Brand Superheroes: Why Being Real Matters Now More Than Ever



Their power may differ, their purpose may vary – but all superheroes share an undeniable bond to each other and an unbreakable bond with the public.

Being real.

Superheroes are true to who there are, whether to their strengths (Superman) or to their flaws (Batman.) When Superman says he fights for truth and justice he means it – it’s not an empty campaign promise.

Brand superheroes are no different. You can’t say your purpose is one thing and then do another. You can’t say your power is for good if you use it to do evil. You can’t live your story if your story is built on a lie.

The First Casualty of the Internet is Truth

We live in a world of content. This is not a bad thing – we are arguably the most informed generation in history.

But being informed is not the same as being educated; information is not synonymous with objectivity or truth.

When everything is content, it gets harder to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy. Without any gatekeepers, the flow of news becomes a Lord of the Flies Island of anarchy.

We need real heroes to change the dynamic and stem the tide of post-truth communication tactics. Brands today have a unique opportunity to cut through the digital morass and connect with audiences on a real emotional level – to live the stories they tell and lift the common discourse. All it takes is a commitment to the following:

  • Be trustworthy
  • Be grateful
  • Be positive
  • Be generous
  • Be humble
  • Be yourself

The Challenge for 2017 and Beyond – Reboot Reality

Author Nicolas Negroponte talked about the “Daily Me,” or the ability of people to customize their digital feeds to the point of excluding all information they didn’t like or agree with – to in effect create their own realities.

Negroponte said this in 1995 – 21 years before the polarizing social media election of 2016. It’s far too easy, as we saw this past election cycle, to create misleading “news” or to replace facts with memes.

To those brands who would take advantage of this new reality, who would gladly cloud well-intentioned minds using all available and legal digital slight of hand, I would just say this – Don’t.

You are better than that. We as a society deserve better than that. We need heroes we can look up to and trust, so don’t let us down.

Find your power, your core brand truth, and make it matter. Embrace your purpose and use it to live your authentic story – and in doing so, connect with your audience in ways beyond purchase or profit.

If there’s anything brand marketers should learn from the recent U.S. election, it’s that people aren’t data. Not everyone wants a high-concept message or has aspirations beyond their local communities and families –most people just want to be understood, and the way we communicate needs to reflect this more practical approach.

Real heroes listen before they speak. They are part of the communities they serve. Polls and big data pipelines are useful but they aren’t conversations – it’s time for brands to go back “into the field” and re-establish points of empathy between brand and customer.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Peter Parker/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said. It is the ultimate enduring maxim for great heroes and mere mortals alike.

Please, use your power wisely. Be the brand superhero we need you to be.

Read Part I, Brand Superheroes: What’s Your Origin Story?

Read Part II, Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose

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Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose


“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben


Superman is the Man of Steel. The Hulk has extraordinary size and strength; Black Widow is an expert assassin; and Aquaman can, um…well he can talk to fish (yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but it does come in handy sometimes.)

Before you can be a hero, you first need to be super. You need to find that one special something that sets you apart.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be from Krypton or get bitten by a radioactive spider. Every person – and virtually every brand – has a power unique to them. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Your Power or “Brand Truth”

Let’s break down the word “Superhero:”

  • “Super” is about where your “power” resides (also known as your “brand truth”)
  • “Hero” is about your “purpose” and manifesting your power in the world

Your brand’s power or truth is a factual, positive statement. It’s something no one else can say, or at the very least something no one else can say with honest conviction. “We stand for,” “we do this better than anyone,” “we have this” – the statements are direct and definitive.

Your brand may still have struggles or even aspirations for another power; this is normal and expected. But part of being “super” is embracing what you do best and forging ahead no matter what the obstacles or consequences. This is what gives your brand those human qualities that create empathetic connections with audiences.

Google’s “super” is search – despite all the other products it makes, its ability to “organize the world’s information” is what gives Google its power and market dominance.

For outdoor clothing company Patagonia, its “super” is more personal. Founder Yvon Chouinard and his band of climbers and surfers discovered that their simple, minimalist lifestyle could translate into a clothing company that reflected their ethos.

Using Your Power with Purpose

All heroes need a purpose, a “why” that defines their beliefs and drives their actions.

Patagonia’ found its purpose in the environment: “Our mission is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” says its Web site.

A true purpose like this one goes far beyond a simple “mission statement” – it is the reason you exist in the world. And Patagonia backs up its purpose with action, providing environmental grants and support, encouraging activism for environmental causes and championing fair labor practices.

Your purpose helps define who you are – it’s the DNA that runs through your brand and pushes it forward. It’s determines how you will be remembered and whether you mattered.

