What great movie characters teach marketers about distinctiveness

Some brand marketing inspiration for those sheltering at home with their favourite films

April 29, 2020

What great movie characters teach marketers about distinctiveness

Here’s some food-for-thought for marketers sheltering at home with their favourite films: have you ever noticed how the most memorable movie characters have a lot in common with the most successful brands?

I saw this great film the other day, but I can’t remember the name of it. It was about this character, perhaps you’ve heard of him? He was British. Smartly dressed. Wore a tuxedo to the casino. Drove a sports car. Liked to drink Martinis and insisted on them being shaken not stirred. Anyway… the name completely escapes me. Any idea who it might be?

It’s not a very convincing act, is it? Of course, I know who this character is. I know that you know who he is. And we both know that pretty much anyone who’s had access to a cinema screen or a TV can recognise him from the sprinkling of details I just gave you. So much so, in fact, that you can change the actor playing this character, change his face, his physique, his accent and even his personality, and these characteristics will still make him instantly recognisable as James Bond.

It’s been said that the best movie characters can be recognised by the shadow they cast on a wall. They’re so scored into our consciousness that we respond immediately to just a couple of vague visual cues. A daring archaeologist with a fedora hat and a bullwhip? A tall, thin fairy dressed in black and purple, and wearing headgear with sweeping horns? A thoughtful looking fellow with a deerstalker hat and a pipe? You can recognise Indiana Jones, Maleficent and Sherlock Holmes just as easily as you could recognise Agent 007 – and for the same reasons. These characters have been consistently and carefully developed with physical and behavioural characteristics that ensure you can. They’re a blueprint for distinctiveness that any brand can learn from.

Great film characters aren’t different – they’re distinctive

Few marketers know this better than my colleague Katie Young, who works with me on the brand team for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. Prior to joining LinkedIn, Katie spent five years at Saatchi & Saatchi. She was part of the account team for Direct Line that worked on the brand’s iconic ‘Fixer’ campaign, which featured the actor Harvey Keitel reprising his role as Winston Wolfe from the film Pulp Fiction. Katie was also part of the team developing the spectacular new Direct Line campaign, which applies this strategy more widely by enlisting the likes of Robocop, the Transformer Bumblebee and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Donatello.

“We always knew that film characters have a distinctiveness that all brands ultimately want to emulate,” says Katie. “In the case of the ‘Fixer’ we were able to take an instantly recognizable cult character and use him to cement Direct Line’s position as the ‘fixer’ of customers’ problems. That’s the power of these stand-out film characters. They generate instant recognition that resonates on an emotional level and that’s a powerful foundation to build any campaign around.”

Character recognition isn’t just a valuable asset for those with the creative vision to use it, though. It’s also compelling evidence in what’s been a long-running debate in Marketing. What matters most in branding: differentiation or distinctiveness?

Most of our instincts as marketers and human beings lead us to the differentiation side of the argument. We tend to believe that brands succeed by having unique, ground-breaking propositions, occupying their own space in the market or owning an idea that nobody has ever thought of before. Our instincts tell us that originality should be rewarded – and that audiences carefully compare the characteristics of different brands before deciding which one best aligns with them. With its emphasis on always trying to break new ground, you might call it a heroic view of brand marketing – but it’s not backed up by the evidence of popular culture’s heroes and heroines.

Great film characters come straight out of the school of marketing that argues differentiation matters far less than distinctiveness. It’s a school of marketing embodied by Professor Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute, who argued in his ground-breaking book How Brands Grow, that the most important characteristic of a successful brand is having distinctive brand assets that are easy for people to recognise. Sharp argues that marketers should be focused on measuring and growing these distinctive assets rather than fretting about the minutiae of how they’re positioned. Professor Mark Ritson, who spends a lot of time debating with Sharp – but also a lot of time agreeing with him, sums this up by saying that the most important thing as a brand marketer is that your audience knows it’s your brand that’s speaking to them.

When James Bond delivers a line on-screen, you know exactly who’s speaking to you. In fact, you could sit a tuxedo on the back of an empty chair, rest a filled Martini glass on it, and deliver the line from off-stage in a theatre, and everyone would still know which character they were listening to. Great film characters are distinctive by definition. But what’s really interesting for marketers – and where the real lesson lies – is how they got that way.

There’s no need to tear up a script that works

When you think about it, none of the assets that make James Bond distinctive are remarkable or ground-breaking in themselves. All of them were features of famous film characters before Sean Connery first introduced himself as Bond over a signature game of vingt-et-un in Doctor No. A sharply dressed Cary Grant drove a flashy sports car and flirted with Eva Marie Saint over cocktails in North By Northwest. Humphrey Bogart had the tuxedo, the casino and, at key moments, the champagne cocktails in Casablanca.

Author Ian Fleming and film producer Albert R. Broccoli didn’t feel the need to invent a whole series of quirky features or points of personality to make sure their character stood out. Instead they picked characteristics that were a perfect fit for Bond, would go naturally together, and would make sense in the minds of the audience. They were characteristics that Bond could own because they were characteristics that fitted the role he plays. And over time, that’s exactly what happened.

