In the most recent news report that I could find about the mega-successful movie sequel ‘Top Gun: Maverick‘, it’s remarkable to note that this sequel has reached the number 12th spot in all-time worldwide box-office revenues at over US$1.4Billion, which is also the number 8th spot of all-time worldwide sequel box-office. So far in 2022, it also holds the number one spot at the worldwide box office for this year.
With this latest sequel, the ‘Top Gun®’ brand has entered into the exclusive club of movies which are referred to as ‘movie franchises‘. A movie franchise (or series) is a collection of related films in succession that share the same fictional universe or have been marketed as a series. According to a Newsweek article, 49 of the 50 highest grossing movies of all time were a part of a movie franchise. The only movie in the top 50 which is not part of a movie franchise is Titanic which grossed a whopping US$2.2billion in the box office! And of course this exclusive club is dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe Franchise with an aggregate total of over US$27.4billion across 29 films led by the 2019 film Avengers: Endgame which grossed over US$2.79billion in the box office worldwide, and still with no signs of stopping anytime in the future.
Judging by the huge success of the sequel ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, it certainly has all the indications of becoming a successful movie franchise moving forward. It seems to have established enough multi-generational following, which can ensure that a third Top Gun movie will likely attract significant interest and generate huge revenues for its producers; as well as a fourth Top Gun, a fifth and so on.
In the Masterclass ‘The Brand Architecture | What it Takes to Build a Strong Brand that Lasts‘, the third module is focused on answering the question: ‘What does it take to sustain a profitable brand?‘
In a phrase, I believe the answer is directly related to the concept of ‘Brand Equity‘.
I always emphasize to my students that it is not enough to build and launch a brand. What is more important is to sustain a brand for the long haul. Many global iconic brands like Apple®, Ford®, etc. have literally outlived their founders like Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, respectively. The lifetime of a strong brand can last for decades, even centuries, just like the world’s first brand, Kongō Gumi which was founded in the year 578 and still exists and operates until today.
And I believe that the longevity of a brand is largely due to its brand equity which is built through consistency and focus over time.
What is Brand Equity?
As I teach in the module one of ‘The Brand Architecture‘ masterclass, according to Al Ries, the definition of a ‘Brand‘ is a singular concept or idea that you own in the mind of your prospect’.
‘Brand Equity‘, on the other hand, is a related but different concept.
A popular definition of brand equity is taken from renowned marketing theorist and Professor David Aacker, who defines brand equity in his book ‘Managing Brand Equity’ as a set of assets or liabilities in the form of brand visibility, brand associations and customer loyalty that add or subtract from the value of a current or potential product or service driven by the brand
“Brand Equity is a set of assets or liabilities in the form of brand visibility, brand associations and customer loyalty that add or subtract from the value of a current or potential product or service driven by the brand.”David Aacker, Professor and Marketing Theorist
This definition of brand equity is not easily grasped at first glance. So allow me to try and simplify this concept.
Given the above separate definitions of ‘brand‘ and ‘brand equity‘, my simple understanding of the difference of these two concepts is that while ‘brand‘ is the singular concept that is owned in the mind of consumers, ‘brand equity‘ is what the brand has established for itself over time because of its consistent and innovative behavior across its marketing mix through the years of competing in the market.
“A brand is something that has a clear-cut identity amongst consumers, which a company creates by sending out a clear, consistent message over a period of years until it achieves a critical mass of marketing.”Phil Knight, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Nike
For example, while Apple®‘s singular concept is ‘Think Different‘ which it owns in the minds of consumers, its brand equity relates to its long-standing and consistent reputation of being different in many aspects of its brand marketing (also referred to as the six P’s of the marketing mix), be it their products, their microchips, their apps, their retail stores, their services, their people, their processes, etc. Even their head office, dubbed as ‘The Spaceship‘, is different!
It is worth noting that Apple®’s Think Different was inspired by Nike®’s singular focus of Just Do It.
“The best example of all, and one of the greatest jobs of marketing the universe has ever seen is Nike,” Steve Jobs explained. “Remember, Nike sells a commodity. They sell shoes. And yet when you think of Nike, you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, they don’t ever talk about their products. They don’t ever tell you about their air soles and why they’re better than Reebok’s air soles. What does Nike do? They honor great athletes and they honor great athletics. That’s who they are, that’s what they are about.”
He wanted to do the same for Apple®’s brand. “The way to do that is not to talk about speeds and feeds. It’s not to talk about MIPS and megahertz, it’s not to talk about why we’re better than Windows,” Jobs said.
And it was at that point when he revealed the iconic “Think Different” relaunch campaign of Apple®. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I believe that the consistent and cohesive execution of the brand through the various customer touch points is what really determines the equity of a brand. As stated in the definition from Aacker, the visibility, associations, and loyalty of a brand that make up brand equity are really directly the result of how the positioning of the brand was executed on a consistent and focused basis every time, over time. I call this brand behavior.
I was once asked by a student in my masterclass, ‘what is the greatest brand killer?’ My answer included two key points:
First killer is when a brand is consistently inconsistent.
And the second killer is when a brand lacks ongoing customer-centric innovation which are consistent with its brand positioning.
The Mega-Success of the Sequel ‘Top Gun: Maverick‘
What made the sequel ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ so successful?
In a phrase, I would say, ‘Consistency with the Brand Equity‘.
It’s always tricky when a sequel to an iconic movie is made. Just like it’s always tricky when a product extension or product update of a highly successful brand is introduced. From the onset, expectations are already high and specific, especially amongst its loyal followers. Coke® learned a painful lesson in 1985 when it tried to change its century-old formula in order to compete more effectively with surging Pepsi® at that time. The backlash was immediate and so brutal from its loyal consumers (actual national protest groups were organized to rally against the move) that the brand was forced to bring back the original formula.
