. . . and you’re confused, right? Of course you are, and with good reason. To the uninitiated, the universe of Doctor Who—a British sci-fi staple since 1963—is crazy. Unintelligible. A big pile of WTF.
Take a brand storytelling eye to it, though, and it’s goshdarn inspirational. This brand has remained strong and true for several generations, with an incredibly loyal—and constantly growing—audience who are positively obsessed. In those 54 years, the lead character has been played by no fewer than fourteen different actors, and there’s been a revolving door for the supporting cast, too. He’s an alien (a Time Lord, no less) who has been based on Earth and far-away planets; killed and reborn (“regenerated”); a joker and an asshole and a father figure and a love interest. Change is baked into the story’s mythology. Imagine the power of a brand that can not only constantly change with the market and the times—but one whose audience expects change.
There is so much we, as content marketers and brand storytellers, can learn from Doctor Who and from geek culture as a whole. Where else do you find such loyal fan bases, people champing at the bit for news and teasers and new directions?
Chris Hawton, a life-long Doctor Who fan (“Whovian”) and all-round geek, is host of the All-New Adventures of the Doctor Who Book Club podcast—itself a product of change, having taken up the mantle from a now-defunct podcast. He believes it’s the changing house style that gives the Doctor the edge in sci-fi storytelling. (Spoiler alert: He’s also your correspondent’s other half.)
“Part of it is the joy of seeing familiar ingredients sometimes being pointed in different ways,” says Hawton. “Doctor Who started out as an education program; it was supposed to be educating kids about history. The creators were told by the BBC that they did not want ‘bug-eyed monsters.’ And over its lifetime, it has had the bug-eyed monsters, it’s been set on Earth dealing with recognizable situations, it’s been horror, comedy, hard science fiction, an action adventure show, a musing on life itself. There are times when there are callbacks to original material, or to specific episodes, or to overall moods. It is very well crafted and well loved and well cast and well directed—it’s a quality product. In many ways, it’s a lot better now than it ever was.
“I think the appeal is change,” he continues. “You seldom get an actor who’s stuck in their ways, and the idea of change is just so built into the show mythology that it’s very easy to change the concept, change the style, and it’s fine. On Star Trek, for example, if they were going to change the captain of one of the ships—which they’ve never done—you would have to write a new story line, think about the emotion, who would come in their stead, and so on, whereas with Doctor Who it’s just there as a very easy thing to do.”
And that, my friends, is how you build a loyal, multi-generational audience: Get them to come along for the ride, no matter what that ride entails. But Hawton says it’s not unique to geek culture; he likens Doctor Who to Apple: “Apple had their wilderness years, like Doctor Who in the ’90s. Then in the noughties they were revived by somebody who’d worked in their ‘franchise’ before.
“You could easily fall into the New Coke trap of just shoving a new formula down people’s throats and expecting the best [we’ll explain later], but people are more forgiving and tolerant with Doctor Who because they are used to the idea of new and different products coming from it. A long-running company that is famous for presenting a limited set of products might have less leeway.” Just as people are now used to Apple providing innovation and cutting-edge—and look what happens when their brand story goes awry.
Yes, change is coming, and change will always be there. And change can sometimes bring controversy. Hawton says brands could learn a lot from the current debate around Doctor Who: the fact that for the first time in its fifty-plus-year history, the lead will be played by a woman from the coming Christmas special. It’s a change that has been foreshadowed in the brand story for the last few years.
“There’s been seeds sown to say that the Time Lords can change gender on regeneration. So the Master, who’s the doctor’s frenemy, changed gender and became Missy, or the Mistress, and that was a good test to see to what extent the fans could cope. Just as I would argue to a lesser extent Daniel Craig in Bond was a foreshadowing of change—seriously. He was the first blond Bond. I remember having a conversation at the time and someone was saying Bond can’t be blond, and I said this is basically a hidden argument, and what they might’ve really been saying is Bond can’t be black or Asian.
