The latest World War Two movie to hit the big screen is David Ayer’s Fury. Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman, Fury takes its title from the name of the up-gunned M4 Sherman ‘Firefly’ tank around which the movie pivots. However, as in many a Hollywood movie, the villain is a far more interesting character. Somewhat typecast, the evil Nazi villain of the movie comes in the guise of Tiger 131, the world’s only operational Tiger tank.
The Tiger tanks used in movies like Kelly’s Heroes, Battle of the Bulge and Saving Private Ryan were fakes. Naturally having the first genuine Tiger tank in a Hollywood blockbuster is a coup for the movie’s marketing and PR departments. It’s also good box office for The Tank Museum, where Tiger 131 resides as a permanent exhibit. Tiger 131’s own amazing story reads like a work of fiction and is pure marketing gold. But it’s the story of the Tiger tank itself that can really teach us about the power of the narrative to build an enduring brand.
Bring Out the Big Guns
The fearsome Tiger tank entered service on the Eastern Front in August 1942. As much a creation of Nazi propaganda as the Henschel works where the actual tanks were manufactured, the Tiger immediately took hold of the public consciousness within Germany and abroad. The Tiger was marketed as a “wunderwaffe” or wonder-weapon by the propaganda ministry, and quickly gained a reputation for being impervious to direct enemy fire thanks to its incredibly thick frontal armour. However, it was the Tiger’s high velocity, flat trajectory, deadly accurate 88mm gun that proved its main point of difference. The 88mm gave the Tiger a distinct reach advantage over any other tank on an open battlefield, and its shells could slice through Allied tanks like a knife through butter. A mixture of highly effective marketing and the Tiger’s battlefield prowess created a number of positive results for the regime. German tank crews had confidence in the superiority of their panzers over enemy tanks. Conversely, Allied morale dropped disproportionately at the mention of Tiger tanks. This psychological barrier became known as “Tigerphobia”.
The Value of a Good Story
The Nazis understood the value of a great story and how to use the latest media formats to spread their vile messages as widely as possible. Of course, State control of all media helped. The world’s most enduring brands are built on great stories. Truly iconic brands transcend the products and services they sell and become part of popular culture. They are often grounded in a common history, shared experience or significant events. The Second World War is one of the most indelible events of the last hundred years and continues to inspire everyone from film-makers and computer game developers to authors and toy manufacturers.
The enormously successful Call of Duty computer game series started life as a World War Two-themed first person shooter (FPS). Today the franchise is worth billions of dollars, over 100 million people have played Call of Duty, and gamers regularly clock-up the astonishing equivalent of 2000 years of play a day. Actor Kevin Spacey recently talked to The Guardian newspaper about his role in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. “The guys at Activision (the game’s developers) walked me through the idea of wanting to advance gaming. They wanted to begin to try to focus on really creating a character and storytelling that you would follow, explained Spacey. “It’s an exciting time for theatre, film, television and games. As long as there are really good stories to tell and audiences who want to hear those stories, I feel incredibly lucky to work in all these different media.”
A leading expert on branding and innovation, Douglas Holt suggests, “Iconic brands don’t tell people what they stand for. Rather they create myths and act in compelling ways to dramatize their ideology. They tell stories with implicit ideological meaning that make an emotional connection with the audience.” The idea that iconic brands are rooted in popular culture and actively participant in changing or disrupting it is a far cry from earlier concepts of branding. Once upon a time a brand was little more than a collection of product or service benefits wrapped up in some fancy graphic design. Later, brands started to look at how they might leverage the emotional resonance they create with their customers. Holt’s ideas go much further.
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Birth of a Legend
The Tiger tank’s brand myth was written in the most dramatic way possible on the 13th of June 1944 in the little town of Villers-Bocage, Normandy. The story has been told, retold and probably wildly exaggerated. Anyway, following the D-Day landings on the 6th of June 1944, the British had failed to capture the strategically important city of Caen. In an attempt to outflank the Germans and take the city elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade were passing through Villers-Bocage. Unfortunately for the British a company of German Tiger tanks was resting just outside the town. On hearing the noise of the British advance, the German commander, who just happened to be a celebrated tank ace named Michael Wittmann, ordered his own Tiger into battle. Wittmann’s single-handed attack on an armoured brigade is now legendary. In less than 15 minutes Wittmann’s lone Tiger tank destroyed 14 British tanks, two anti-tank guns and around 15 support vehicles. A large number of British prisoners were also taken. Unsurprisingly, the Nazi propaganda machine went into overdrive putting Wittmann on the radio to tell his fantastic story. The reality of the battle that unfolded over the next couple of days, and the losses in men and materiel suffered by Germans wasn’t mentioned.
It’s been said that you know an iconic brand when you see it – there is no ambiguity, it’s instantly recognisable. That moment of acknowledgement also acts as a kind of consumer shorthand at the point of purchase, a distillation of all that the brand means to us such as trust, value, reliability or status. Iconic brands are like friends and family, they have distinct personalities with which we identify and form strong bonds. Like our friends and families, iconic brands might appear ageless but in reality they’re constantly changing and evolving.
Another iconic brand of the Nazi era is Volkswagen, founded in 1937 by the German Labour Front. The Volkswagen Beetle has become a design classic, the original “People’s Car”. Over the years Volkswagen’s involvement in motorsport and the movie industry has created great affection, even cult status for the brand world-wide. Where would the hippie movement have been without the VW camper van? Unique design and constant innovation such as the development of more environmentally-friendly vehicles keeps the brand fresh, accessible and reassuringly familiar. Iconic brand status also translates to the bottom line. Research by WPP found that iconic brands attain higher consumer awareness and preference than other brands: 58% for iconic brands vs. 36% for non-iconic brands.
Consistency and Evolution
The Tiger tank had a very short production life, and just 1400 mark ones were built. In 1944 the heavier Tiger II or Royal Tiger was introduced. Less than 500 of those bad boys entered service. Today, just a handful of Tiger tanks remain. Considered the most famous and feared tank of World War Two, the Tiger tank brand didn’t fade away into historical obscurity. Instead it has been continually reborn and reinvented for new generations. The Corgi die-cast toy Tiger tank was a must have playground accessory in the mid-1970s, and little seems to have changed over the decades.
Writing for The Telegraph, Jasper Copping highlights a recent change in consumer preference for German military vehicle plastic model kits: “Sales of German Panther and Tiger tank models far outstrip those of the most popular Allied kits, the Sherman and Churchill tanks, by a ratio of three to one.” Today, the Tiger tank is alive and well in computer games, mobile apps, Hollywood movies, documentaries, books, magazines, comics, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, toys, models and every conceivable form of merchandise from t-shirts to mugs. The Tiger has even been used in TV commercials. The Tiger has fought over 22,000 online battles within World of Tanks, a highly successful Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG). World of Tanks was played by more than 45 million people during 2012, who clocked-up an astonishing two billion hours in the game. World of Tanks generated $372 million in revenue for 2013.
The Tiger’s lasting appeal is hard to quantify. Certainly its distinct design and menacing appearance make it instantly recognisable. However, it’s the stories of daring-do and myth of Teutonic invincibility that really seem to enthral us. Alan M. Webber said: “A great brand is a story that’s never completely told.” Seventy years on the Tiger tank is still writing new chapters in the tale of an iconic brand that any business must envy and can learn from.