Building Brands With Heroes, Villains, And Underdogs

Emmanuel ProbstJuly 11, 20237 min

Heroes, villains, saviors, and antiheroes are all relatable and sympathetic in their own ways. In marketing, the consumer should be positioned as the hero, not the brand.

We all have instinctive and primitive desires such as safety, freedom, control, and belonging. These basic human emotions can be aligned with matching “archetypes” which are the personification of these behaviors. An archetype contains images, emotions, and scripts for action. The heroes, antiheroes, and villains presented here provide us with a road map to accurately appeal to our primitive desires.

The Hero

The hero is someone who dreams, acts on those dreams, rationalizes his action, and shares the means to his fulfillment. He is heroic for helping others uncover themselves. The audience must always know who the hero is, what he wants, who the hero has to defeat, what tragic things will happen if he fails, and what wonderful things will happen if he triumphs.

Consumption is heroic, with consumers as actors playing different roles with the aid of scripts, props, and costumes, all provided through advertising and material goods. First, the hero separates himself from reality. That’s his “call to adventure.” Then, he enters uncharted territory. Finally, he conquers and returns.

In marketing, the consumer must be positioned as the hero, with the brand only there to help and support him in his quest to defeat the enemy (the problem your brand solves). Over time, consumers who feel empowered to become heroes will develop a stronger connection with the brand.

The Antihero

An antihero is a main character in a movie, story, or drama who lacks the qualities we conventionally attribute to a hero, such as integrity, courage, strength, and idealism. Antiheroes are part villain, part hero who often break the law, seek revenge, and engage in antisocial behavior to achieve their goals. Examples of antiheroes in television and film include Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Walter White (Breaking Bad).

We like antiheroes because they are flawed and morally complex, making them closer to us than heroes and villains. We live vicariously through antiheroes because they reject the constraints and expectations society imposes on us. We accept that they mess up now and again but side with them as long as they are making progress. Often, antiheroes have experienced some personal misfortune or prejudice that explains their behavior and fuels their progress. In the TV show Mad Men, Don Draper, who constantly cheats and drinks, grew up in a brothel during the Great Depression. James Bond is not just an assassin, he is also an orphan and a widower. These painful injustices antiheroes endured help spark passion for their cause.

How Equinox Appeals To The Antihero In Us

The fitness industry is ridden with clichés: the buff guy who seems to spend his life on the gym floor and looks down on other members, the thirty-something female lifting light weights wearing yoga pants, and of course, a group of sweaty people punching the air in an aerobics class. Rather than addressing these perceptions head-on, most health clubs default to bland taglines.

Enter the high-end lifestyle and fitness brand Equinox, which stands out with unconventional, sometimes bizarre advertising campaigns. In 2016, the brand challenged what it called “a modern-day aversion to loyalty.” In 2015, Equinox rolled out its “Equinox made me do it” campaigns, featuring uninhibited antiheroes living a provoked life: a woman escorted out of a mansion by two security guards, presumably after trying to break in; a man in a suit and tie jumping a wired fence; a model in business attire with a razor in hand and a freshly shaved head; a man cross-dressed in a woman’s office clothes.

Besides its artistic value and provocative stance, Equinox campaigns prompted its core audience of elite, overachieving professionals to reveal their mischievous, daring, antihero selves. As such, Equinox is transformative, empowering members to fulfill their quest of becoming who they want to be.

I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions. ~ Augusten Burroughs, American writer

We Are Shifting Toward More Inclusive Heroes

US Census data shows that in the past decade, people who identify as Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial are driving much of the population growth, while the white population has declined for the first time in history. Brands must authentically reflect these diverse backgrounds and experiences to connect with their future customers.