“You can have minor tweaks, or things coming and going, little twists from time to time. The formula has varied. But with any major change it has been seeded through the show. Also because there is a change of ‘CEO’—or showrunner—the time is right for change.”
It didn’t stop the haters. Perhaps it’s been a storm in a media teacup, but there have been trolls aplenty with this change in brand story, most obviously latching on to the Doctor’s “new” gender. (For the record, the Doctor is a genderless alien; it’s just been played exclusively by men until now.)
This is a phenomenon we saw recently with the film reboot of Ghostbusters. Writer/director Paul Feig—known for female comedy hits such as Bridesmaids and The Heat, as well as creator of Freaks and Geeks—cast an all-female line-up of comedy stars, and promptly “ruined the childhood” of men all over the world. It’s up there with the most hated trailers in YouTube history.
Writes Ben Kaye in Consequence of Sound: “The question then becomes why has Ghostbusters in particular brought out such aggressive haters? There are certainly some reasonable grievances that have contributed to many of the unimpressed feelings, but a quick glance through the comments section reveals other motives. Some are just livid that their beloved film is being remade at all (the classic/moronic ‘They’re ruining my childhood!’ cry). Other remarks, however, take a decidedly misogynist—or at least anti-feminist—turn.”
David Sims quotes Feig in the Atlantic: “It’s the same thing that the women went through with Gamergate. They were just getting hammered, and everyone says ‘Well, why don’t you just go offline?’ But it’s like getting chased out of your neighborhood . . . I don’t want to get chased off the Internet.”
I took Daily Mail comments from people angry about a possible Female Dr Who and turned them into episode titles for the new series pic.twitter.com/k586EeVpld
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) July 15, 2017
“It seemed to be like a week of nonsense with Jodie,” says Hawton. “I suspect the Christmas special will get bumper viewers when Peter Capaldi regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, but I think as well there will be people who want it to fail. Whenever you have a new Doctor you do need to make sure that your first couple of episodes are really good. You must showcase the strength of your new product, your new Doctor, so that people can get used to it.”
Plus, he says, it’s natural that there will be a little wiggle in ratings, or in reception; it doesn’t mean it will last forever. And that’s something marketers—with the constant push for bigger and better metrics—could learn a lot from.
Yet geek culture does give us examples of how not to change a brand story. Hawton points to DC Comics’ reboot in 2011 with what they called the “New 52”. They reset their story universe, and most of the stories they’d been telling the week before were now ignored.
“That took me out of DC,” says Hawton. “It’s considered a failure, and part of it I think was because it was such a hard reboot. Superman and Lois Lane were not married anymore, having been in a relationship for the best part of twenty years. Green Arrow had gone from this bearded rich hippy-esque figure, a trustafarian in his thirties or forties, to being this young street fighter with a gang of tech support. There were such fundamental changes. It was like geek culture’s New Coke.”
What he’s referring to there is one of the biggest change of brand story failures—ever. Thirty years ago, the Coca-Cola Company announced a change to its nearly century-old secret formula; the new Coke would have a smoother, sweeter taste. “This has got to be the boldest consumer products move of any kind of any stripe since Eve started to hand out apples,” said Jesse Meyers, publisher of Beverage Digest, in 1985.
But fans were upset; a poll showed only 13 percent of soda drinkers liked the new Coke. A grassroots campaign was launched across the US to force Coca-Cola to bring back the original.
“Its legacy is one of mockery, often appearing atop lists of ‘Epic, Embarrassing Product Failures’,” writes Rachid Haoues for CBS News. “But the truth is the 77-day fiasco that followed the launch may very well have been a blessing in disguise, perhaps even a good mistake. It taught Coca-Cola a valuable lesson that the company continues to draw from.”
