Let us illuminate you. In our Dog Eat Hog challenger article series, we shed light on paradigm-shifting innovations and actions from long-shot brands and out-of-nowhere idea-makers. Mind, prepare to be blown.
For more than a decade, the holidays and summer have been the season of the superhero with Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe consistently knocking it out of the galaxy. Before we arrived at this new golden age of superhero films, there was an endless run of really lame films and TV shows. If you’ve seen the re-runs or actually suffered through the Incredible Hulk or Spiderman of the 70s, you can appreciate how technology has transformed an army of Supers, Amazings, Incredibles and assorted superlative prefixes into convincingly realistic characters.
It seems to have been an otherworldly combination of factors that raised the standard and the box office draw for the spandex-laden misfits, assorted demi-gods, and alien refugees. Historically comic superhero popularity has thrived in challenging situations like wartime, human rights, and most recently, our post-911 world.
If there were ever a time to look for an escape and bury your head in the panels of a more perfect world where justice prevailed over the dark forces it would probably be the Great Depression, a time of great loss and despair when the hope of brighter future was looking pretty dim. Despite all of this, Superman emerged from the pages of Action Comics, issue number one.
The Man of Steel was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the sons of Jewish immigrants. When Shuster was a young boy, his father was gunned down by a thief, which gives his creation of a crime-fighting, bullet-proof immigrant from the planet Krypton an even more poignant origin story.
That first comic went for 10 cents in 1938. That’s $1.87 in 2019 currency and back then that would have bought a lot of beans and rice.
For the record, Superman is a DC creation, but he was the first superhero comic and without him, we wouldn’t have the superhero films we have today. DC did manage some success with the Christopher Nolan trilogy, but it was Disney’s partnership with Marvel that raised stakes and took superhero films mainstream.
The stars in the superhero universe aligned around 2008 with Iron Man. Someone must have been relying more on their Spidey Sense rather than just the pre-release stats because before Iron Man was even released, Disney announced that they would make four more Marvel films. Disney’s partnership with Marvel raised stakes and took superhero films mainstream.
To date, Disney-Marvel has made 13 superhero films in 11 years, pulling in a spectacular $21.4 billion worldwide with more projects in the works, for the theater and their new streaming service, Disney+.
The secret to the success of these films lies in part to their accessibility. The stories weren’t largely centered around A-list superheroes so there was less canon and plenty of room to expound upon less popular characters. It wasn’t until 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” that Disney was able to come to an agreement so that Spidey could join the ranks of the Avengers. By then the B-team popularity rivaled, if not exceeded, the cache of Spiderman.
To get a sense of how a brand might learn a thing or two from Disney-Marvel and the characters of the MCU, let’s get super-listicle.
#1…Use the element of surprise to advantage.
This is even easier if no one expects anything from you in the first place. Most of the characters either had cult figure fandoms or they were considered B-listers (Scarlett Witch, Black Widow, The Vision, Hawkeye, War Machine). The only true headliners were The Hulk, Spiderman, and Captain American. Thor? Sort of, but the God of Thunder was still kind of niche at this point. By developing a larger narrative around predominantly unknown characters, audiences could be introduced to these characters and their stories with little or no preconceived notions, and very little backlash from superfans.
#2…Hire superfans to champion your story.
The assorted directors and even the majority of actors hold one common thread, their passion for comics and the characters that they portray.
#3…Empower your team.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go as a team. No single Avenger could make it happen. It takes the superpowers of each member of the team to get it done. Give them the power to make choices – and even fail. The faster you fail, the faster you learn to succeed. For an established brand like Disney, the idea of them letting loose of the reins with so much at stake is astonishing, but it has proven to reap equally astonishing results.
#4…Do “whatever it takes.”
We’re not saying you need to jump off a cliff to get what you want, but if it’s worth going after, it’s probably going to take some degree of work and sacrifice. Find your power in your passion.
Even “PTSD-bro” Thor found greater power in being himself rather than trying to be what he thought he should be. Sally Hogshead, legendary copywriter turned author and public speaker says, “Being the best is good. Being different is better.” Eating a salad once in a while is probably not a bad idea either.
#6…Story rules all.
As we’ve seen from other franchises that have failed on the big screen, you can’t simply dazzle an audience with special effects. You have build characters that people like, love even, so much they’ll cry their eyes out when they die. That is, well, some people cried when certain people died. Not only did each of these films stand on its own, but they were also masterfully woven together to build to the biggest superhero throwdown in the universe. Every scene, every character, every line has a reason and intention behind it that drives the story forward.
Where other movie studios have been less successful at the superhero genre, Marvel has defied the laws of the cinematic universe. They put their faith in the hands of directors and writers who were long-time fans of comics, people who understood the characters and would protect the characters from the evil overlords of bureaucracy. The alchemy of CGI melded with visionary direction, writing, stellar talent, and creative latitude combine to create an epic entertainment enterprise for the ages.
