By: Ben Okun
As the camera panned out, leaving the infamous Walter White laying bloodied on the floor of a meth lab, all I could think was, “Is Breaking Bad really gone for good?” Now I knew that this was the final episode, and that creator Vince Gilligan had made it clear that there would be no more Breaking Bad. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact arguably the greatest drama series of the last couple decades was actually coming to an end. Many people, myself included, “binge-watched” the first few seasons on Netflix, but as momentum built behind this powerhouse, more and more people caught up and began tuning in live Sunday nights on AMC. Breaking Bad’s brand has grown exponentially over the past couple of years and has reached a point where people literally obsess over the show. So how has Breaking Bad’s brand become so powerful? Here are four reasons why:
1. Use of Social Media
In today’s digital age, social media use is very important in establishing a brand, as it gives you access to the most people at any given time. People are always on social media and it is the easiest way to communicate with them directly to get your message across.
Almost all the cast members of Breaking Bad were extremely active on social media platforms, especially Twitter, which helped solidify Breaking Bad’s brand over the last season or so. One aspect of the cast’s Twitter use that was particularly refreshing was that they kept in character for their tweets. Actor Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman on the show, would rarely tweet as if he was Aaron Paul. Paul would often tweet using dialect and slang that sounded as if Jesse Pinkman was talking to you. Paul would constantly use the words “bitch” and “yo” in his tweets, words commonly associated with his Pinkman character.
In the first episode of this last season, Walter White tells his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader to “tread lightly” in his investigation. This iconic quote by Walt was the talk of discussion all week leading up to the next episode, so much so, that actor Dean Norris who plays Schrader tweeted out, “ Hey Twitter folk, I’ll tread however the f**k I want to tonight.”
These are just two of many examples of how the cast of Breaking Bad brought the show to life on social media, by directly interacting with fans and bringing certain nuances of the show to the forefront of the Twitterverse. This helped build a powerful brand, because users felt as though they were talking to Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader, not Hollywood actors and celebrities.
2. Consistent Message and Theme
As a brand, you always want to provide your users with a consistent message. This way, the brand will avoid any confusion and the users can directly identify with the brand because they know what they are getting and can expect certain things. Vince Gilligan and the entire production team did an incredible job of keeping the show consistent throughout its entire existence. I’m not even talking about consistently great shows every week, although Breaking Bad certainly did this.
I’m talking about specific delivery methods, camera angles, sequences and themes that really set this show apart from others and brought something unique to the table. Embedded in every episode, there were foreshadows, flash forwards, close-ups on certain objects and montage sequences, in which viewers would have no idea what any of them meant. However, viewers learned to accept and even embrace these ambiguous aspects of the show, because Gilligan did a masterful job of incorporating these aspects of the show later on where he saw fit.
For a few episodes, viewers were given a close-up of worn-out teddy bear in a pool, with strange music playing in the background. There was no way for anyone to possibly know why it was there, but because these kind of things had helped establish the overall brand, people expected to be filled in at some point and actually enjoyed guessing the context of these strange scenes. It turns out; the teddy bear had actually fallen from the sky from a plain crash that played a significant role in the show. Gilligan was always consistent in tying loose ends together while also keeping the audience guessing, with the expectation of eventually being filled in.
These strange and symbolic scenes at first seemed out of place, but eventually became a huge part of the show in which a viewer knew that something significant was taking place, and became increasingly excited from an otherwise obscure scene. Successful brands always have a clear and consistent message that plays into the users expectations and keeps them coming back for more.
One aspect of branding that seems rather obvious, but may be the most difficult to execute, is being visible and available to the public. Whether this is through a PR campaign or strategic marketing, it is essential to get your name out there; otherwise, you will never get noticed. You could be a social media expert and have the clearest, most consistent message, but if nobody actually sees your content, it is almost impossible to build a brand.
Aside from just airing episodes every Sunday night, Breaking Bad did a number of things to gain more publicity and be more visible. Immediately following every episode from this past mini-season, there would be an after-show called “Talking Bad.” Each week, the host would sit down and talk with different actors and producers from Breaking Bad, as well as other television enthusiasts, about the previously aired episode and everything else surrounding the show. They would also field questions from an in-studio audience and respond to comments and other ideas from social media. Talking Bad was a huge success and served as an additional outlet for super-fans to digest as much content as they possibly could.
The entire Breaking Bad cast also appeared together on Conan, leading up to the final episodes. This was so refreshing to the viewers who are used to the built up tension on the show, and got to see the cast joke around a bit and relax.
Lastly and most importantly, all five seasons were made available on Netflix. As I mentioned, viewers were able to “binge watch” at their leisure and have a whole library of episodes at their fingertips. Breaking Bad was just a click away, and boy did users take advantage. Since it was so readily accessible, the show built a legion of followers very quickly. It was not hard to find or watch Breaking Bad, and this visibility was a huge factor in the show’s branding success.
4. Aware of the Competition
Whether it’s Burger King vs. McDonalds, or Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, there will usually be competition between large, successful brands. As a result, it is important to keep track of what that competitor is doing, so you are able to distinguish and solidify your own brand. There will usually be some overlap between competing brands, but there will always be fundamental differences that set them apart.
With all the critical acclaim and Emmy Awards that Breaking Bad has garnered, there was no real competition in the drama genre during its five-year run. Fair or not, critics and fans began comparing Breaking Bad to the only other drama in recent memory that stacked up… The Sopranos. As Breaking Bad gained more and more steam, the comparisons became stronger and stronger.
Simply put, both shows were centered on family men who were heavily involved in illegal activities and violence to ultimately provide for their families. As the shows grew darker and darker, the main characters, Walter White and Tony Soprano, grew darker as well. In both cases, fans found themselves rooting for an antihero, someone who in real life, you would never, ever want to associate yourself with.
The similarities in both shows were unquestioned; a family man gradually transforming into a criminal mastermind and villain. However, Breaking Bad solidified its brand and distinguished itself from The Sopranos in the finale. The Sopranos finale was heavily criticized, as it let so many stones unturned and questions unanswered. There was zero closure and fans were greatly disappointed. Breaking Bad learned from the Soprano’s mistake and gave its fans a fitting, beautiful ending, which tied every loose end together and gave complete closure to an epic series. Fans were satisfied, knowing there was a definitive “ending.”
Purposefully or not, Vince Gilligan and his staff followed the path of The Sopranos, but left a major fork in the road at the most crucial point; the finale. Gilligan gave the fans what they wanted, which was the right move to make to such a loyal fanbase. Brands can learn from their competition and even mimic some minor techniques, so long as there is a definitive and obvious difference that makes a brand unique.
For those of you who have seen Breaking Bad, I hope you were nodding along throughout this blog, as you’re probably aware of everything I said. For those who haven’t seen the show, I’m sure you have at least heard of Breaking Bad, given the immense success and show’s powerful brand. If you don’t fall into either category, you must have been living under a rock! Just kidding. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad watch it! Not only is it an amazing show, but it incorporates essential branding techniques that every brand should follow.
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