What Your Marketing Needs is a Bad Guy

If you’re a big brand, already established, conservative in your ways and happy with your performance, this advice isn’t for you. But, if you’re a startup, an underdog, a challenger, you need to hear this.

Villains are a good thing.

Stories with villains make sense. They can be memorable. They can have depth and purpose. Stories without villains are meandering, yawn-inducing, usually more about aesthetics than narrative. And friends, guess what?

Marketing is a story.

Positioning, pricing, packaging, product, content, channels, ads, all of it. It works best in harmony, all of these disparate parts of your marketing are supposed to tell the same story. They repeat it. Each one builds upon and reminds you of the others. That stunningly beautiful hotel with top ratings and “exclusive, boutique, luxury” positioning doesn’t lead buyers to a cheap dive behind a flimsy screen door. Every part of the experience matches, because great stories and great marketing share the same DNA.

Your job is to find a receptive audience that loves the features you’ve got and hates the hard problems you solve.

Villains make that easy.

Because, when a villain is part of your marketing story, it’s not boring. It’s not static. Villains change, and command attention, and have their own stories. Every time the villain takes a step, your marketing gets to be relevant again. Your content deserves eyeballs. Your PR deserves coverage. Your messaging, headlines, and ads raise new eyebrows.

Let’s start with an example from the consumer world (stick around, I’ll do a B2B one, too).

This is Combustion:

Combustion has two villains:

  1. Overcooked food. It’s heartbreaking when it happens, and for most home cooks, that’s way too often.
  2. Other food thermometers. They sabotage your valiant efforts to make delicious meals.

These villains make Combustion’s story connect. They make Combustion’s copy sing. Just listen:

Your oven is lying. Kitchen appliances don’t measure temp anywhere near the food, and are often inaccurate (by 10% or worse!). We measure the air immediately surrounding your food. So you can get consistent results everywhere—whether roasting or baking, grilling or even smoking.

“Your oven is lying.”

Damn. That’s harsh, but undeniably true.

Here’s another one:

“Set-up is instant. Turn on the Predictive Thermometer by removing it from its charging sleeve, and it connects immediately via Bluetooth to the Predictive Timer or any mobile phone running the app. There’s no account to create or pairing required. No internet connection to worry about. Do you trust Comcast with your roast? Neither do we.”

Oh, Snap! Is Comcast another villain? More of a personification of the true villains Combustion fights: the risk of overcooked food and those other thermometers that require an Internet connection.

Combustion doesn’t have much marketing right now. They’re not a content destination, they don’t have reviews (the product hasn’t launched yet), there’s not a lot of advertising or messaging beyond this one web page. And that’s why, unlike their established competitors who buy shelf space at the Kroger, they can’t afford to play it safe.

Try taking away the villains from Combustion’s marketing, and all that’s left are features. Visual branding. A logo. Fluff.

This is Coda:

Their villain is the old way of doing business documents: the classic MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Exchange dichotomy that Google, Zoho, OpenOffice, and everyone else has copied since the 1990s. And their messaging doesn’t pull any punches.

Changing the way people work is a classic B2B software challenger move. Slack did it with chat. Angellist did it with fundraising. Salesforce and Hubspot did it with CRM.

Much like Combustion, they obliquely and directly reference this villain over and over again as they tell the product’s story:

All-in-one doc.
No more ping-ponging between documents, spreadsheets, and niche workflow apps to get things done. Coda brings all of your words and data into one flexible surface.”

It’s a smart move, because instantly, I get what Coda is and what they aren’t. If, in the future, I encounter the frustrating problem they solve, I’m likely to recall the visual branding and storytelling and think “what’s that company that hates this sheet/combines all the doc types into one?”

When you’re the market leader and everyone knows you, memorability isn’t all that important. Salesforce doesn’t need enemies anymore (remember when they used to run ads and make buttons that hated on software, though? Pretty darn memorable villain). When you’re a challenger brand, or challenging the existing way people solve a problem, villains are needed.

Whenever I talk about the power of villains and the beauty of making enemies, inevitably, someone asks:

“My company/client is a very conservative organization. What do you suggest we do to help them see the value here?”

I have terrible news.

Villains are not a good match for conservative organizations. That’s part of why they’re rarely employed by large organizations, whose fear of losing what they have exceeds any excitement about potential growth. My suggestion is to let challengers, upstarts, and more risk-embracing companies take on the politics of villainy.

If you’re going to employ villains in your marketing, I have a few suggestions:

  • Don’t dip your toe in. Opposition to an idea, to competitors, to market forces, or existing conditions has to be authentic, and that means fully embracing the villain / hero positioning. You can certainly test out villains via social posts, articles, etc. But once you’ve settled on a position, it has to be clear and present throughout the marketing funnel (homepage, product copy, ads, etc.) or you won’t know if it’s working. These brand positioning concepts aren’t compatible with A/B testing methodologies where you can put a single sentence on one version of a pricing page to see if it brings conversion lift.
  • Use your villain everywhere. Talk about them on podcasts, put them on your homepage, use them in your ads, on your product copy, on the box your product comes in (if you have one). Villains are either central to your story, or they’re ancillary and probably not worth using.
  • Pick a villain that some people like. You know what’s boring? A villain everyone hates. They don’t inspire passion or conflict. They aren’t memorable because they’re not complex or regularly present. Even Combustion’s overcooked food and overly-simplistic competitor thermometers have their ardent defenders (just see the replies to my tweet about ’em). The only exception I’d make is for Comcast 😉

Here at SparkToro, we take aim at villains all the time. The biggest two are:

  1. The Google/Facebook marketing duopoly. I’ve given a dozen presentations casting these two behemoths as the bad guys. We rail against them on our homepage, in our intro video, in our blog posts and case studies. Millions of marketers make a living from and love advertising on these platforms. But we believe their stranglehold on the ecosystem is a bad thing, and one we’re willing to fight against vocally. That story helps make SparkToro memorable.
  2. Manual audience research. It’s just plain dumb how hard it is to solve questions like “what podcasts do civil engineers listen to most?” or “what hashtags do professional photographers in California use most?” Before SparkToro existed, those were months-long processes that probably involved a pair of fulltime web-scraping engineers working with a growth-hacker-ish marketing person. That process is the bad guy. And it’s such a big bad guy that millions of marketers and companies who’d benefit from answering those questions don’t even try to ask them. Making SparkToro’s fight against this evil villain memorable is how we build an exciting company.

Do we create detractors as well as supporters in this process? Yes.

Does that conflict create exactly the kind of marketing memorability, messaging, and problem-solution-association we’re aiming for? Also yes.

Go ahead, friends. Try it. You might find that having bad guys in your marketing isn’t so bad.