In wrestling, it’s known as a “heel turn.” A good guy, a so-called “babyface,” does something heinous—double-crosses a partner, defames the U.S., declares he wants to be known as Fabulous Francesca from now on—all intended to rile up the audience. He becomes a “heel,” a bad guy, a mustachio-twirling villain—and he’s the most important thing in the world for whatever promotion he is wrestling for. Now, the branding of wrestling may look garish, silly and over-the-top. Those who consider themselves to be serious and oh-so-adult—professionals of text and image—often think they’re above the man-child antics of wrestling. However, despite our condescension, good ol’ wrasslin’ has a lot to teach us, and nowhere is this more visible than among the heels.
In wrestling, the heel turn is a necessary move to create “heat,” i.e. audience response. A hero on his own is boring and no matter how beloved a character is, without a foil he becomes the storyline equivalent of a Hallmark card. The heel and the heel turn is what makes matches matter, and it is the introduction of a heel that crafts the story an audience can invest in emotionally. Without him or her, wrestling is just a strange, sweaty, stumbling dance—shiny muscles in leotards for no apparent reason. With a heel, on the other hand, it can become a powerful story of trials and redemption. The lessons for branding should be obvious to all.
Today, branding often lacks heels, and as a result, branding has become boring and dull. In fact, it has become the antithesis of branding. Stating you’re for the same things everyone else is—authenticity, ecology, “being close to the customer’”—is not branding, but pandering. Trying to tell your customers what you think they’d like to hear is not branding, but kissing ass. Clumsily. Claiming to stand for something whilst being unable to say who might stand for the opposite is not branding, but a particularly vacuous form of bullshit.
Yes, branding should be about generating heat. About making yourself matter in a market filled with lookalikes and bland brands. About doing something more than latching onto popular, already legitimized attributes. Branding should be about standing out and standing apart, even if you risk someone getting offended over it. This—standing apart—is risky and will come at a cost, but this is what makes it meaningful. In order to become someone’s champion, you need to dare to also become someone else’s heel.
When Cadillac created the by now infamous “Poolside” ad, in which a smug man talks smugly about things smug men love, this wasn’t just a retro ad for a brand-weary age. Instead it was a smarter-than-you’d-think way to get people to feel something for the brand again, a heel turn designed to make Cadillac catch a little heat, and a delicious one at that. No, it almost certainly didn’t convert those who were already convinced that Cadillac was a brand for smug men, but it got them riled up. In a fell, if not heroic, swoop, Cadillac started to matter again. For no matter what Upworthy is trying to tell you, no matter how much of the shiny-happy Kool-Aid you drink, mattering is not just about telling lovely stories, the kind that create warm, fuzzy feelings, it’s also about figuring out who you’re not like, and what you stand against.
Last week, I chatted with an old friend of mine, a professional creator of brands and brand stories. He fretted about the fact that more and more work in the field was becoming esoteric, filled with evermore complex and difficult-to-read brand books and stories convoluted enough to require their own professionals of exegetics. We talked about how many at the front lines of the brand’s engagement with customers always end up losing touch with all this, mouthing slogans without any real idea why they’re doing it. In such a situation, branding becomes an almost parodic exercise, ripe for ironic re-appropriation.
I suggested that this is partly due to the situation implied above. In most companies, people are well aware of the often tepid list of brand attributes a colloquium of suits from marketing, operations, sales and HR have grudgingly agreed on—the list of meaningless words that were committed to not because they mattered, but because they didn’t offended anyone. The same people have also been subjected to the cheery PowerPoints where this bland gruel is adorned with technicolor giddiness and hashtags (oh so many hashtags…), without ever learning why this would in any meaningful way be different from the technicolor giddiness of the competition. It’s not surprising many of them have stopped believing in the whole thing.
What they haven’t been given is the reason why all this matters. They know they’re supposedly the babyface, but they have no idea who the heel is. They’re part of a performance without having been told who represents the foe. They know everything about the product or service they’re selling, but they do not know why selling it matters.
Thus, branding work needs to take a page from the pages of wrestling, and consider who the heel is. No, I’m not advocating that each brand needs to become a heel for someone (although planning this is a productive exercise as well). What I am advocating is thinking through who might not enjoy your brand, and who your brand should stand up against. I am advocating mattering to some, even if it means becoming less attractive to someone else.
Here’s the fun part: Even in wrestling, there are always people cheering for both sides. A heel can become a hero, and a hero, a heel. Tables are turned (and people are thrown through them) for wrestlers have long realized that what matters is the storyline and making this matter. When everyone tries to be popular, no one truly is. And when no one dares to take the unpopular stand, everyone suffers. What wrestlers know, and brand professionals often miss, is that if no one hates you, you probably don’t matter.