Studies show that younger generations take greater notice of inclusive advertising when they consider a purchase. In the auto sector, for example, 35 percent of 18- to 25-year-old consumers notice inclusive advertising versus 18 percent of those over 45. In beauty and personal care, it is 28 percent versus 10 percent. Customers are also more loyal to brands that commit to addressing inequalities, whether it’s using diverse suppliers, considering people with disabilities, or something else. As such, brands reduce the cultural and demographic distance between their marketers and the consumer audiences they aspire to reach.

The Dove “Reverse Selfie” Campaign Celebrates Women And Their “Imperfections

Dove, through its “campaign for real beauty,” is on a mission to build the self-confidence of women and children. In 2021, the brand launched its “reverse selfie” campaign, which zooms in on the effect that image manipulation has on young girls. In its “reverse selfie” ad, Dove reveals each alteration done to a photo in reverse, from the picture posted on social media to the true subject of the selfie: a young girl in her bedroom with many skin and aesthetic “imperfections.” Dove’s campaign was prompted by research showing that girls who regularly manipulate their photos have lower self-esteem than those who don’t. This same research shows that 80 percent of Canadian girls age 13 and over have downloaded or used an app to alter their appearance.

“We’re committed to redefining beauty, challenging stereotypes, and celebrating what makes women unique,” says Ashley Boyce, marketing manager for skin cleansing and Dove master brand at Unilever Canada. “We need to raise young people’s self-esteem so they can navigate social media in a way which is positive and creative.”

The Underdog Effect

The underdog effect refers to people or brands that overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and difficulties. Americans especially love stories of underdogs—who are expected to lose—which is pervasive in literature, film, politics, sports, religion, and, of course, marketing.

We are often drawn to underdogs specifically because they are the ones that are disadvantaged or unlikely to prevail. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell brings forth several underdogs who end up triumphant: a girls’ basketball team that succeeds by exploiting their opponents’ conventional tactics; an oncologist who came from extreme poverty during the Depression era.

The notion of being an underdog is often manipulated to make something or someone more appealing. In politics, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and many others position themselves as underdogs based on their name, humble beginnings, or their exclusion by the establishment.

The underdog effect permeates the business world and particularly tech firms in Silicon Valley: Apple, Microsoft, HP, Google, and Amazon reportedly all started in garages. This likely explains why so many co-working spaces and so-called incubators harbor garage doors and a stripped-down, concrete, industrial feel. (The garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak reportedly started Apple was deemed a historical site in 2013. Wozniak admits that Apple starting in a garage was “a bit of a myth . . . we did no designs there, no white-boarding, no prototyping, no planning of products. We did no manufacturing there.”)

The Villains And Why We Are Attracted To Them

Although we’d be repulsed by people in the real world that display immoral behavior, we are attracted to fictional villains like Voldemort and Darth Vader. These villains don’t threaten our self-esteem and tend to desensitize us to immorality, revealing our “dark side.” Rebecca Krause, an academic who researches our relationship with heroes and villains says they provide a “safe haven” for comparison with ourselves because they are separate from reality.

When people feel safe, they are more interested in comparisons to negative characters that are similar to themselves in other respects. For example, people who see themselves as tricky and chaotic may feel especially drawn to the character of the Joker in the Batman movies, while a person who shares Lord Voldemort’s intellect and ambition may feel more drawn to that character in the Harry Potter series . . . Perhaps fiction provides a way to engage with the dark aspects of your personality without making you question whether you are a good person in general.

In James Bond movies, the villain is often the key focus of the plot. American screenwriter Michael Wilson explains that when creating a Bond villain, his team thinks, “‘What is the world afraid of? Where are we headed?’ Then, we try to create a villain that is the physical embodiment of that fear.” As such, each villain mirrors geopolitical shifts to stay relevant in contemporary culture. That’s how the franchise moved from the Soviet Union to North Korea to a broader terror group.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Dr. Emmanuel Probst, excerpted from his book Assemblage: Creating Transformative Brands

The Blake Project Can Help You Differentiate Your Brand In The Brand Positioning Workshop

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Emmanuel Probst

Connect With Us