He continues: “A Coca-Cola spokesperson told CBS News: ‘Thirty years ago, we introduced New Coke with no shortage of hype and fanfare. And it did succeed in shaking up the market. But not in the way it was intended. When we look back, this was the pivotal moment when we learned that fiercely loyal consumers—not the Company—own Coca-Cola and all of our brands. It is a lesson that we take seriously and one that becomes clearer and more obvious with each passing anniversary.’”
Hawton mentions other geek culture brand changes that had varying success rates: Battlestar Galactica’s reboot, which took similar themes but went darker; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose creator didn’t feel the original movie did his universe justice; the modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes, either as Sherlock (incidentally, created by Doctor Who alumni) or Elementary, both of which bring the Victorian sleuth into modern day; or The Walking Dead TV series, based on a black and white comic series that wasn’t an obvious hit. He also mentions the ill-advised first movie appearance of the character Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which took everything great about the character and ignored it; Deadpool, of course, had a film reboot, going on to reclaim his personality and become an R-rated hit.
So what can you learn from Doctor Who, from geek culture, about handling a change in brand story?
A story needs change or it will get stale; too much of the same is not a good thing. British readers will sigh over thoughts of the 118 guys, or Compare the Meerkat, both of which kept chugging along as they were for far too long.
Let’s go here to a different kind of staple of pop culture: Barbie. Mattel president and COO Richard Dickson has said Mattel “grew complacent” with Barbie, losing market share as a result, but eventually reinvented itself and Barbie to regain relevance—managing to do so without losing what made the brand special in the first place. The female empowerment of Barbie is still there today, but new Barbie lines include different body types, skin tones, eye colors, and hairstyles. She’s moved with the times. Mattel is applying this reinvention formula to other brands now, such as Fisher-Price, Thomas and Friends, Bob the Builder, and Polly Pocket.
Your change must feel natural; a stunt change could ruin you forever. Doctor Who’s female fervor could be accused of that, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It had been foreshadowed; the waters had been tested with changes in race, gender, and sexuality.
Hawton gives two different examples here: Heroes and Lost. “The makers of Heroes didn’t know what they had,” he says. “The reason why the first season was so good was because a lot of the stories were so personal, but that personal touch morphed into weird soap operatics. Change was inherent to the subject matter, but it was handled badly.
“Then there’s Lost, which had a very successful first season, but the second season was criticized, so for the third season they realized they had to make some tweaks. They were more careful in how they introduced new characters, so it felt a bit more integrated. They also then started to play with the format to keep things fresh. And that makes things really exciting.”
Look no further than Spider-Man. You know him—skinny white geek boy Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider, suddenly becomes a superhero? Well, for a while there Marvel decided to try something different, and Spider-Man became Miles Morales, a black Hispanic kid, who was introduced in the comics in an “alternative universe.” In brand terms, that might be a web series—something Doctor Who did in between seasons with Pond Life.
The constant stream of Spider-Man movies has caused a bit of trouble, though, as have the latest DC movies to an extent, with people accusing them of trying to become the Next Big Thing. You have to be genuine and authentic to become a big-hitting franchise—or a big-hitting, memorable brand story. Ask Guardians of the Galaxy.
If there’s one thing geek culture does well, it’s serialization. Whether it’s sci-fi, comics, horror, or any other flavor that breeds obsessions, these storytellers know what their audience wants, know how to give it to them—but they always do this with a strong narrative at the core. At least, the successful ones do.
Jodie Whittaker knows this. The new Doctor is well aware of the epic journey she’s embarking on, and the importance of her casting: “It’s more than an honor to play the Doctor. It means remembering everyone I used to be, while stepping forward to embrace everything the Doctor stands for: hope.”
Whittaker continues: “To be asked to play the ultimate character, to get to play pretend in the truest form: this is why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. To be able to play someone who is literally reinvented on screen, with all the freedoms that brings—what an unbelievable opportunity. And added to that, to be the first woman in that role.
“It feels completely overwhelming; as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be. It feels incredible.
“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender. Because this is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
As for changes in brand story? Just remember this: The geek shall inherit the audience. Learn wisely, young padawan.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.