Our brand is the impression others have of us. So we all have a brand, whether we know it or not. Hopefully, we’re building a brand that reflects who we really are, in a way that shows us at our best (however we each define “best”).
Once we have a brand, we might wonder what we can do with it. Can we use it to gain readers or make sales? Or will using our brand for marketing “tarnish” our brand? I think the answers there are “yes” and “maybe.”
After all our time spent on blogging, social media, and networking, we understandably want to get something back, a return on our investment. But we also don’t want to throw away all that work by ruining our brand with a marketing misstep. We have to balance a tightrope to exploit in a positive way.
Everywhere I look lately, I’ve seen the bad kind of brand exploitation. First, we have the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which exploited the Twilight fandom. Then we have the new 21 Jump Street movie, which is nothing like the old TV show. And just this week, I was struck speechless by the trailer for the new Dark Shadows movie.
My first thought: I love Tim Burton’s work. Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies. And Tim Burton and Johnny Depp together make magic.
My second thought: The trailer was amusing and the story looks interesting.
My third and overriding thought: But this isn’t Dark Shadows!
The 1966 TV show Dark Shadows was a classic gothic genre story. As described in the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book by Jane Friedman:
“[G]othic novels are characterized by atmospheric, historical settings and feature young, beautiful women who win the favor of handsome, brooding heroes—simultaneously dealing successfully with some life-threatening menace, either natural or supernatural. Gothics rely on mystery, peril, romantic relationships, and a sense of foreboding for their strong, emotional effect on the reader.”
Think Wuthering Heights. Many of the old episodes of Dark Shadows are on YouTube. Watch the first minute or two of the Dark Shadows recap, and you’ll see the hallmarks of the gothic genre.
Atmospheric? Check. Mystery? Check. Foreboding? Check. And although it’s not obvious from the first few minutes, we have vampire Barnabas Collins to provide the brooding hero. Supernatural menace? Check and check. Listen to the opening theme music at the :50 minute mark. Perfect for the genre.
The reruns of this show captured my attention as a child and probably helped start me down the path of writing paranormal stories. Sure, it looks a bit campy to us now, but that’s a function of the show being made before many of us were born, not because of any inherent intention to be campy.
Now compare that to the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows movie trailer. Watch at least up to the 1:10 minute mark to see the tone difference.
The premise of the new movie looks to use the idea of vampirism to play with a comedic fish-out-of-water, time-travel story, with a witch thrown in for bonus conflict. That’s a great story idea. But other than the character name of Barnabas Collins, this movie has nothing to do with the 1966 TV show Dark Shadows.
That’s when it hit me. Some of these recent reboots are “professional” grade, alternate universe, alternate history fan fiction. They use the character names or the core idea and nothing else, and yet keep the original brand name.
Why call it Dark Shadows when it’s not? Why call it 21 Jump Street when it’s not? Heck, why is Michael Bay calling his reboot movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if his version of the characters is rumored to be aliens and not mutants at all?
Because Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles doesn’t have a brand following.
And that’s what this comes down to, people exploiting the brand following of one thing, whether that be Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to gain attention for something completely different.
Normally, authors don’t have a problem with fan fiction because no money changes hands. At best, fan fiction honors the original source material. At worst, non-profit fan fiction exploits the original brand for attention. But now, everywhere we turn, we’re seeing exploitation of brands for money.
Not all reboots (or fan fiction) are bad. The latest Star Trek reboot made an old brand feel fresh and relevant while honoring the original idea that made it popular to begin with.
Honoring the original idea—that’s the kicker. That’s what makes these other attempts to cash in on a brand name feel icky to some. People grow very attached to their impressions of some brands, and dishonoring their perception of the original brand risks alienating those same people.
Brands—people’s impressions—are tricky things. We mess with them at our own risk.
Didn’t The Powers That Be learn anything from New Coke or George Lucas’s debacle with “Han shot first“? Rule number one in marketing should be: Don’t alienate people, especially not your target market.
Now I’ll probably go see the Dark Shadows movie, but I’ll have to keep the two impressions separate. If done well, people will go through the effort to maintain two different “brand boxes” in their mind. The original Batman TV show and the various movie reboots fall into this category for me. But asking people to wait before passing judgment isn’t something that most of us can get away with for our own brands.
So as we experiment with how to use our networks for marketing and sales purposes, we must always keep an eye on honoring the brand we have. We shouldn’t suddenly become someone different just because we’re trying to make sales. On social media, we have to maintain our normal socializing habits while adding a few marketing mentions. We should remain us, our brand, who we are inside, with just a touch of sales.
Don’t become an example of brand exploitation gone bad. Be the Star Trek reboot, honoring why people like us. Then they’ll be more likely to stick around to hear our message.
Can you think of other examples where brands were exploited simply to cash in? What about examples of brand exploitation done right? Do you think our acceptance of reboots depends on how big of fans we are of the original? Do you see parallels between these reboots and fan fiction? Do you have tips for how to maintain the brand vs. marketing balance?Pin It