I’ve been thinking about zombies lately. Which is obviously understandable most of the time, because hey, zombies. But in addition to my usual musings about bite-proof clothing and the ideal household items to use as weapons, I’ve been thinking about zombies in terms of branding.
I had a teacher who used zombie movies to explain the importance of character development. He pointed out that most zombie movies spend relatively little time on actual zombies; most of the screen time is devoted to the survivors of whatever virus/magic/accident caused the zombie outbreak. We see them worrying about zombie attacks, sure – but that’s generally because they’re worried about family and friends and pets and so on. Discussions about zombies are usually in relation to each other, so they try to decide who has the best plan, and then they argue about that plan, and then there’s some kind of power struggle in the group of survivors, and somebody’s an asshole about it, and someone has a crush on someone else, and somebody’s stealing group supplies to feed their secret pregnant zombie lover or whatever. Most of the time, it’s kind of like, well, life.
And there’s a good reason for that. It’s because when the zombies do break through their defenses, or pin down one of the survivors, we care. We care because we’ve seen what they love, what they have to lose, what they’re passionate about. We’ve invested in them, and our investment is suddenly threatened.
Bad zombie movies don’t do that. They throw zombies at the screen like there’s actually no tomorrow. They might use cutting-edge CGI to create the most terrifying rotting flesh or the most horrifying half-dead zombie elephants or whatever, but unless we have a reason to care about the characters, it gets real boring real fast. Because zombies aren’t actually that interesting. Once they turn, they’re basically all the same.
It’s what sets a good zombie movie, whether it’s George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, apart from something like Resident Evil or World War Z. The latter are both big-budget Hollywood productions, but they don’t really make us care what happens to the various characters. In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun spends pretty much the entire movie worrying about his girlfriend; while in Resident Evil the script seems to spend more time on Milla Jovovich’s legs than her personality.
So, what’s this got to do with brands?
It’s about caring. Because I think one of the things great brands spend time doing is giving you reasons to care about them: by word, certainly, but also by their actions. Brands that reveal something about themselves; brands that tell us what they’re hoping for, what they care about, and why; a brand with a vision rather than just a mission – these are brands we can relate to, and hopefully, brands we want to survive. In a nutshell, it’s about finding a story to tell, telling that story as best you can, giving people a reason to believe that story, and then hopefully giving everyone a way to take part in that story too. That’s why brand values and beliefs and opinions should be more than filler on the About Page of a website – and more importantly, why we need to see those aspects of brand in action.
So let’s take a look at a rag-tag band of brands as they make their way through our post-apocalyptic wasteland. Let’s say we have Starbucks, Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club, WeWork, Tesla, and Apple. They’ve survived the initial zombie outbreak, and now they’re heading to some rumored farmhouse haven, where a community of other survivors have created an undead-free zone.
But as they’re quietly making their way through a small town, crows ominously circling in the darkness above them, uh-oh, Warby Parker accidentally steps on some child’s abandoned doll which cries out MAAAA-MAAAAA in a creepy way. So the zombies obviously attack! And here’s what happens:
Well, right off the bat we’re worried about Warby Parker. I mean, it wasn’t their fault they stepped on the doll, though a better pair of glasses might have prevented this. But Warby Parker are good people! They not only have a simple, down-to earth tone of voice, and provide cool, affordable glasses in a convenient, try-at-home, fashion, but we also know they enable people in need to get free eye care and treatment. So run, Warby Parker! Run!
Then there’s Tesla. Tesla’s a little aloof when they’re talking, but boy do they come up with some great ideas to get their group out of a tough spot. That’s their entire vision. They’re not just trying to survive, they want EVERYONE to make it through, despite some serious obstacles. And the more punches they take, the more ideas they come up with. They’ve earned our respect. And besides, we want to see what crazy invention they come up with next.
Dollar Shave Club are next in line, and there’s no question about them. We love Dollar Shave Club. Young, funny, and surviving against the odds against much larger opponents, they’re the plucky challenger we’ve been rooting for from the start. Off you go, and maybe you get to hook up with Warby Parker after all this is over. Don’t think we haven’t noticed the tension between you two.
We Work are pretty young too. But we’ve never really got to know them. They sort of help people out when it comes to hanging out and stuff, and they look pretty hip, but to be honest, they’re kind of a drag. We just don’t know what they want, or why. So when they get grabbed by the goatee and pulled into the shadows screaming in agony, well, no great loss. There’ll be a better cool character along in the next scene, probably.
Starbucks gets jumped pretty hard too, and before we know it, they’re foaming at the mouth. They’ve been around for a while in our story, but they’re just a little two dimensional. Everything’s always perfect with them – they’re always coming up with wise things to say and they’re very responsible, but again, we don’t really know what they stand for. They’re just a little vanilla.
And then there’s Apple. We used to like Apple. They were kind of like Dollar Shave Club, fighting the system. A little angry, a little arrogant, a little flashy, but definitely cool. And like Tesla, they had all these neat ideas which they were totally chill about in an understated kind of way. When they blew up a group of zombies they totally walked away without looking at the explosion behind them. But lately, I don’t know. They’re sort of predictable. Understated has turned into nothing-to-say. It’s like they’ve just given up. So it’s kind of a relief when they get taken out. We’ve been expecting it.
Hopefully some better developed characters are waiting in the wings to replace the fallen few – Think Coffee or Stumptown could take over the Starbucks role. Maybe throw in a SoulCycle and a S’Well or a Nest. Possibly even an old hand like Soda Stream or Oscar Meyer for comic relief. Stay tuned.
So are bland brands doomed? Not necessarily. Every brand has the potential to make us care – the seeds are always there. It might be something in their back story. It might be something about their vision for the future. It might be about their attitude to the competition. Every company is the product of a unique set of people and circumstances, personalities and values, and so the story is there.
As is, hopefully, a happy ending.