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Not all superheroes are born equal

User Avatar Blogger . 23/06/2010 16:37:54
Not all superheroes are born equal
By Chris Harrison, Head of University Communications

When I’m not working, I like nothing more than to watch a good film, and not many people make better ones than Christopher Nolan. The director of The Dark Knight, Batman Begins and some rather good non-bat-related movies such as Memento and Insomnia was interviewed in the latest edition of Empire magazine.

I read with interest about his plans to direct the next Batman film and produce a reboot of the flagging Superman franchise. Towards the end of the interview, he said something which really struck a chord with me as a marketer:

‘What you have to remember with both Batman and Superman… is that what makes those the best superhero characters there are, the most beloved after all this time, is the essence of who those characters were when they were created and when they were first developed. And you can’t ever move too far away from that.’

What made the Batman films so successful was not the script, acting, scenery or, in the case of The Dark Knight, the unfortunate death of one of the lead actors, although all of those things form part of the picture. It was that Nolan and his team understood what ‘made’ Batman. Bruce Wayne was a man driven by fear and revenge. His parents were killed in front of his eyes when he was a child. Despite his extraordinary wealth he was raised - and continued to live - in the gloomy, crime-ridden city of Gotham. Perhaps most tellingly, he was created in the late 1930s when most comic books turned as dark as the cloud hanging over Europe.

Batman was never intended to be the luridly colourful, camp crusader of the 1960s (enjoyable though the Adam West series are) or the badly misguided Clooney incarnation in Batman and Robin. Nolan understood this and realised that to make a successful Batman movie, he had to get to the root of the character, and he did so with great skill.

There are those in Hollywood and on the internet forums who would love Nolan to oversee a Superman ‘origin story’ very different to Richard Donner’s; to turn the Man of Steel into a dark, brooding, introspective character (Superman 3, anyone?), inhabiting a Metropolis teeming with shadows, torrential rain and inescapable menace; to produce an existential look at what makes a Superman. But Nolan won’t do that. He knows that just as Batman’s humanity is what makes him special, it is his ‘superhumanity’, to coin a phrase, that makes Superman special. He says, ‘a big part of [what makes them exceptional] is their individuality.’

Marketers know very well the relevance of Nolan’s approach to what we do. Every organisation is unique, each one with something slightly different to offer its customers, whether through its products, services or personality. This, of course, is what we call the ‘brand’.

A brand is something to be celebrated, utilised, but most of all, lived. All of the most successful brands actually exist, and that isn’t intended to be a glib or obtuse comment. They thrive because the customer’s brand experience closely matches or ideally exceeds the brand proposition. ‘Spin’ may win friends, but it doesn’t keep them, long-term.

Having learned to love and live our brands, we must back that up in our marketing plans. Too often we see or hear about ‘Me Too’ strategies where organisations spend vast amounts of money to ‘counter’ or copy what their competitors are doing; or they redesign their website or literature at great time and cost, to look like their rivals’. Sometimes this might make sense but it is not a sustainable option. It is far better to look at what works for us. Chances are it will be different to what works for them.

So what conclusion can we draw from this? To return to the Superhero analogy, if we want to ensure that our organisation is a Dark Knight and not a Batman and Robin, let us embrace its individuality, celebrate it, and most of all, live the brand.

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