What Brand Builders Can Learn From Stan Lee


I’m from a die-hard comics family and have enjoyed reading the many tributes to Stan Lee in the days since he died. As a result, I’ve been struck by how his philosophy of creating superheroes offers surprising, powerful inspiration to those of us who work to create, manage or reinvent authentic brands.

Authenticity was key to the enduring appeal of Stan Lee himself, and also to the deep connection audiences the world over have made with his characters. Despite the fantastical, implausible details of these characters and their weird, wondrous powers, they are enduringly human because Mr. Lee always sought to make them flawed and vulnerable. And this is why they fascinate us.

Getty images

Getty images

In an unconventional TED talk filmed in 2013, Stan Lee speaks of giving his superheroes problems or flaws to make them more relatable. “You want a three-dimensional superhero who lives and breathes and worries and experiences things just the way that you or I do, except that they have a superpower.” He also points out, “unless you care about the superhero’s personal life, you’re just reading a shallow story.” From Peter Parker’s burden of guilt over his uncle Ben’s death to IronMan’s super-sized narcissism, we see that these heroes always face challenging circumstances and personal shortcomings and we care that much more about what will happen next in their stories because of these burdens.

In a similar vein, I believe that one of the five key strategies that brands can use to be more authentic is to admit or embrace their imperfections, instead of fighting to sweep them under the rug. Brands should consider how powerful it can be for them to openly admit their mistakes, ask for help, invite collaboration with their audiences or even just create products that are not uniform, perfect and standardized. Just think about how part of the charm of an Altoids mint is that it’s not smooth and regular like a TicTac or remember how Netflix bounced completely back (and then some) from their CEO’s repeated apologies over their pricing crimes back in 2011 and you’ll see what I mean.

 Trying to create an above reproach and invulnerable superhero makes for a yawn of a comic, and likewise the days are long gone when brands benefit from showing up in a way that’s monolithic, offering paternalistic advice and omniscient expertise that invites no challenges, and also no conversation. Don’t be afraid to let your brand be vulnerably imperfect. It just makes it more relatable and I promise it doesn’t mean the brand will lose its superpowers!