I saw both movies, and liked both movies. Lots of people liked both movies. Studios and movie theater owners were elated. It wasn’t just that the movies were good, there was a serendipity in which they worked side by side to create a cultural phenomenon. I’m referring, of course, to ‘Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” The point I’m here to make, however, is not about the movies, per se, nor any potential blockbusters in the Hollywood pipeline, nor even the actors’ and writers’ strikes still raging, with nothing to indicate they’ll be over soon. I’m here in my role as a marketer to suggest that no business, in any category, should count on a “Barbenheimer” to give it a sustainable competitive advantage.
For theater owners hoping that the success of Barbenheimer will get consumers back to the movies on a regular basis, it’s unlikely to happen. To enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage, you can’t just up the game with a temporary win; you need to change the game. While this is true in any business, when it comes to the business of movie theaters, it will be an even harder task. Even before the pandemic, consumers had started watching movies, and all manner of entertainment, from the comfort of their own homes. The technology was getting better and less cost prohibitive. The content was coming at warp speed. And there no having to put up with the annoyance of sitting in the dark next to strangers checking their phones, or noisily munching $8 popcorn, everyone’s feet glued to the sticky floors. The pandemic simply exacerbated what had already been a one-two-three punch. The accessibility of nifty at-home theater equipment, a myriad of streaming options, and no bothersome seatmates. Habits were formed and, as every marketer knows, consumer habits are very hard to change. Getting people up off their couches to see a movie on a regular basis, even in the unlikely event that a line-up of Barbenheimers exists, is a big ask.
It’s true, that prior to the pandemic, a number of movie theater owners began to identify ways to optimize the experience. The founders of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema® chain, for example, distinguished its brand by serving upscale dinner options and signature drinks during the movie, offering food-themed films with complementary food, and retrospectives of various directors and stars. Their 39 theaters, half franchises, focus on providing a distinctive entertainment and hospitality experience. My local theater, the Bedford Playhouse, went a similar route. Once a classic movie theater gone dark, several residents got together and reconceived the space with the introduction of private screening rooms, a wine-tasting area and a café.
These efforts are both smart and admirable and very good steps in the right direction. But, optimizing an experience is not the same as transforming it. No matter what business you’re in, achieving a sustainable competitive advantage is not a matter of turning the dials a bit left or right, selling a variation of what already exists. It requires looking at a given experience through a different set of lenses, making something better in kind, not by degree. In essence, it means becoming an “experience disruptor.”
The fastest-growing business segment today is made up of those finding success not by focusing on changing existing products, but changing how consumers do things. They’re seeing – and seizing – innovative opportunities to make the things we do every day better. The lenses through which they look give them a totally new perspective, enabling them to break entrenched consumer habits relative to the way consumers shop, dine, travel, invest, get healthcare, and many other routine activities. Without a doubt, they’ve disrupted myriad things you used to do one way, and now do another. You know, take Ubers, not taxis. Call DoorDash, not make dinner. Go to an Airbnb, not a hotel. Use Zoom, not meet in person. Keep your wardrobe current with Stitch Fix instead of wondering what to wear each day. And, yes, watch Netflix or Apple TV or Hulu or Amazon instead of going to the movies.
It was when I was at the theater seeing “Barbie” that my memory was jogged by a long-ago movie experience that, perhaps, demonstrates what I mean when I speak of looking through different lenses for marketing inspiration. “Barbie’s” opening sequence (spoiler alert!) was a shot-by-shot spoof of the opening sequence to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” We watch as a group of silent little girls play with anonymous baby dolls along a barren landscape. The girls quickly abandon their baby dolls when they see the glorious Barbie, rising like a monolith before them, accompanied by the thunderous, heroic fanfare of Richard Strauss’ iconic Also Sprach Zarathustra. While Kubrick used it as an evocative aural backdrop to the “Dawn of Man,” Greta Gerwig cleverly uses it to speak to the “Dawn of Barbie.”
This scene brought me back to 2013 when my wife and I were at Lincoln Center in New York City watching Kubrick’s film accompanied by a live performance of the New York Philharmonic. When the film came to an end, and the orchestra laid down its instruments, there was an instantaneous standing ovation. It was a movie experience unlike any other I’d, well, experienced. What made it so transformative was that someone had thought creatively about how one business intersected or shared the spirit of another to create something more interesting and engaging. They joined forces to turn an ordinary experience into something extraordinary.
From one category to another, gaining a sustainable advantage in business today is not a matter of a single serendipitous blockbuster. Nor is it a matter of convincing consumers you’ve got a better mousetrap, the cliched shiny new object. Rather, it’s a matter of disrupting the status quo by identifying and reimagining a whole new way to provide a better customer experience. The newest breed of successful marketers – experience disruptors – look where no one else has thought to look to shake things up and find a relevantly different way of making the stuff of daily life different and better, or simply more fun. They don’t assume people won’t change the way they’ve always done things. They’re finding that if you offer them a better, more compelling option, they most certainly will. As a movie buff, I hope some innovative person is out there rethinking the theater experience in a way that will get people off the couch and into the theaters on a regular basis. On with the show.