David Ellison, the producer of Top Gun: Maverick, said in an interview: “Tom (Cruise) was clear. His mantra on the movie was not ‘hitting a bullseye’ but ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet‘. He wouldn’t start until we got the script right, and it was amazing when he looked at everyone and said, ‘Let’s go’.”
My understanding of that mantra is that Tom Cruise was acutely aware of the equity of the brand ‘Top Gun‘.
The idea for a Top Gun film was inspired by an article in California magazine in 1983 by Ehud Yonay, which followed the day-to-day lives of fighter pilots at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Though both Top Gun films are fictional, they’re inspired by a real-life military aviation program, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka TOPGUN. This is where the best of the best train to refine their elite flying skills.
According to a recent article in Men’s Journal: “The original film made such an impact that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2015 for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. When Top Gun flew into theaters in 1986, it helped launch Tom Cruise into superstardom that hasn’t stopped yet, and even sparked a large increase in uniformed personnel joining the Navy and inquiring about naval aviation programs.”
Therefore the Top Gun® brand was not about just being the best; but more importantly, it was being the ‘best of the best’.
The best could hit the bullseye, but the best of the best can hit a bullet with a bullet.
Closely associated with the brand were ‘intense competition at the highest and elite levels‘, ‘physical prowess‘, and the ‘need for speed‘ (a famous quote from the original film).
Its brand equity demanded a movie experience that demonstrated this concept of being the best of the best, such as bringing the movie-goer inside the fighter jet cockpit itself. The Men’s Journal continued: “To shoot the incredible flight scenes in the film, director Tony Scott and the crew put cameras directly on planes. The team used an A-6 Intruder with four camera positions using special camera mounts that had been developed by Grumman Aircraft Co. Director Scott wanted the film to be as realistic as possible, so he worked with the military and U.S. government to use real planes, equipment, and the real Naval Air station where the movie is set.”
The movie sequel was faithful to all of the above, and more.
Even the beach scene, which was a part of both the original and the sequel, was integral to its brand identity. “That scene happens to be very important,” Tom Cruise said in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “First of all, it shows that to fighter pilots physical prowess is very important. Plus, the scene shows the constant competition between these guys–how they compete on every level.” Once again, the best of the best.
The innovation in the sequel was that it instead of beach volleyball, Joseph Kosinksi, the sequel’s director, decided to go with beach football as developed by their screenwriting team. In an interview with Screen Rant last June 2022, Kosinki said: “When I was prepping the movie, it was the thing that I got asked most about — is there going to be a volleyball scene? — which kind of surprised me. So the challenge was, if we’re going to do a beach scene, we got to work it into the narrative of our story. We’re not just going to do one to do it. Our screenwriting team figured out a smart way to integrate that scene into Maverick’s training. There is a reason — this notion of dog fight football offense and defense at the same time is a nice foreshadowing of what we’re going see in the third act.“
The brand’s distribution or place strategy was also critical in further solidifying its brand equity. In its promotional poster one will note: ‘Only in Theaters‘. Released two years delayed because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, producer David Ellison strongly resisted the temptation of selling the movie to the leading streaming platforms like Netflix®. “This was a movie always intended to be seen on the biggest screen possible. There were incoming calls, but our hope is that we’re now at a place where the market is back and healthy,” explained Ellison in an interview with Bloomberg back in May 2022. When he was asked in the interview “What is the most that someone offered for it?“, he answered, “Let’s just say, significant“. If Ellison gave into that temptation, he would have not been consistent with the brand, thereby undermining its brand equity.
“It wouldn’t be Top Gun without ‘Danger Zone'”.Tom Cruise
And of course, the hit single original sound-track of ‘Danger Zone‘ by Kenny Loggins was retained in the sequel. In a recent interview with Forbes, Kenny Loggins was asked: “The original Top Gun came out in 1986, but you only recently met Tom Cruise for the first time. How had your paths never crossed until then?” Kenny Loggins replied: “Well, by the time they get around to the music, the actors are well on their way to finishing their next movie, so Tom was not as involved, certainly not with the music, back then. That was the beginning of his career. It was only about six years ago (2016) that I met him when I met him at Kimmel. The first thing I said to him was, ‘So, tell me the truth is “Danger Zone” a part of the new Top Gun?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it wouldn’t be Top Gun without “Danger Zone”.’ I really appreciate that he was true to his word. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
These types of decisions clearly demonstrate the precise meaning of brand equity.
“Normally I don’t talk about new movies that much because I’m only forced to say only good things, but in this case I f***ing love Top Gun, the Maverick movie. I thought it was fantastic,” Tarantino said. “[Director Joseph Kosinski] did a great job. The respect and the love of [the late director] Tony [Scott] was in every frame. It was almost in every decision. It was consciously right there, but in this really cool way that was really respectful. And I think it was in every decision Tom [Cruise] made on the film.” Tarantino reiterated, “It’s the closest we’re ever going get to seeing one more Tony Scott movie, and it was a f***ing terrific one.”
That’s why the sequel became so successful. It was consistent with the brand equity already in the minds of its followers and it also innovated in line with that brand equity. Whilst the 2022 sequel came 36 years after the original 1986 movie, because it was so successful in building upon the brand equity of Top Gun®, it has effectively set up the franchise for more gravity-defying possibilities going into the future.
This brilliant movie franchise brand leaves us with two key lessons:
First, the brand equity can either diminish or appreciate, depending on the behavior and decisions of the brand across all the six P’s of the brand marketing mix over time.
Second, the hallmark of any leading brand which has a solid brand equity is the execution of all the elements of its brand marketing mix which is faithful and consistent with its brand positioning and brand identity.
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