Be an “Action” Hero

In the big picture, having a power is less important that what you do with the power you have. Put another way, brand superheroes are “action” heroes.

It’s easy to give speeches or publish “thought leadership” pieces like this one. It’s easy to post carefully crafted corporate positioning statements or write formulaic press releases.

But as Tom Hanks, in his role as manager of an all-female baseball team in A League of Their Own, said to one of his players:

“Baseball is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”

Taking action is never easy. Telling stories is far simpler than living the stories you tell.

But that’s what separates the heroes from the mere mortals. Actions – and holding yourself responsible and accountable for those actions – are what turn a life into a legacy.

Then, and only then, will the “hard” of being a brand superhero make you great.

Up Next:

Part III: Brand Superheroes: Living the Stories You Tell

Read Part I, Brand Superheroes: What’s Your Origin Story?

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Brand Superheroes: What’s Your Origin Story?

hero-307036_640IN THE FIRST AVENGERS MOVIE, you see a team of superheroes join together to fight a common enemy. They use their powers to save the world, with little to no regard for their own safety.

But you don’t know why. You don’t know what makes the Avengers The Avengers.

For that you need to see the first Iron Man movie, or read the original comics for each character’s “origin story” – the reasons behind why they are who they are.

The origin story is not new or isolated to superheroes. This idea has been around since time immemorial, from ancient myths to modern novels (and yes, comic books.) It is central to the storytelling “Hero’s Journey” championed by Joseph Campbell and embraced by Hollywood screenwriters.

Brands have origin stories too, but often these stories are distorted by time or mythologized beyond recognition. And while brands champion “storytelling” as a marketing tool, their stories sometimes lack the authenticity necessary to make an honest human connection.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for brands to embrace their origins and, in doing so, become true superheroes who are driven by purpose and who live the stories they tell.

Three Types of Origin Stories

While every origin story is different, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  • Trauma
  • Destiny
  • Chance

Trauma is popular in origins of the “anti-hero” or the reluctant crime fighter. Bruce Wayne’s traumatic fall down a bat-infested well, combined with seeing his parents murdered, turned him into Batman. Bruce Banner suffered a very physical trauma from gamma radiation that turned him into the Hulk.

For brands, the “trauma” is rarely that dramatic. Sometimes the trauma is financial or is a product of circumstance; the trauma also might be a market or technological disruption (e.g., the Web giving birth to e-commerce and Amazon.)

  • AirBNB – When founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had trouble paying their rent, they addressed their “financial trauma” by turning their apartment into a place for temporary lodgers. They built their own site rather than use Craigslist so their listing would be more “personal,” and AirBNB was born
  • Uber – The simple act of hailing a cab turned into a traumatic experience for Uber founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, when they were stuck in a Paris rainstorm with loads of luggage and no transportation. In solving their trauma, they made getting a ride a lot easier for all of us

Destiny is the origin story most like the traditional Hero’s Journey. A “normal” person is suddenly thrust into an abnormal world or situation –and after some reluctance, the hero accepts his or her calling. Think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, whose multiple origin stories over the decades involved her being “destined” for greatness and a heroic life.

  • Apple – Destiny is sometimes confused with fate. While the origin of Apple fits both descriptions, co-founder Steve Jobs had the aptitude and vision to do something great as far back as his high school years. By the time he partnered with Steve Wonziak to create a new kind of personal computer, Jobs was well on his way to fulfilling his destiny and changing our culture along with it

Chance is perhaps the most common origin story for both superheroes and brands. Let’s be honest, Peter Parker was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when he got bit by that spider (though it was the chance murder of his uncle that caused Spiderman to use his powers for selfless good.)

Brands, however, are notorious for turning random chance into successful businesses or new categories altogether.

  • Toms – Like many brand origin stories, the Toms story is deeply tied to that of its founder, Blake Mycoskie. A vacation in Argentina, a chance meeting in a café with a charity group collecting shoes for needy children and a desire to make a difference led to Toms and its “buy one, give one” business model

Heroes Without Flaws Aren’t Human

One caution when building your origin story, whether rooted in trauma, destiny or chance: Be careful not to confuse anecdote with narrative. Uber, for example, begins with a memorable anecdote about being stuck in the rain, but there is more to the story than that “aha” (or “uh oh”) moment. There were challenges and doubts and all the various ups and downs that make a superhero complete.

A hero without flaws is not human and therefore not relatable to an audience. Take time to develop an authentic narrative that pulls the audience in and puts them inside your story.

The Origin Story’s Superpower – Empathy

Superheroes don’t need an origin story, they can just be super and leave it at that. The same goes for brands – read pretty much any brand’s “about us” page and it will be all about that brand today, right now, without any nod to the path it took to get there.

