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Brand Alchemy: Turning Lead into Gold

He’s the Incredible Hulk. He’s big, he’s green and he’s really, really angry. He is also the first of the remarkable remake/sequels that Marvel Studios is putting out to reclaim the integrity of their brand. We all remember the first film by director Ang Lee. It was sharp, it was cool, the CGI was good for its time, the “Hulk issue” was shown to be multigenerational and the movie had a mutated poodle…you see where I am going with this. Somehow, the first Hulk went off the rails. The new one, with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, manages to pull the train back to where it belongs.

The Importance of Brand to the Modern Superhero

You see the same things happening with other superhero blockbusters. Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Punisher, and The X-Men; and on the DC side of the comic universe, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. All of these are going back to the original material in some way; all of them are being true to the characters as they were in the beginning. To prepare for his role as The Joker, Heath Ledger was given the comics that first introduced the character while the writer, David Goyer, based his work on the comic series Batman: the Long Halloween. They even consulted with Jerry Robinson, one of the Joker’s co-creators, on how he should be portrayed. The result: A Joker that is not your giggling ‘60s era Cesar Romero “Clown Prince of Crime.” Ledger’s Joker is the remorseless, murdering psychopath fans first met decades ago.

Why go through all of this? Why not update the stories and the characters? There are all sorts of creative people in Hollywood ; certainly they can do a great job bringing the superhero into the 21st century. After all, we all liked Daredevil and Electra, and all those great made-for-TV superhero movies based on these same comics, right?

The fact is that every mediocre rendition, every adaptation, every low-budget attempt to capture the essence of these characters and stories is, at best a disappointment. At worst, it is a severe blow to the brand involved. As far as I am concerned, films like Electra or Batman Returns were the comic book hero versions of New Coke, mistakes that grew into an object lesson for all involved. Marvel learned that lesson all too well, as did the makers of the new Batman franchise. All of them are doing the work and being true to their brand, either right from the start or by practicing a little brand alchemy and reclaiming it.


Being true to your brand means being true to who you are and what you and your company stand for in the marketplace. The owners of these stories forgot that over the years, selling their characters and storylines—their product, their brand—to people who liked the surface aspects of the characters but wanted to recreate what was beneath that veneer in their own images. The results were painful to watch and did more harm than good to the franchises involved.

Some Ideas for Being True to Your Brand

There are some lessons to be learned here; lessons that, if adhered to, will keep you and your brand afloat for a long time to come.

Do Not Reinvent the Wheel

These characters have been around for years, some for decades. Why is that? Spider-Man was born out of two things: fear of radioactivity and fear of spiders, neither of which have gone anywhere. The Hulk is something else. It is a retelling of a classic tale, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. True, it has updated story with modern technology but the tale of a scientist that experiments upon himself and becomes a monster is intact.


What these examples tell us is that once you have something that works, you don’t need to fiddle with it. By all means keep your brand current in the same way you would keep your product or service mix current, but change for the sake of change doesn’t help and can positively hurt you. Even when you think you have a good reason to rebrand your business, you need to consider what you will gain versus what you might lose. After all, look at what happened to New Coke .

Keep Focus

One of the things that marks most super heroes is their tragic beginnings—the death of a loved-one, a devastating assault, a planet explodes, a horrific injustice that must be avenged—and the more monstrous the event, the more monstrous the hero. While the four Batman films of the ‘90s kept that initial tragedy, that initial trauma, the driving force that should have come from it was lost by the second film and we were more interested in the villains than in Batman himself. Why? We lost interest because there was no real focus on Batman and his reason for existing. Focus was on the tragic beginnings of the villains. In fact, this was so bad that not even the introduction of Robin and Batgirl in the third and fourth installments could save it.


The problem was that the seminal moment in the life of the main character was glossed over rather badly. The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents was a fact, it was dealt with in a fairly perfunctory and superficial fashion and then Bruce was fighting crime in a heavy latex bat suit. Makes sense, right? Personal tragedy leads to nighttime, rooftop romps in black rubber. There seems to be a disconnect here. What are missing are the pain, angst and inner conflict of the main character that leads him into that double life. Instead, the films were all about action. Now, that’s fine if your demographic is 12-year old boys (or adult boys with the mentality of 12-year olds), but from the point of view of sustaining a story—let alone a franchise—it doesn’t hold up and things that don’t hold up over time are not good for a brand.


So, what does hold up? What hold up are all the aspects of your business that differentiate you from your competitors; everything that goes into supporting your brand. It is your product mix, your service, your retail space, the way you interact with the community and with your customers and vendors. These are your core competencies and focusing on them means you are focusing on what sets you apart—you are focusing on your brand.

Be Brilliant

The third major lesson we can take away from the recent reinvention of the superhero adventure movie is the need to be, for lack of a better word, brilliant. One cannot conceive of Iron Man without Robert Downey Jr. or The Incredible Hulk without Edward Norton. Why is this? It is not enough to simply remark that in the scenes without them, the movie drags. It’s not enough because that is only a sign of a more general issue. By the way they play the characters, it is obvious that these actors have made them their own, and that adds something intangible to the films, a quality that takes what might otherwise be a fairly pedestrian action-adventure film and makes it great.


More than that, these films don’t scrimp. The Dark Knight filmed at locations in England , Hong Kong and in Chicago because the filmmakers wanted everything to be right. The computer technology they poured into it was top-of-the line as well. Why is that? To make money you have to spend money and nowhere is that homily more self-evident than in the movie business. The great ones spend what they need to do it right. That means location, equipment, actors, technical people, CGI, props, costumes—everything.


Doing it right is all part of your brand. In fact, it is a very large part of your brand that cuts across your products, your services, your production and manufacturing, your personnel and your management. In each of these areas, doing things right shows the world that you are fully dedicated to quality. That means you need the right people, people who take your business as seriously as you do, the right products and materials and the right procedures and processes. When you get that mix right, stand back and put on some shades. The results will be brilliant.

The Bottom Line

Keeping your brand on top takes work. It is not an advertising issue, or a marketing issue; it is a whole-business issue. Just as with the superhero brands that are dominating the movies this year, your brand must be reflected in everything you do, from you personnel decisions to your office or retail space to your customer service to your products and services. All of these things are your brand and you need to treat them as such. It isn’t often that Hollywood teaches us something worthwhile, but this is something every business owner needs to learn.

It will be fun to see of J.J. Abrams has learned it with his upcoming Star Trek prequel. Of course, with Simon Pegg as Scotty, I have to wonder.
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