Jan 8, 2020
In January 2019, Harley-Davidson marked an infamous anniversary, that of its 1969 sale to “leisure time and industrial products” giant AMF. Six months after the sale, on July 1969, “Easy Rider” debuted in movie theaters. The timing could not have been better for the H-D brand. The true stars of the counterculture classic are motorcycles – Harleys, specifically – and “Easy Rider” cemented the motorcycle’s place in popular culture as a symbol of escape, liberation and freedom.
There was only one problem: AMF spent the next decade ruining the Harley. A series of product development and manufacturing decisions resulted in poor-quality bikes and, coupled with the rise in popularity of imported Japanese motorcycles, a public-relations nightmare. After buying the company back in 1981, H-D launched a comeback and managed to reclaim its status as an American icon, but it took a considerable amount of time and money to get there. This was one long and winding road Harley did not want to ride.
For others, the Harley-AMF gaff is a cautionary tale, and it’s one Deus Ex Machina dares not repeat. From its inception in Sydney, Australia, in 2006, the custom motorcycle manufacturer espoused an experiential philosophy in its approach to creating and selling its products, the scope of which has greatly expanded in part through Deus’ reciprocal relationship with its customers.
This mantra has helped the company organically grow into a massive recreation brand that touches nearly every corner of the world, even if most Deus disciples have never even touched a bike. In addition to its wildly-creative, hand-built custom motorcycles, the Deus name can be found on surfboards, snowboards, bicycles, apparel, and luggage. The company is big into film, runs a boutique vinyl record label and operates Deus retail shops and cafes on four continents. Its advertising aesthetic is a contemporary take on open-road-freedom tropes with just the right amount of grainy-photo retro appeal. All of this resonates with the company’s heavily-Millennial fan base, and its 500K+ Instagram followers regularly evangelize the brand.
Such brand loyalty is nothing new – Nike started out making innovative running shoes for competitive racers and now sells joggers to career couch potatoes who haven’t run a mile since their sixth-grade Presidential Physical Fitness Test – but the depth and breadth of Deus’ interaction with its audience, online and in realtime, is. The company hosts art exhibits, DJ nights, and bike rallies from Venice Beach to Ibiza and everywhere in between, all of which are thoroughly reported via social media and the extensive Deus blog. Fans flock to them religiously. Says Deus Galleries featured photographer C-Reel, “Deus is now a culture, an attitude, a way of life.”
The same can be said for Harley-Davidson – even if these days H-D is less ruggedly-handsome-Peter-Fonda-in-Easy-Rider and more suburban-Baby-Boomer-with-handsome-stock-portfolio – but this was accomplished only after a timely and expensive restructuring. AMF made one thing clear during its ill-fated run with Harley-Davidson: all it cared about was building bikes, and lots of them, and it nearly killed a classic American brand in the process. Deus Ex Machina, on the other hand, puts as much care into building a culture around the brand as its builders put into their custom bikes, and it has helped the company build a loyal global following and expand its offerings. All while staying on brand.
From the Archives: The AMF Purchase, harley-davidson.com
Deus Ex Machina makes high-end motorcycles and loses money on each one, by Charles Fleming, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2015
Indonesia: We’re all ‘natural breathing’ in the Deus Gallery, Deus blog, September 9, 2019
Oct 24, 2019
“In this age of technology where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element?” – Dave Grohl in “Sound City”
There’s no understating Kurt Cobain’s role in the musical paradigm shift that Nirvana initiated with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but sonically speaking, it’s Dave Grohl’s monstrous four-beat drum intro that kickstarted the revolution.
Drums play a starring role in the legend of Sound City, the famed studio where “Nevermind” and more than a hundred other gold- and platinum-selling albums were recorded. In Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary, he’s one of several musicians, producers and recording engineers who wax philosophic on the rhythmic alchemy witnessed inside this unassuming studio on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Yet pinpointing what, exactly, is responsible for the “Sound City drum sound” eludes them all.
Sound City Studios opened in 1969. Its original owners, investors Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter, were new to the music industry. Admittedly, they were only in it for the money. And it showed. The ramshackle studio, located in an aging business park in the patently unsexy neighborhood of Van Nuys, was behind the times and, figuratively and literally, outside the L.A. fast lane. Business went more thud than boom. But rather than cut their losses and move on to other ventures, Skeeter dug in and purchased a colossal state-of-the-art recording console — one of four in existence – recently developed by British electronics engineer Rupert Neve. The price tag was $75,000, more than double that of Skeeter’s latest home purchase.
Credit the analog Neve 8028 console – “The Facilitator” as it’s referred to in Grohl’s documentary – for transforming Sound City from a floundering upstart into L.A.’s hottest studio, with the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, and the Grateful Dead flocking there to cut records in the 1970s. But the building itself deserves some credit, too. When the Neve arrived, a symbiotic relationship quickly developed. Rock music, as filtered through the Neve, comprehensively rocked inside the former warehouse’s crumbling walls, particularly the drums, the instrument most impacted by the environment surrounding it.
