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3 Marketing Tips Your Startup Should Steal from Tom Hanks

In 1996, Tom Hanks made his directorial and writing debut. That Thing You Do! is a sappy, yet lively account of a love triangle wrapped in a shooting-star story of a fictional '60s garage band called "The Wonders" – as in "one-hit wonders." The movie follows the band’s meteoric rise -- from cutting their first record and going on tour with a Motown-type traveling revue -- to their eventual fall.

While the storyline is not unpredictable, there’s a lot to like in this period piece. From the familiar-sounding, yet, original music, to the great casting, and particularly, the attention to small details. Likely overlooked by many viewers, musicians will appreciate the noticeable upgrade from Danelectro guitars and amps to the Fender gear after the band gets signed.

The movie didn’t break any box office records -- it grossed $35 million worldwide -- but it provided some great music (including a top 50 Billboard hit), a number of quotable lines (Yeah, there was this one time, we stayed up way past midnight), and three invaluable marketing lessons your brand should embrace.

1. Give Proper Consideration to Your Brand’s Name

Choosing a name for a brand can have long-lasting implications. When Microsoft went about rebranding their search engine a few years back, they went as far as to research how the new name, Bing, would translate into other languages. Sound a little obsessive? Well, consider that General Motors applies different names to its automobiles it sells in other countries for that very reason. The French translation of Buick’s “LaCrosse,” is something along the lines of “self-love” -- not an ideal name for a family sedan.

While the band in the movie had a catchy name, the way in which it was spelled (The Oneders) led to some funny moments when their fans began pronouncing it, “The oh-need-ers.”

No worries. Enter Tom Hanks as their new manager, Mr. white, who updates the poor branding choice posthaste, changing the band’s name to the less-confusing moniker: “The Wonders.”

This is not an uncommon error for startups unfamiliar with marketing principles. If the band only had a couple of rounds of market testing, they could have avoided this embarrassing mistake. But it would have likely made the movie less entertaining.

2. Be Consistent

Second only to a confusing name in branding errors, is inconsistency. The brands who get this and execute it well are the brands you recognize without hearing their name or seeing their logo. The use of colors, typography, and imagery are consistent across mediums. Think: Nike, Apple, Target.

You may not consciously recognize their brand, but through marketing consistency and repetition, your subconscious does. Each time you see an ad, it begins a process known as conditioning, which generates an emotional response from your body. When this occurs over and over again, eventually you begin to associate a conditioned feeling with the brand.

The movie, "Mr. White," gets this concept of branding. He dresses the band in matching suits for each performance, with the drummer wearing sunglasses. (Yeah, it’s a little cheesy, but it works.) And even though suit colors changed from show to show, the band members always matched -- helping to shape their brand identity with their audience as “The Wonders.”

3. The First Version May Not Be the Best Version

When creating anything new, it’s usually an iterative process. But often, we get married to a concept, making it difficult to take in new information and ideas. One of the biggest challenges for any new business is recognizing when a model isn’t working, and then pivoting to something else.

Consider the story of Confinity, a cryptography company that built a system for exchanging money over Palm Pilots. As you might have guessed, that didn’t work out all that well. But in the process, they identified a new market (at the time), for enabling people to easily accept credit card payments. With that pivot and a name change, PayPal is now a $49 billion company.

In the beginning scenes of the movie, the title song is performed a few times. It’s slow, lethargic and unimpressive. But then the band’s drummer breaks his arm and the guys ask a friend to sit in with them for an upcoming show.

At the performance, the new drummer changes up the tempo of their signature song, That Thing You Do! The lead singer is not very happy with the change at first (he wrote the song), but the other guys like it -- and so do the girls at the show. It soon becomes their first hit.

Few brands nail their marketing right out of the gate -- have you seen Apple’s original logo? And consider that a brand’s identity can be shaped as much by its audience as perhaps any other factor.

Managing perceptions, like the band’s manager, Mr. White, did so skillfully, is perhaps the biggest challenge for any brand. It’s a great lesson for any start-up.