The Walking Dead: Four Branding Lessons from Beyond the Grave

by | October 25, 2016 | 571 Views

Road sign indicating that Zombies are ahead.To see more road signs click on the link below:Record numbers of viewers tune in to The Walking Dead each week to see how Sheriff Rick Grimes and his band of followers survive the post-zombie apocalypse. The show’s mindless, flesh-eating zombies entertain and terrify fans.

What’s most terrifying—and what helps make the premise so memorable—is that some unexplained disease has turned most of the world’s population into these monsters. They haven’t been raised from the dead by black magic or a lightning bolt striking their grave. They simply walk the earth looking for their next meal of human flesh.

As a result, they’re more mysterious (and relatable?) than many of the preceding zombies seen in movies and on TV for decades. And that mystery and memorability can actually help The Walking Dead’s zombies teach important lessons about branding for small businesses, associations, and entrepreneurs.

Lesson 1: Positioning the Zombies

Brand positioning should always be done relative to the competition. In The Walking Dead’s case, the zombies are positioned against zombies in classic monster movies and unexplained phenomena and serial killers in today’s horror shows.

Effective positioning defines what makes you unique. These zombies are famous because they were ordinary people like you and me until infected by some worldwide pandemic. One day they were living normal lives; the next they were devouring friends, family, and neighbors. Not so for the terrors featured in the rest of the horror genre we see at the movies and on TV today.

These zombies are different—not the same-old twisted psychopath, ancient curse, or raised from the dead themes. So they have a clear and consistent position in our minds.

Lesson 2: Defining Brand Zombie

Developing the zombie brand means pulling together various attributes like personality, image, and core competencies. What defines the zombies? Mainly it’s their hunger. Nothing sates them other than human flesh. Nothing stops them in their quest for it. They impale themselves on barricades of spikes with arms outstretched reaching for their human meals on the other side. They walk into walls of flame that destroy them. They pursue people armed with weapons that easily dispatch them.

And what happens if someone is unfortunate enough to fall into the clutches of the zombies? Their flesh and organs are ripped and torn from their bodies and greedily consumed by the undead monsters. Yum.

These, and other characteristics, are what make up the memorable and unique zombie brand. These unthinking, animalistic creatures do remarkable things and do them consistently. Viewers start to know their personalities—as much as zombies can have personalities. That’s how The Walking Dead got noticed, got publicity, got word-of-mouth buzz—and, ultimately, became the most watched show on television.

Lesson 3: Developing the Zombie’s Identity

This is the fun part. In business, it’s stuff like your name, logo, tagline, colors, and other elements that make up your trade dress.

For the zombies, it’s their shambling gait, their shredded clothes, and the distinctive sound they make—somewhere between a hiss and a growl. It’s also their virtual indestructibility. Cut off their legs, and they will drag themselves across the ground with their arms. Cut off their heads, and they will still gnash their teeth and try to bite nearby humans. They can only be destroyed by a bullet or sharp object strike to the brain.

It’s important that all your identity elements are in place and used consistently. Think about the details of your brand—How does it “walk”? How does it talk? What is it’s voice?—before spending a penny on marketing, communications, or advertising.

Lesson 4: Going Public With the Zombies

In The Walking Dead’s pilot, Sheriff Rick Grimes is shot in the line of duty. He falls into a coma and wakes months later in an abandoned hospital. Sealed doors, blood-spattered walls, and silence greet him. He walks through his town and neighborhood finding no one. Throughout most of the show Rick is alone and has no idea what to make of the eerie desolation he wanders through.

Only at the very end of the episode, do we witness the full magnitude of what’s happened. Rick is attacked by a swarming herd of zombies and his horse is devoured. The episode ends with Rick taking shelter in a tank surrounded by hundreds of the walking dead.

That brilliant storytelling is what hooked millions of fans who instantly took to social media to rave about the television viewing experience they had. Sure the initial advertising campaign attracted the show’s original viewers, but it was these viewers engaged by the unique zombie brand who spread the word and launched the enormous fan following and success of The Walking Dead.

Like the show’s legion of fans, your employees and frontliners are your best advocates, your most loyal evangelists, and your best brand ambassadors. Your job is to make sure your staff is engaged, bought-in, involved, and communicated to continuously in the branding or re-branding process.

Only when viewers were as puzzled as Rick by the wasteland that was once his home, did the Zombies make their horrifying entrance and the “target audience” was hooked.

Here’s how you can be sure that—like the zombies—you’ll effectively stand out in a crowded marketplace:

  • Position your business and stand apart. Positioning is the process by which your business creates an image or identity in the minds of your core market, giving them a reason to choose your offerings. Positioning is always done relative to your competition. Consider what makes your business really unique. Why should people support Brand You and not Brand B?
  • Specialize and focus. The zombies eat their victims’ flesh to stay alive. Like the Zombies, specialization lets you build your brand around your strengths. And this focus allows you to differentiate your business, offers you presumed expertise and perceived value, and makes it easier for prospects and customers to understand your business. Focus allows you to first simplify, and then amplify your message. Because the less information we’re given, the more likely we are to remember it. (Although we don’t recommend eating your target audience’s flesh.)
  • Your business’ identity is made up of “outer layers”—those attributes that prospects and customers see and experience. Make sure you’re clear on what makes your offerings unique, and then align that difference with your name, logo, tagline, messaging and other visual and verbal cues that will allow your target market to “get” what you’re all about. Like the zombie’s shambling gait, shredded rag clothes, and distinctive hissing sound, your trade dress can be the ultimate branding tool.
  • It’s critical to engage staff and other stakeholders in embracing what you stand for. In fact, 86% of employees say that live experiences that help them engage with their brand would make them more likely to talk positively about the company they work for with others outside the organization. Your customers’ notion of your brand is formed from his or her first experience or “imprint” (or in the zombie’s case, infecting bite) with your business or services. Every interaction is a chance to enrich your brand. Your staff should be able to answer this question every day: “How am I helping to deliver on the company’s brand promise today?” Sure, the zombies are destroyed with bullets and stakes. But don’t let their demise distract you from building a strong brand to help increase your business’ awareness, differentiate you from the competition, and drive revenues. Do it right, and you’ll be killin’ it.