but first let’s understand why brand villains are important ?
All brands are stories. Stories that change how we experience products. All good stories have powerful villains. The more nasty or evil the villain is, the more we enjoy our heroes thrashing them and march ahead to a glorious triumph.
Think about this.
- Lord Rama wouldn’t serve as a guiding beacon of truth, goodness, and morality if not for his victory over Ravana.
- Neo would still be a socially awkward invisible techie operating from his claustrophobic den if not for Agent Smith.
- Luke Skywalker would not exist if not for Darth Vader (Quite literally in this case)
- The Flash’s raisen’detre was the Reverse Flash.
- The Starks would not be so battle driven if not for the conniving Lannisters. And Jon Snow would indeed ‘know nothing’ without the white walkers.
Villains in stories have stood the test of time:
Kauravas and Pandavas..
Moriarty and Sherlock..
Gabbar Singh and Jai Veeru
Voldemort and Harry Potter
and now the Evil Corp and Mr Robot..
I can go on and on. But you get the point. It is like Jerry Maguire says “ You complete me” but in a Jokerish weird way. Magnificent villains provide a contrast that makes the story more interesting and our heroes more loveable.
The essence of any powerful story is the confrontation between the hero and the villain. The pressure cooker tension that builds up right until the climax. Results don’t matter. It is the making of a duel (that of thermonuclear potential) brewing on a slow simmer that keeps us glued.
Then there is the big clash. And we take sides.
It is a clash between two different perspectives, two different ideologies, two different belief or value systems. Two highly opinionated individuals who believe in an alternate future of the world. You know there is change at the end of this road. One of them will win, but both of them will shape the change. And we, as audiences, take sides. That is the thing with a good story. It enables us to choose sides. So true about great brands too.
The above paragraph is quite revealing in a way. Think about this-
- What did Gandhi do with the concept of colonization?
- What did Martin Luther King Jr do with the concept of inequality based on the color of skin?
- And Steve Jobs to the Orwellian big brother status quo of computer industry in 1984 ? And then to mediocrity - products created without any taste and culture?
- What kind of statement Beetle make against the prevailing perception of car sizes in an era marked by monstrous gas guzzlers?
- And remember Saturn - the ‘different kind of car company’ that questioned the way automobile companies behaved? And how Nano questioned the notion of car affordability.
- Or how Space X aims to knock off fiction from science fiction by waging a war on impossibility.
- How a musician, Amanda Palmer, collapsed the wall built by a music industry that separates the artist and her fan?
- How Uber disrupted the way we hail a cab and the inconveniences that go along with it ?
- How Lifebuoy waged a war on germs all these years positively impacting so many lives ?
- Or how MUJI questioned consumerism and hedonism in favour of simplicity ?
These are but just a few examples of iconic and revolutionary disruptive brands who picked up a fight. But make no mistake. These weren’t your petty backstreet alley fights. Each of them waged a war on something deeply entrenched or something ubiquitous.
A magnificent villain. An epic bad:
They waged a war on threats on truth, principles or peace, on injustice, on social evils or on pressing real world problems. They waged a war on the expected way things are done. On compromises and mediocrity, on bad customer service, on authorities and false ceilings, on invisible shackles, on obsolescence, on boredom, on rules, on chaos and fear, on lack of meaning, on herd mentality, on false symbolism and hedonism, on snootiness, on lop sided power equations, on inaction, on blasphemy or on prolonged silences.
But none of this was trivial. It was massive yet people were oblivious to it because it just stood there. Like a gargantuan sky hovering over us. No one questioned a world without it. And by waging a relentless war against these villains, the heroes changed the world as we know it.
Brands who chose to wage a war against these villains on a consistent basis are also the remarkable ones that defy market economics and logic. Consistency is important. They never forgot their enemy. Not even for a single day. And they never stopped fighting. Despite short term bleak looking business cycles that made them question the whole purpose of this war. The ones that had fuelled their self doubts perished. The ones that stood up to the task were not only rewarded with market-shares but also share of hearts.
How to create your remarkable brand?
Early up in your brand creation/ transformation process, identify the villain. And don’t plunge into the sea of sameness by obsessing over your competitors.
So who could be your brand’s Darth Vader, Joker or Ravana ?
Your brand’s magnificent villain could be a social evil, a pressing problem or the way things are done or just are. It could be the status quo, lower expectations, conformity or traditions. It could be puffery or the blinded sheep, it could be the frustrations or mediocrity that make us experience hell on earth.It could be lack of sense of humour or human warmth in a straitjacketed stiff category. It could be the expected eccentricity or showmanship of a category that needs to be countered by sincerity and reliability. It could be exclusive snootiness of a category that needs a rethink. Or it could be compromised experiences that should not exist in the marketplace at all. As a remarkable brand, you could be bringing profound meaning against the gibberish of the world or introducing little dose of healthy craziness when everyone else is sounding like Buddha in Blazers. You could be calming in a super fast stressed out world. Or unwired in the messy tangle of connections. There are so many villains. Choose the one that you think the world would be better off without. But don't just pick up a fight for the heck of it. Pick up a fight with a villain having deeply entrenched roots in your category or Industry. Pick up a fight so that your consumers are pleasantly surprised to discover you. So that they can take sides. So that they don't have to live with compromises.
And don’t just pick up a fight. Wage a war. A relentless, sustainable and consistent war. Remember when you win, your consumer also wins. And together you shape the much needed change.
Remember, it is a long term war. And winter is coming. But a brand must fight. A villain must die.