When a line’s delivered well, it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard it before

Decisiveness is the key ingredient when choosing distinctive brand characteristics. I’m often reminded of this when thinking about famous brand taglines – an element of brand marketing that gets far less attention than logos and other visual codes, but is a vital part of distinctiveness nonetheless. Think of the taglines that you can recite and recognise without thinking and you’ll be struck by how few of them are inherently original. “Every little helps” is hardly a ground-breaking idea. “Just do it” has been shouted at personal training clients for generations. “I’m lovin’ it” is hardly a bold, new claim. And yet all of these are great, memorable and distinctive taglines because they fit perfectly with the brands associated with them – and because those brands have committed to putting in years of work to make sure people recognise as much.

One of my favourite shouldn’t-be-distinctive-but-really-is taglines is for Domestos. “Kills all known germs. Dead” is pretty much the definition of what a bleach does. There’s no way any particular brand of bleach should be able to own that claim for itself. And yet, that’s exactly what Domestos has done. It’s taken an obvious idea, expressed it in a way that’s just memorable enough to be distinctive (that last word after the full stop is crucial, isn’t it?) and then invested in building that distinctiveness with a clarity and commitment that ensures success.

Well-rounded characters have more than one feature

Of course, a movie character’s distinctive features don’t exist in isolation. James Bond isn’t just the tuxedo or the martini. He’s both those things, plus the cars, the hedonistic attitude, and the gambling habit. It’s the combination of these characteristics that make them distinctive – and it’s this that brands set out to own. A man with a whip is just a man with a whip. A man in a fedora hat is just a man with a fedora hat. A man with both is Indiana Jones.

The movies’ most memorable character packages also include audio branding. In fact, it’s the world of film that first invented the concept of owning a jingle. The technical term is the leitmotif, and it’s been applied to everyone from Bond (the iconic guitar riff) to Princess Leia (a beautifully delicate theme on oboe, flute and recorder), to Jack Sparrow (jaunty and shanty-like).

And that’s how it is with brand codes as well. It’s the careful and consistent association of a combination of characteristics that lead to a kind of shared ownership. McDonald’s doesn’t just have the ‘I’m lovin’ it’ tagline. It owns the association of that idea with the already established golden arches and, crucially, with the signature audio sign-off originally performed for the brand by Justin Timberlake. These three things are now inseparable in the minds of consumers worldwide.

Ruthless consistency – branding’s real licence to thrill

McDonald’s distinct brand assets got that way through a rigid and ruthless consistency that James Bond himself would understand – and which the Bond film producers and directors certainly do. They made sure that Bond doesn’t just do the tuxedo, martini, fast car thing… he always does these things. Bond has either ordered or been offered a shaken-not-stirred Martini in every film since 1962. He’s worn a tux in every official Bond film with the exception of Live and Let Die (it was set in New Orleans – it’s a bit warm for formal dress down there). These brand characteristics are an essential part of the brief for every Bond film because his distinctiveness depends on them always being there.

Consistency takes years of self-control – and it can lead to plenty of tensions between marketers and creative agencies who want to play with brand codes, adapt visual cues and evolve taglines to make more sense in different contexts. But as Mark Ritson points out, it’s the long-term legwork of being rigidly consistent that puts a brand in the driving seat on distinctiveness. And it’s only when you’ve put in this legwork that you’re able to play with your distinctiveness and use it as a creative asset.

Where distinctiveness meets emotion – the magic of movies and marketing

The reason that both iconic characters and iconic brands have such power isn’t just that they always look and sound the same. At various points in their history, they’ve managed to associate their distinct features with powerful, emotive and influential memories in the minds of their audiences. It’s this magical ingredient that makes us care about those distinctive brand elements in the first place. And that’s where creative marketing really comes into its own.

There’s no better example of this than Coca-Cola. It’s distinctive not just because of the red colour, the beautiful, flowing font and the trademark bottle shape. It’s distinctive because brilliant advertising and marketing has succeeded in associating these assets with blockbuster moments of emotion. From teaching the world to sing amid the social tensions of 1971 to the irresistible power-ballad ads of the 1980s that I grew up with, Coca-Cola has excelled in emotive brand advertising that gives its distinctiveness meaning in people’s minds. But the brand has an eye for an emotive opportunity goes back much further than that. It may be a myth that Coca-Cola redesigned Santa Claus in its signature red and white – but the reason that myth exists is the adept way that the brand has associated itself with the season of good cheer since the early 1930s. These are the brand equivalents of the jaw-dropping opening sequences in Bond films that recharge the feeling of ‘wow’ associated with tuxedos, martinis and sports cars – or the tears that form in the eyes of Star Wars fans whenever that Princess Leia oboe melody breaks out.

Great film characters are a package of distinct characteristics that are associated with powerful emotive memories. That’s why they mean so much to audiences. Great brands are the same. We may not consciously pay money to go and watch them in action, but we’re more than happy to pay to have them as part of our lives. The magic of great brand marketing is subtly different to the magic of movie icons. But it involves no less commitment to knowing what makes you distinct – and being determined to value and protect those assets. It’s a long road, but stardom awaits at the end of it.