There is an infamous story about the making of the movie Cop Out. For those of you who didn’t see it, and not many people did, this was a buddy cop movie directed by Kevin Smith at the tail end of his Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fame featuring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan.
The movie is not essential; neither is the clash between Willis and Smith behind the scenes. What is important is one of the stories that came out after the filming of the movie.
Smith was quoted as saying the production was “soul-crushing” and even went so far as to say it made him question filmmaking. Therefore, not everything was hunky-dory on set; however, in one story, Smith was arguing with Willis over dialogue. Willis’s response was something along the lines of “Bruce Willis doesn’t do that.”
When I first heard this story, I sided with Smith. As a young film geek, I loved Mallrats and Chasing Amy, and pretty much anything featuring Jay and Silent Bob. As a young actor, I was dumbfounded with why an actor, even one as beloved as Willis, wouldn’t take a note. It’s part of the job. In fact, every actor knows the saying, “Take the damn note.”
Smith and Willis first met on the set of one of the Die Hard films, and Smith rewrote a pivotal scene for Willis. This led to the two later working together on the film. The difference was that while Smith was Willis’s ally in Die Hard, he became his enemy in Cop Out because the director asked the actor to go off-brand.
For an actor like Willis, his entire career is the tough guy. Since he hit it out of the park with the first Die Hard, Willis crafted a whole career of playing the “Everyman Tough Guy.” Each role he has taken is a variation on that theme, and here’s the thing: it’s what audiences expect.
Bruce Willis the brand
Willis is a movie star, not an actor. While acting is what makes him a movie star, what people buy is Bruce Willis. It’s a brand just like Coke or Pepsi.
When you think of John Wayne, what comes to mind? I am willing to bet it’s strength, masculinity, and Western motifs. What about Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr.? Or Sean Connery? How about a slightly more artistic fair, like Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston?
The collective dreams that are cinema are an interesting classic of commercialism and art. With film actors, we see a perfect blend of brand and art. While MFA’s around the country would-like their would-be artists to believe in this myth of transformation, the reality is much more straightforward: the actor is the product.
From magazine articles and ad campaigns to the very selection of films, the success of film actors depends on branding. Each actor cultivates an image. While many actors call this typecasting, it is, in all sincerity, nothing more than the reality of the business.
The secret every working actor knows is that typecasting is casting. From the beginning of the business playing an unnamed businessman to the heights of stardom, very few actors are awarded the pleasure of breaking from type. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Matt Damon all fit a specific niche. The nuance and the artistry of the industry is bringing something unique to the character that no one else can deliver.
Bruce Willis knew this when working with Kevin Smith, and it is precisely what entrepreneurs can learn from actors.
Deliver on your customer expectations
Imagine going to buy a Coke and it tastes like Mountain Dew, or buying a Snickers bar and it was made with coconut and almonds. While nothing is wrong with the surprise, you didn’t want that. The same is true with actors. For stars, they sell the movie. We expect Ryan Reynolds to be witty; Johnny Depp to be odd; Bruce Willis to be tough.
The very thing that makes them successful is the trust they build in delivering on this character-type.
Thus, in business, we must work on developing this same type of branding. Elon Musk does a fantastic job of this. He leans into the Tony Stark comparisons, and pushes the boundaries of the quirky-tech entrepreneur with appearances on Joe Rogan and selling flamethrowers.
What is the image that you, as a leader, need to project? Would you buy a weight training program from someone who is out of shape?
Perception is reality in the public’s view, or as author Robert Greene put it in The 48 Laws of Power, “Guard your reputation with your life.”
Acting schools like to preach the chameleon-like capabilities of performance, the actor striving to become the role. And yes, some performers achieve this radical transformation from role-to-role; however, if we look at the significant successes of Hollywood, the actors we all know and love, they all possess a brand.
When they excel, it is a perfect meeting of their offscreen life and an onscreen persona. Old Hollywood played on this and created dramas on and offstage.
The studio system was notorious for controlling every aspect of their artists’ life, similar to how K-Pop stars are managed today. The reason behind this tyrannical approach to cultivating an image was that the audience very much perceived the actors as their characters.
Cary Grant, The Duke, and Jimmy Stewart needed to be their personalities on stage. Still, they needed the American public to believe who they were offstage. This can also be seen with entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of the Rat Pack.
People wanted to believe that Frank and Dean were always drunk, always partying; however, in their biographies, it is revealed it was all a ruse. The whiskey was usually apple juice as no one, not even Dean, could keep up with the image he created.
Producers want comedians to be funny. They want their stars to be stars. They want the actor to play the part and sell the product.
This is still true today. Tom Hanks is still the American good guy, just like Johnny Depp is the inherent weirdo. They become an archetype, and their entire career is playing to or against that archetype.
The audience knows the character is not the actor. However, we cannot help ourselves from transposing what we see on and offscreen.
The actor who plays James Bond, currently Daniel Craig, will change going forward, surrounded by the material things that personify the character. Brands clamor to make sure their suit, their car, or their watch is featured in the film so that people buying the products will associate the item with the brand.
Introduction of the internet and social media
Before the invasion of the internet and we grew used to social media stars selling everything from detox teas to the keto diet, this type of marketing was reserved for stars. However, today, we see this type of branding creeping into everyday life.
Dave Asprey became the face of his company, Bulletproof. Tim Ferris literally sells his books by being a guinea pig and disseminating information through his podcast. Countless Instagrammers and YouTube stars zero in on a field and attempt to carve out their turf just as every actor attempts to corner the market on their “type.”
In today’s market, understanding your brand and your audience’s expectations are as essential as what you are selling. People buy stories, not products.
By learning how movie stars and successful actors manage their image and create a mythos, you can develop a similar reputation. Shakespeare said the purpose of drama is to hold the mirror up to nature. The best actors understand this truth. It is not about creating a character, but revealing truth. Likewise, entrepreneurs are not trying to create a false identity like Theranos, but rather understand what makes your business unique.
Are there any tips you have for building a brand? Let us know in the comments!
This article originally published on GREY Journal.