Kill the Competition: A guide to becoming an antihero brand

—TV is awash with flawed characters audiences cheer for. VMLY&R’s Trevor Thomas wonders if marketers should try a similar approach.—

Until Feb. 7, 1999, there was an unbreakable, unshakeable, unmistakable rule in television: networks believed that the protagonists of their shows needed to be undeniably “good.”

Lucy Ricardo, from I Love Lucy; Frank Columbo, from Columbo; or Will Smith, from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Perfect? Certainly not. They were allowed to make mistakes, but they had to be good people, well-intentioned and likeable.

Why would audiences invest their time in characters who lacked those virtues? It was inconceivable to network execs, and so show after show featured leads who fit the bill.

And then, on that fateful night in early 1999, in the fifth episode of the first season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano—a mob boss and a family man—violently and mercilessly garroted a “rat” before returning to a college campus to pick up his daughter.

With that one brutal act, the era of the TV antihero began. A police detective could now have highly questionable morals on The Shield. An FBI agent could use any method imaginable on 24. Even a humble advertising executive could be presented as a philandering, identity-stealing drunk.

And we, the audience, couldn’t get enough of them. So, a steady stream of shows emerged with new, more twisted versions of the antiheroes we craved. And it hasn’t stopped.

Most of today’s popular programming is built around antiheroes: Succession, Yellowjackets, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The White Lotus.

What seemed inconceivable to the industry at the end of the last century has become inescapable.

Another industry has long followed a similar code, locked in the belief that its participants must be quantifiably “good.”

Since the dawn of modern advertising, brands of all shapes and sizes have attempted to play the role of the traditional hero. The thinking behind this orthodoxy is similar to that of television, where marketers and agencies have long held that in order for an audience to want to support a brand and purchase its products, that brand must be “good.”

But does it?

If Daenerys Targaryen can draw in more than 10 million viewers, can a brand equivalent pull people into the cereal aisle?

A first step would be to re-examine a framework that has held brands in this typecasting for decades: archetypes.

There are 12 in all, including The Hero, The Lover, The Wholesome. The Caregiver and The Innocent.

One of those is not real, but unless you’re a dedicated student of the practice, I bet you’ll have to look it up.

Creating archetypes is not the only brand development tool, but it remains in heavy rotation and is still foundational to our thinking, even if we’re not actively using it.

The application of these archetypes is never to determine whether the brand is “good,” but rather what kind of “good” it is. Even an archetype like The Outlaw—the only one with a hint of antihero—is typically employed to set up the brand in question as the “good” guy in the fight against an evil, out-of-touch category.

But what if archetypes broke bad?

We’ve seen shades of this in recent years from established brands like Wendy’s and their infamous Twitter account, and upstarts like Liquid Death, who seem like the most gleeful of law breakers. But we’ve yet to have our Tony Soprano moment, and perhaps that’s because brands don’t have a guide to help them determine the kind of antihero they could become.

As you peruse the guide below, keep in mind we’re creating brand antiheroes, not brand villains—Elon seems to be headed in that direction with Twitter, and we can all see how that’s going.

And while I genuinely believe brands could succeed by adopting some antihero qualities, I also realize that whoever goes first will be taking a massive risk, as they’ll be flying in the face of nearly a century of advertising dogma.

Six Modern Archetypes for the Antihero Brand

1. The Damaged

Definition: A brand with past emotional trauma that makes its troubling actions relatable.

TV Reference: Burying the secrets of her troubled past is the primary focus for Yellowjackets’ Shauna Shipman, and because we (the audience) understand that trauma, we are able to support her many brutal acts.

Category Suggestion: Inhabiting the damaged will require vulnerability. People will need to understand a deep secret about you to get behind your choices.

How about categories that have been disrupted? They’re wounded, they’re weakened, and they’re prepared to exact revenge at any cost. Imagine an embattled Blockbuster donning a tattered blue and yellow cape to search and destroy a cocky, young Netflix.

2. The Cynic

Definition: A brand rich in sarcasm and low on patience.

TV Reference: While she started as more of an antagonist, Sue Sylvester quickly grew into a more traditional antihero, pointing out all the high school absurdities of the world of Glee.

Category Suggestion: This is rich territory for brands, as sarcasm has become such a core component of our day-to-day communication.

A great starting place for cynicism would be organic or healthy food brands. They have a natural enemy in Big Food brands, and are primed to bring the eyebrow raised emoji to life in response to their competitors’ vague claims.

3. The Ruthless

Definition: A brand that would step over its own mother(brand) to achieve its goals.

TV Reference: Even as he put his burgeoning drug empire before the welfare of his friends and family, we continued to hope Breaking Bad’s Walter White would find another way out.

Category Suggestion: For a brand to become Ruthless, there can be no half-measures. Once a target is acquired, there is nothing the brand won’t do to obliterate it.

As a category, insurance is heavily commoditized, so brands tend to lean on exaggeration in their advertising. Imagine a world where Mayhem could really create some mayhem, or where State Farm was a neighbour with questionable morals.

4. The Sociopath

Definition: A deeply troubled brand with no regard for right and wrong, or interest in the feelings of others.

TV Reference: Many a TV antihero has filled these antisocial shoes, but few as successfully as Dexter’s Dexter Morgan, who convinced us to root for an honest-to-God serial killer.

Category Suggestion: To occupy this space, a brand would need a convincingly sociopathic origin story and be comfortable with people loving to hate them.

I’m thinking banks. Imagine a bank brand dropped the whole “you’re our number one priority” schtick and just told it like it is? “Chase: Making More of What’s Yours Ours.”

5. The Marauder

Definition: A transient brand that attacks at will in search of plunder.

TV Reference: The Wire’s resident stick-up boy Omar Little maintained an unimpeachable code, even as he made a living robbing drug dealers.

Category Suggestion: This archetype can have a touch of Robin Hood to it, with the brand lurking in the shadows, only emerging to take from those with ill-gotten gains.

A number of finance brands have dipped their toes in these waters, but the results are predictable and a tad disingenuous. With food prices skyrocketing, the stage seems set for a discount grocer to take on this role and strike at the greed of the industry.

6. The Seducer

Definition: A charismatic brand whose advances are impossible to resist.

TV Reference: Few characters are as beguiling as Mad Men’s Don Draper, who had an innate ability to enamour nearly everyone who crossed his impeccably tailored path. And we endorsed it, even though we knew how self-serving each act of seduction was.

Category Suggestion: Seduction is a big part of great advertising, but it’s often too replaced with expediency. This is a chance for a brand to exploit pure, unadulterated seduction.

In a category like candy, this could prove irresistible—a brand that is only interested in a fleeting moment of pleasure with you before discarding you for its next conquest.

Fitting into one of these new archetypes and becoming the antihero of your category is not a move for the faint of heart. But if TV has taught us anything, it’s that advertising’s first antihero brand is not a question of if, but when.

Trevor Thomas is vice-president, strategy, at VMLY&R in Toronto. 

Top Photo: HBO