But stories without emotion are not stories. They don’t capture our attention or imagination and are easily forgotten.

An origin story’s greatest power is empathy; this is true for superheroes as well as brands. Empathy is what allows us mere mortals to relate on a human level and become emotionally invested.

Marketing is all about empathy – without empathy, a brand is just a logo. Lifeless. Meaningless. Pointless. When there are countless brands bombarding eyeballs every day begging for a sliver of attention, empathy is everything.

Yes, people want to know what brands do, but that’s not enough. People also want to care, they want to understand and believe in a brand’s purpose. They want to know why brands exist and they want to be part of that story.

The journey to becoming a brand superhero begins with embracing your authentic origins. Only then can you find your true superpower and use it to share your purpose with the world.

Up Next:

Part II: Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose 

Part III: Brand Superheroes: Living the Stories You Tell

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The Good Part


white houseThe moment when you would hold your newborn child for the first time. The moment when you would hear her heartbeat and marvel at her innocence.

The moment when an eternity of questions, uncertainties and challenges would be erased with one tiny smile.

Finally the moment arrived.

Now it was time for the good part.

But then you took the baby home and she cried all night. You didn’t sleep for months and diaper changes became as regular as breathing.

This wasn’t the idyllic life you had imagined. Not even close.

Eventually she slept soundly and the crying subsided. She took her first steps.

Now it was going to be okay.

Now it was time for the good part.

But then the wonders of walking turned into the terrible twos and the toddler years. There were illnesses and tantrums, worries and regrets.

No one prepared you for this. No one could.

The good part would have to wait.

Pre-school was going to be the turning point. This was the good part for sure, the beginning of socialization and formal education – the discovery of “self” that would be your child’s greatest adventure.

But there were fears and setbacks. And it didn’t get any better with elementary school or middle school, and definitely not with high school.

There were cool kids and mean girls, awkwardness and anxiety. There was more pressure than you ever had to endure, more danger in the world than you could have ever imagined.

Day after week after month after year you waited. The good part was coming, you told yourself. The good part was just around the corner.

And then, without warning, you are standing in a college dorm on the other side of the country saying goodbye.

Was this it? Was this finally the good part?

Or was the good part the moment you held your newborn child for the first time. The moment you heard her heartbeat and marveled at her innocence.

Was it the moment when the baby cried all night and so did you, because you were now someone’s mom or dad. Was it the sleepless nights and diaper changes when you realized life would never again be this pure, this simple or this perfect.

Could it have been the times when she was sick and you sat with her for hours? Could it have been during the tantrums that started off so seriously but ended with you bursting with laughter?

Did it happen during her school years, when your daughter became her own person and you realized she was stronger, smarter and more determined that you ever were? Was it when she turned that anxiety into resolve and those fears into focus?

I hope so; for your sake I hope all of those things are true.

Don’t wait for the moment when you are standing in a college dorm on the other side of the country saying goodbye.

Don’t wait until the realization hits you with the unforgiving force of a million memories unleashed at once. The realization that it was all the good part. Her entire life.

Every last damn moment of it.

And now the moment has come to let her go – yes, this is the good part, too. In fact, this is the best part of all.

Because she is not really leaving. She won’t really be gone.

She is not moving out.

She is just moving on.

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One Night in Dallas

HT_DMN_Dallas_Police_Hugs_Woman_ml_160708_16x9_992IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT IN DALLAS.

That’s when we failed you, dear children. When we broke our promise of a better world. When the bloody aftermath of a peaceful protest shattered all pretense of civility.

It happened on an American street in an American city. It happened in the twilight, in the open, without warning or provocation. Days, years, decades, lifetimes of struggles to welcome in our better selves were again rejected in a storm of bullets and shame.

This is your narrative, dear sons and daughters. This is the story we’ve written for you, the adults who were supposed to protect you, who were supposed to do better by you.

We promised you a beautiful sonnet – we gave you a tragedy.

One night in Dallas we saw too much. We cried too much. We bled too much.

We were Americans engaged in a peaceful protest. This was our right, our civic duty as involved citizens. It was an expression of conscience, not of color.

And then it came to confusion and horror. We ran. We scattered. We stood.

And we fell. We most certainly fell.

This is our legacy – bullets and blood. Hate and hopelessness. Fear and fracture.

This is our legacy, and we are sorry, so very sorry.

But don’t let it be yours.

Make a new tomorrow. Erase our mistakes and start over. Make it better. Make it work. And forgive us if you can.

I hope you can.

