Designing an Anti-Hero Brand

Neernay Behera, Sikander Bhinder, JP Del Carmen, Shantanu Mehrotra and Suraj Nair
MBA Perspectives
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Key Takeaways
WHAT? Today, an anti-hero brand persona resonates more vividly with consumers, particularly those who are seeking self-actualization, expression, and differentiation from social norms.

SO WHAT? Brands should no longer emulate the flawless mythological hero that audiences have revered in the past. 

NOW WHAT? Brands can adopt an anti-hero persona by steadfastly acknowledging the flaw (whether reputational or attribute-oriented), by repositioning the flaw as part of an authentic brand history, and by resetting on a path of redemption.

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Society has long revered the flawless qualities of mythical heroes – fortitude, courage, decency, and perfection. Untainted by the vagaries of life and unfazed by evil, these characters were the ideal moral archetypes. The traditional hero myth was an escape from the realities of war, poverty, and famine; a symbol of hope at a time of darkness. Brands have long advertised to this effect – prescribing materialism as the path to a “good life” (Belk and Pollay 1985).

Today, the sociocultural landscape has changed and focuses more on the consumer’s introspective need of self-actualization – the desire for self-fulfillment, expression, and differentiation (Wolfe and Sisodia 2003). This has provoked a more rational worldview, prompting individuals to ground themselves in realism instead of inoculating with the populist fiction of a hero. The suspension of disbelief has reached its limit, and culture is starting to accept and explore the underbelly of the human psyche. Audiences have started to fall for darker, multifaceted, and flawed anti-heroes - the ruthless and manipulative Frank Underwood of House of Cards, and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the eccentric and endearing meth-cooking patriarch who had audiences rooting against the DEA.

Beyond entertainment however, how does the flawed hero or anti-hero mythology apply to brands? Can brands themselves look inwards and bear the risk of a “take me as I am” approach, warts and all?

Buckley’s Cough Medicine saw a 12.3% surge in market share after releasing its “It tastes awful but it works” campaign. Domino’s Pizza’s “Pizza Turnaround” campaign featured a bold confession by the company that its pizza was less than desirable, culminating in an overhaul of its core recipe and a surge in sales. 


 Domino's Pizza Turnaround


Microsoft admitted that its widely reviled Internet Explorer web browser was indeed difficult to love. Microsoft ultimately decided to start from scratch and develop a different browser altogether. Las Vegas has capitalized on its “Sin City” persona as a place for every sordid desire, a place where everything that happens there, stays there. One may find it difficult to distinguish the difference between an insecure brand releasing a PR campaign to stay ahead of the news cycle and an assertive brand candidly admitting to its faults. In any case, brands have a chance to emerge as confident and self-assured while creating an authentic identity. Here are our tips for brand managers interested in designing an anti-hero brand:

1. Acknowledge the imperfections. Whether it’s a product attribute or a reputational risk, you already know what your brand is good at and where you’re lacking. Chances are, consumers also know about these flaws. Through a heartfelt apology or a satiric (not sarcastic) ad campaign, acknowledge your shortcomings and open yourself up to the criticism.

2. Reposition the flaw as part of your story. There are many reasons why you’re already a beloved brand. Reframe the conversation and integrate your flaws into your mission. Whether you rationalize your declining customer service quality as part of “growing pains,” or politely hand a loudmouth CEO who rubbed consumers the wrong way the pink slip, you own your story – so tell it, and be honest.

3. Stay consistent and do better. Acceptance is half the battle. The other half is redemption. Consumers want to see how you plan to improve and because you’ve been honest and sincere, they’ll root for you. Use your flaws as the building blocks for your longevity and success as a brand and stick to the plan.

By forging an emotional connection and aligning with the deepest desires and imperfections of consumers, brands have a tangible opportunity to be authentic. Savvy consumers aren’t looking for morality anymore; they want sincerity. You don’t have to be perfect all the time, but you also can’t deny when you are not performing at 100%. So, release a little bit of the gut and wear a little less makeup – consumers are willing to take you for who you truly are, and that’s a beautiful thing.


Russel W. Belk and Richard W. Pollay (1985), “Images of Ourselves: The Good Life in Twentieth Century Advertising,” Journal of Consumer Research, 11, 4, 887-897.

David B. Wolfe and Rajendra Sisodia (2003), “Marketing to the Self-Actualizing Customer,” Journal of Consumer Marketing, 20, 6, 555-569.

The AMA is pleased to partner with Professor Markus Giesler and his MBA students from the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Author Bio:

Neernay Behera, Sikander Bhinder, JP Del Carmen, Shantanu Mehrotra and Suraj Nair
Neernay Behera, Sikander Bhinder, JP Del Carmen, Shantanu Mehrotra, and Suraj Nair are students in Markus Giesler’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course at the Schulich School of Business, York University.
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