Image credit: Copyright of Warner Brothers Studios, 2008
Despite the Joker failing to carry out his plan (non-plan?) by the end of the movie, he did a wonderful job at showing and articulating some of the basic tenets of a good branding strategy that can help set your business up for success in the long-term (Unless, of course, your strategy is to kill Batman).
So here they are, five branding lessons from The Dark Knight’s The Joker:
1. Create one.
This is the absolute number one lesson in branding: Create one. Have one. Own one. It is essential as a professional or a business to craft a unique identity that you’re proud of that communicates to the world why you do what you do, who you are, and what you stand for.
One thing we can learn about The Joker is what an identity should be. In a lineup of criminals, The Joker could be identified and described instantaneously. If you didn’t know his name you could say “the guy that looks like a clown”, “he wears makeup”, “he wears a purple suit”, “his hair is green”, “he has a red smile painted on his face”, “he has scars on his face”. The other mobsters in town wore the same boring looking brown or gray suit, wore expensive jewelry, had clean-cut hairstyles, and polished shoes (Perhaps for a criminal fitting-in is the best policy, however this is beside my point).
If you want to stand out from the crowd, your identity needs to be describable. What is that singular feature/symbol/color/motif that people can use to identify your business among your competitors?
It’s important to remember that whether or not you’ve invested in your brand identity—you already have one. It’s created by your customers, your vendors, and your competitors. Your identity is defined by anyone that has formed an opinion about you and your business. This increases the need for you to take ownership of your identity and put something out into the world that you’re proud of people to see and talk about. Don’t be the guy in flip-flops at a formal.
2. “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.”
I’ve always loved this scene and quote. This is the moment that The Joker really drives home the point that he’s not in it for the same material wants as the other guys. It’s a great illustration of the importance of defining why your business is. Why are you? (Hint: You can’t say money/profits. Profit is a result of good business [Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, 2009].)
Part of defining your brand is to figure out what your message is. What do you want to communicate to your customers? What do you believe and how do you act on those beliefs? Do you believe in making the world more beautiful? Do you believe in challenging and reversing the status quo? Do you believe in improving the current status quo? Do you believe that people are inherently good and your organization will assist them in doing good?
The Joker states his “Why” very simply later in the movie. He’s an “agent of chaos”. He believes in uprooting the established order, he believes that people are inherently selfish and breakable. He seeks to expose and exploit this to ultimately bring down the “unbreakable” hero. Clear, simple, and consistent.
Find your why. Define your message. Make all decisions and actions by you and your company accountable to them.
3. “Nobody panics when things go according to plan.”
This one was a little tricky for me to write about, but I felt this point was important to highlight. In context, The Joker is actually talking about plans as “schemes”, that plans are things that keep the masses subdued and satisfied. This can be true. However, he does a great job of illustrating the strength of having a plan, if not used for subjugation.
Having a plan—an idea for what you want to accomplish, what you want to communicate, who you want to reach—is paramount to crafting a solid brand strategy and identity. Often these conclusions can come from data collecting, research, interviews with customers, and interviews within the business.
People within organizations need to know that they are working toward something, That there is something concrete they will accomplish. When a business is wandering, directionless, purposeless, the people within lose their motivation. Without purpose there is no rallying together. Without direction there is no moving forward. A plan gets everyone on the same page and…nobody panics.
4. Make your goals specific and actionable.
“We kill the Batman”.
Simple. Concise. Specific. As our mobster skeptic friend points out, “If it’s so simple, why haven’t you done it already?”, the how may be a bit complicated. However the goal is not about the how, it’s about achieving something.
It’s important that any goals you set for your business are specific and actionable. A big mistake I see when researching small businesses or scanning for potential clients is that company goals and mission statements are often vague, broad, and don’t say anything about what the business seeks to actually achieve. Phrases like “We strive for excellence” and “To be the best” are terrible goals because they say nothing about what “excellent” or “the best” really is. They provide no direction for the people of the organization. What is the definition of excellent and how do we measure how close we are to it? What does “the best” really mean? In what capacity are we the best? Who’s to say what the best is or what is excellent anyhow? Maybe there’s a process or service that hasn’t been created yet that’s even better than your best, or is “more excellent”?
“We kill the Batman”. Inherent in this statement is a measure of how The Joker can determine if he has achieved his goal or not:
“Is the Batman alive?”
“I have failed. Try again.”
For a more real-world example: improve brand awareness by increasing Facebook shares by 10%.
“Have we increased Facebook shares by 10%?”
“We have succeeded. Next goal.”
Defining your goals and how to achieve them specifically gives your brand purpose, direction, and a call to action. A strong brand strategy and identity are important assets to have while marching forward with your business goals, as they make your business memorable and identifiable to present and future customers.
5. “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
Note: Before I dive in, I want to clarify that this is separate from organizations that provide non-profit and pro-bono services for good causes. While there is a need for doing “free” work occasionally, my focus here is for businesses that expect to turn a profit as part of their business model.
The Joker illustrates a couple things here:
- Understand the value of your services or products.
- Your brand should reflect that value.
- Don’t be afraid to demand fair compensation for what you provide.
The bigger point here is to provide something that is valuable in the first place. In The Dark Knight universe it’s valuable to the criminal world to eliminate Batman. The Joker is offering to fill that niche service in the market for a high price that each party agrees to.
Your brand should be reflecting the same thing about your business. Don’t wait until your competitors offer something and hop on the train when they do. Don’t make your strategy “look at what Joe down the street is doing and copy that”. Provide your own unique spin in your niche and be good at it. Be really good at it. Scarcity is valuable–if you’re the only one that provides X service, your brand automatically gains strength in the market.
Value is subjective and it isn’t always about dollars. People are increasingly shopping with socially-conscious brands. Sometimes people use a more expensive airline because they enjoy the experience. Sometimes people buy the cheaper store-brand product because the name-brand fails to offer them the value to justify the higher price.
Identify what value you’re providing, who your customers are, and figure out why people are doing business with you and your competitors. Once you define the value of your brand, you can derive an appropriate brand identity that reflects that value.
Provide something valuable and you won’t be expected to do it for free.
Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts? What would you add to this list? Or perhaps take away? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below!