What Anti-Hero Popularity Teaches Us About Branding

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The Anti-Hero is a phenomenon in film and television that involves the significant popularity unlikeable characters have garnered. Whether ruthlessly truthful, uniquely aggressive or simply not the type of person you bring your family around, these personalities have been at the heart of a wide assortment of tv and movies, including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men and more. Film has been able to have a longer track record with anti-heroes (likely due to brevity – audiences can appreciate in an 90 minutes more than 6 seasons of 60 minute episodes) but, still, there is something to this recent trend that cannot be ignored.

To say we live in a jaded world would be a cop-out explanation for why people are able to appreciate anti-heroes. Instead, there is something refreshing in personalities that buck the ‘always lovable’ persona and feel real. This is important because not every company can be the sheriff (or deputy) of Mayberry. I would argue, instead, that there is value in being an anti-hero in branding, so much as you’re honest about what the customer can expect and do provide value:

You don’t need to be a BFF if you’re telling a great story. There’s a massive push in branding, especially in companies on the employee-facing arena, of conveying super friendly, super happy “we are family” messaging. This doesn’t have to be the go-to, though, over compelling narratives and rationale for selection. At the end of the day, value still ranks at the top, or near it, for what people are looking for from brands. If you can carry your brand’s effectiveness in a tone that’s respectful and professional, shifting to an emoticon-friendly voice is neither necessary, or even potentially warranted. Do not be afraid to own the fact your company is the hardest-working, most determined group of people working for their customer’s best interests. Doing so screams professionalism that may trump, in many people’s eyes, a lack of cushy engagement.

Further, it cannot be stressed enough that branding trumps almost everything when it comes to engagement, not only making it essential your brand values are founded on sustainable factors, but also that you act and speak consistently. The above point does not advocate being rude or disinterested but, instead, staying true to your industry, company and core interests rather than running headlong into efforts you cannot sustain, nor are even interested in doing. To this point…

Consistency trumps flash. Thinking back to any of the decade’s best anti-heroes in film or television, it’s difficult to find grand transformations or gimmicky plot turns. Instead, these characters were consistent and methodical in their representation and messages. While it’s important that a brand show itself to be knowledgable and a thought leader/innovator, adopting the latest social media channel or website add-ons aren’t more valuable than remaining consistent in what you’ve been doing well. If you’re a car company, live in the world of driving and driver experience; resorting to cat pictures and word puzzles for posts when you’re a gritty, serious business is not only ineffective but confusing to your audience.

Simply put, a brand’s social media should be an extension of business practices and overall identity that pre-dates the early 2000s, or reflects a rebranding effort your company undoubtedly paid a lot of money for. No matter the case, the fact remains that not only does abandonment of a platform look worse than not having a presence, but also how jarring inconsistent messaging can be. Own who your company is and run with it. And when you do so, be sure to…

Be bold, but authentic. While the anti-hero isn’t necessarily a villain, they’re also not “Golly Gee” Clark Kent either. What resonates with audiences in anti-heroes is the genuine honesty behind the character; a brand does not need to be America’s Sweetheart to be respected and admired. Instead, own what your core value is to consumers and readily admit the “bad”/lacking. An effective, clear and honest FAQ section and Information section goes a long way in eliminating misconceptions, picking up key wins in SEO and, ultimately, not making the consumer feel ‘fooled.’

A great example of this is the recent Deal a Day upstart “Meh.” Created by the founders of Woot, the company’s brand voice and platform is steeped in reminding customers not to expect too much beyond the general principles of value and, basically, a fair shake at a resolution should one be necessary. This brand represents both a counter to the exhaustively heralded Zappos as well as a return to minimalism in online shopping; the company sells itself as exhaustively focused on low pricing, not flash and circumstance at the expense of the customer. The results can be seen on their forum, where constant discussion incorporating company branding takes place with brand loyalists and new customers. Yes, the company has been involved in surprise and delight giveaways but this is not what Meh hangs its hat on versus an ownership of simplicity in service, offerings and expectations.

In total, there aren’t many silver bullets in social media. Instead, there are often simple bad practices that success can be gleaned from. Branding is a difficult world that requires not only internal champions but clear guidelines that are adopted from the top down. Avoiding the appeal of adopting flash for the sake of ‘changing things up’ is crucial in being effective as a brand and providing social media that is more engagement than selling.

Photo Credit: Daniel Mott

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