Kevin Spacey’s character on “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood, is mostly known for his despicable behavior, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from him. Through three seasons, he’s lied, cheated, and manipulated his way into power. Along the way, he’s dropped some serious lessons in the nature of power and influence. Here are some lessons in brand management that you can learn from television’s anti-hero of the hour.
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of House of Cards.
In every season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood has his eyes on a prize. Whether it’s a position as Vice President, a position as president, or a reelection, he has a goal and a plan for reaching it. He’s never above viciousness, or indulgences in emotion, but he always avoids putting his plans in jeopardy. “He chose money over power, in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes,” Frank says. “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference.” In an atmosphere where people often take what’s in front of them, Frank always has his long term interests in mind.
Brands often make the mistake of latching on to something that’s of the moment, while failing to consider what it will mean later. Today’s victory is often tomorrow’s embarrassment. If Tiffany’s suddenly started issuing 30% off coupons, they’d have a month or two of amazing sales, but it would erode their brand over time.
Frank walks a line between safety and danger. In an effort to keep a scandal quiet, he pushes a journalist onto a set of train tracks, potentially exposing himself to a much larger scandal. Frank is well aware of the risks he’s taking, “The higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.” But to Frank, the greater risk would be doing nothing. As he puts it in episode seven of season two, “Presidents who obsess over history obsess over their place in it, instead of forging it.”
Brands must be willing to take risks if they want to make an impression. While a conservative, slow growth approach to brand building is often espoused, there’s something to be said for making a bold move. Where would Pepsi be without the Pepsi challenge? Theoretically, a taste test like that could lose them as many customers as they stood to gain. Yet by throwing down a gauntlet, Pepsi no longer looked like the second largest cola brand. They were making a statement that Pepsi was as good as Coca-Cola, or perhaps even better. They looked like underdogs, they looked like rebels, and the campaign was an enormous success.
Frank Underwood gains his power because of the people who trust him. He may lie, and he may cheat, but people understand who he is and what his motivations are. They may despise his methods, but they appreciate his results. He runs into problems when he tries to obscure his intentions. By the end of season two, the President has grown suspicious of Frank. He’s convinced Frank is trying to take the presidency. Frank earns back the president’s trust by admitting that the president is right, he does lust after the position. In the same letter, he offers to commit career suicide in order to save the President’s legacy. As soon as the president understands where Frank is coming from, he’s able to forgive Frank’s behavior.
Brands have started to place incredible value in authenticity, but they often make the mistake of conflating that with notions of sustainability, social change, and virtuous intentions. While these notions can be valuable, they still have the potential to be perceived as disingenuous. Imagine a company that’s known for decades of unethical behavior, now imagine them coming out of the blue to advertise their new, ethical, feel-good business practices. Would anyone think they did this out of the kindness of their hearts? No one is advocating they should be unethical, but like a jerk who is suddenly nice to you, people might have problems trusting their intentions, and that can hurt a brand.