Yet even Sound City’s reputation as one of those rare-air studios with an intangible “feel” could not protect it from the march of progress. When digital technology started infiltrating music-making and studio recording in the 1980s, the all-analog Sound City once again struggled. But then in 1991, three underground musicians from Seattle with a new major-label recording contract trekked down the coast to Sound City for a 16-day session. Nirvana chose the studio more for its affordability than its reputation, but the Neve board was a key selling point. No one at the time had any inclination of the impact “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would have on the music industry, but the session ultimately provided a boon for Sound City. Once Nirvana broke, everyone wanted to record there. Albums by Blind Melon, Rage Against the Machine, Tool and Rancid, among others, followed in the footsteps of “Nevermind.”
But then, Pro Tools. By the late ’90s, the digital recording software had improved enough to be taken seriously by professionals, and the music industry was seriously into it. Musicians could now make albums in their bedrooms. Producers and engineers could mix and edit in a fraction of the time. Record labels no longer had to front six-figure studio budgets. The traditional recording studio suddenly seemed like a quaint, archaic notion, and several studios disappeared. The casualties included Sound City, which, despite selling off equipment in an attempt to stay afloat (Grohl himself bought the Neve console), closed its doors to the public in 2011.
Two years later, Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary hit theaters. Analog was already in revival mode thanks to the vinyl resurgence and the back-to-basics ethos of labels like Jack White’s Third Man Records and Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, but Grohl’s film spurred renewed interest in the old-school, put-everyone-in-the-same-room recording studio. This led to a reopening of Sound City in 2016 by Skeeter’s daughter Sandy (Tom passed away in 2014, Gottfried in 1992). While this new version of the studio includes a Pro Tools rig, vintage analog gear still provides the framework, and the main studio looks the same as it did in 1969 – all the way down to the peeling paint and cracked linoleum that remains for fear of altering the space and losing its signature sound.
Analog isn’t easy. It’s painstaking work, and when a mistake is made, a computer can’t repair it with a few clicks of a mouse. Sometimes being disruptive means resisting innovation rather than embracing it, and Sound City’s second life is proof of that. In his film, Grohl concludes that Sound City “represents integrity.” In the 21st century, the studio has found a way to use technology as a tool while staying true to its analog roots and retaining its mystique. When the creator and the consumer demand authenticity, that’s the symbiotic space where a challenger brand can make its mark.
Sound City, directed by Dave Grohl, January 31, 2013
Q&A: Dave Grohl on His Sound City Doc and Taking Risks in Music, by Katie Van Syckle, Rolling Stone, January 25, 2013
L.A. Grapevine, March 2009, by Bud Scoppa, Mix, March 1, 2009
Sep 30, 2019
Lifehacks, they’re definitely a thing in our culture. But the word seems to have lost a bit of its luster through overuse. The minutiae of everyday life appear to have become one big lifehack leaving a truly awe-inspiring life hack to become a footnote in a sea of shoelace hacks and moustache hacks. Not to discount the overwhelming sense of enlightenment upon unlocking the secret of how to fold a fitted sheet (earth-shattering stuff), but there are some life hacks that transcend convenience. They are simple, clever, elegant even, solutions that in some cases can actually save lives.
According to the World Health Organization, 2 million infant deaths a year are caused by pneumonia. So when a young doctor, Mohammod Jobayer Chisti, was confronted head-on with the senseless deaths of infants due to respiratory complications, he became driven to find an affordable and accessible solution.
For infants with a respiratory illness such as pneumonia, the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed making it difficult for them to stay open between breaths, causing oxygen debt. With the right equipment, successful recovery is possible. However, as a physician in a third-world country, Dr. Chisti, neither had the funds or the immediate access to these devices.
After two decades of experimentation, Dr. Chisti arrived at an affordable and simple solution using a tube and a shampoo bottle partially filled with water. When the infant exhales into the tube, it creates water bubbles in the bottle. The bubbles produce enough opposing force to gently keep air sacs in the lungs open and allow the infant to properly exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen. Within hours of first testing this device on critical care infants, Chisti witnessed dramatic recoveries.
Dr. Chisti and a team of doctors continue to research and refine their solution. In the near term, his device which costs around $1.25 has replaced a $15,000 ventilator device and reduced the mortality rate by 75% for infants with pneumonia.
For Mohammod Jobayer Chisti, finding a way to do more with less seems to come as naturally to him as breathing. From adversity, he discovered that limitations are tools, and challenges are opportunities to learn and grow. By approaching his challenge from a unique perspective, he bravely discarded traditional methods to explore the unknown and uncover an innovative solution, a real lifehack that saves real lives.
Tackling the Main Causes of Child Mortality in Developing Countries Evidence from Non-clinical Interventions, by Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, October 30, 2013, https://www.wider.unu.edu/publication/tackling-main-causes-child-mortality-developing-countries
If Your Baby Has Pneumonia, This Doctor’s $1.25 ‘Shampoo Bottle Trick’ Is a Life Saver, by Li Yen, Epoch Times, May 29, 2019, Updated: June 4, 2019, https://www.theepochtimes.com/if-your-baby-has-pneumonia-this-doctors-1-25-shampoo-bottle-trick-is-a-life-saver_2748187.html
The World Health Organization, 10 facts on health inequities and their causes Updated April 2017, https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/health_inequities/en/
Aug 13, 2019