Because we are greater than that one night in Dallas. We are wiser than that one night in Dallas. And we are stronger because one night in Dallas must not define who are so much as it must remind us of what we must yet become.

I hope one day this will all be ancient history; that you will fix what we have broken. But please don’t forget, please remember it well — that one night in Dallas when it all went to hell.



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It’s Time to Make Voting Illegal for Older Adults


But we — the parents and adults of the older generation — are failing miserably.

By now it’s abundantly clear that Brexit, the British referendum on EU membership, won because the older generations screwed the younger. Instead of thinking about the future, they clung selfishly to the past.

As political journalist Nicholas Barrett put it in a comment on the Financial Times web site:

“The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.”

Or to put it another way, those who will die before Brexit takes full effect just flipped a huge middle finger to those who have to live with it.

Here in America, the Trump campaign threatens to inflict a similar generational genocide, with most of his supporters being in the AARP and dinner-before-4pm crowd. Trump and his orange ilk could care less about millennials or Generation Z, even though it’s the young who will reap what Trump sows if elected.

Solution: Repeal the Older Adult Vote

While there is no single remedy to this cultural conundrum, there is nevertheless something we can do to give our kids a fighting chance and control their own future: We can make it illegal for older people to vote.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking, but is it really that crazy? If your eyesight goes bad, you can get your driver’s license revoked. Many retire from work once they hit 65.

Moreover, if you’re convicted of a crime, you get your right to vote taken away. Well, putting an entire generation at risk because of petty, ignorant, xenophobic idealism is about as criminal as it gets.

Age 60 seems like a good time to end voting rights, but I’d be open to 55 or even 50. I’m almost 50 and I already don’t care about my future as much as I care about my daughter’s and her kids, if she has kids someday.

Let her make the decisions. Let her choose the kind or world she wants. We’ve made it hard enough on her already; let’s not make it any worse.

Our Kids are Better Than Us

The truth is, our kids are better than us. They are smarter than us. They are more open and accepting of other races, religions and sexual preferences than us.

They have more passion and promise. More young adults today support charitable causes and participate in community service. They are building economies without forsaking their consciences. Millennials see the world as it should be and believe it still can be.

We older adults can be scared, brittle, porous creatures — divergent animals that pull away from the very things that keep us together. We worry about the little future we have left, when really we should be grateful that our past didn’t totally screw things up.

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe we can learn something from the younger generations. Better yet, we can give them more power to make their own decisions.

Let’s start by giving them the vote — all of it. Let’s trust them to make the decisions we no longer have a right or a need to make ourselves.

Let’s get out of the way and give their future a real shot at survival.

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Her Name is Alex

(Originally published Nov. 19, 1998, in the OC Metro magazine. Republished now on the eve of my daughter’s high school graduation.)


alex youngShe’s new around here. So much has already passed her by — there are things she will never see and plenty she will never know.

She won’t know any president from the 20th century. The first she’ll have any recollection of at all will likely be the one elected in 2008. Perhaps it will be a woman or an African-American.

She will never go to the Soviet Union. She won’t see the Berlin Wall unless she’s in a museum. God willing, she will never experience the threat of nuclear war.

Video games like Pong and Ms. Pac Man will seem as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls. She will never own a vinyl record. It’s possible she may never even own a CD, a cassette tape or a VHS video.

Using computers will be as natural to her as breathing. The Internet will be her encyclopedia. She will send email before she writes her first letter – if she writes letters at all – and she will shop online as comfortably as she would go to the mall.

She will never see a first-run episode of “Seinfeld.” She will never think of the television networks as the “Big Three,” or 24-hour news as something out of the ordinary. With any luck, she will never know Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera or Barney.

She will learn about new wave music in a history class. She probably won’t see the Rolling Stones in concert – but then again, I’m 31, and I thought that I would never see the Rolling Stones in concert.

Diseases that once erased generations will never harm her, thanks to vaccines and other medical advances. Her future may see a cure for AIDS, or perhaps even cancer. I hope she won’t need a cure for either.

She will never experience having just one phone company. She’ll hear stories about the days when Orange County had a single area code, when movie theaters had only one screen and when Anaheim had only one Disney theme park.

She will look at the space shuttle as simply another form of transportation. She might even take a ride someday. Hell, she just might drive.

She will look at us and laugh. We will look at her and wonder. There are things she will see that we won’t, and changes she will make that we can’t, or wouldn’t.

She will not know cynicism unless we teach her. She will not know fear or hate unless we show her. She will not know love unless we love her.

But there is one very special thing she will know. One thing that I hope she doesn’t take for granted.

Unlike me, she will know her father. And he will know his newborn child.

Her name is Alex. She is my daughter. And that will never change.

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