Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

John McClane, CEO: What ‘Die Hard’ Taught Me About Marketing

There’s so much to learn from Die Hard, one of the greatest movies of all time, whether it’s the secret to surviving air travel (fists with your toes) or how to create a makeshift bomb using only C4, a swivel chair, and a computer monitor.

You may be surprised to find out that this fantastic cinematic adventure can also tell us a lot about marketing.

You kind of want to punch him in the face, don't you?

This man is not my white knight.

1. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver.

Harry Ellis, the man for which the word “douchebag” was invented, is a coworker of John McClane’s wife and sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. In order to save his own sniveling skin, he offers himself up as a negotiator to so-smart-I’m-bored faux terrorist Hans Gruber. He tells Gruber he can get McClane to give himself up and proceeds to try sweet talking the annoyed NYPD detective into waving a white flag. Naturally, he has no idea what he’s talking about – McClane is already starting to unravel the made-up terrorist plot with the mysterious C4 – and his perfect pearly whites end up scattered across the floor.

In business, you don’t want to be a Harry Ellis. If you make a promise to someone in power – a higher-up in your own company, a big fish account, or a mafia boss – you’d better make sure you can follow through. When someone else has nearly all the power, you have to be willing to risk your Julia Roberts teeth on your ability to provide what you’ve offered. If not, lay low and try not to stir up trouble. Being aware of risks in situations where you have a lot more to lose than the other guy (or gal) helps you make calculated choices and perhaps step back if things are too hot.

Ruh roh.

If you give a terrorist a gun, he’s going to want some bullets to go with it.

2. Never give the competition a loaded gun.

Don’t lie: your heart skipped a beat the first time you watched Die Hard and saw McClane hand over a gun to the exceptional-thief-posing-as-a-scared-hostage Gruber. After all he’s been through, he’s just going to sign his own death warrant?! You’ve got to be kidding! Luckily, McClane was a step ahead of us and had already removed the bullets from the gun. Escaped hostage or Academy Award-winning criminal mastermind, McClane wasn’t about to offer a weapon to anyone else. Even if Gruber had been an escaped hostage, it was more likely that a panicked, untrained businessman would inflict damage on himself or McClane rather than serving as a useful sidekick.

The business lesson we get from this? Although you can argue that perhaps McClane knew that Gruber was a terrorist in disguise, there was always the possibility that he was a perfectly kind, terrified-out-of-his-mind fellow hostage. And McClane still wasn’t going to let anyone pull the trigger on him.

Although acting paranoid and distrusting competitors (and even friends) you know outside of work can definitely have a negative effect on your work and social lives, there’s no reason to disclose every last detail of business information: even if you believe the other person would never use the information against you. It’s tempting to brag about the latest project you developed to a competitor you’re planning to crush or even a loved one you’re hoping to impress, but once the information is out, it’s out. Even if the person you told doesn’t use it, you can’t guarantee they won’t let it slip to someone else who is in a position to do you professional harm. Loose lips sink ships, my friend, so keep comments about your company’s future generic and hopeful rather than informative and provocative. You can’t get shot if you’ve got all the bullets.

Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...

Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.

3. Talk to yourself.

One of McClane’s trademark qualities is his rambling monologues. Whether he’s trying to figure out why a terrorist was so high up in the building and far away from the hostages or working through guilt for not giving himself up to (maybe) spare Harry Ellis’s life (good riddance), McClane chats away with only himself as audience. Have you ever started explaining a problem to someone and halfway through figured out the answer on your own? No matter how much time you spent on the problem before you went for help, there was something about speaking the words aloud that helped you solve the problem.

In business, we always focus on talking to the consumer, finding out what the consumer wants, identifying the needs of the consumer. What if we reframed those questions to put ourselves in the consumer’s position? Ask yourself the same questions you would ask a potential client when trying to find out what type of products or services they may be interested in. Talking aloud – simply transforming the concepts in your head into words – helps you fill in gaps you didn’t realize were there until you had to make your thoughts concrete.

What else does Die Hard teach us about marketing? What is it about John McClane’s reluctant hero that motivates us to head into new situations with guns blazing? What other movies and classic characters have been inspirations for your performance in the workplace? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!



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  1. Chase

    I love that movie! Nice post!

  2. Jill Tooley

    Awesome, awesome, awesome post! This kicks so much ass…

    Can I confess something to you? You have to promise not to be upset…but I haven’t watched “Die Hard” in its entirety since I was a kid and I haven’t seen any of the sequels at all. ::braces for a verbal lashing:: However, I did thoroughly enjoy the movie and I can’t get enough of Alan Rickman (even though he plays a son-of-a-bitch in “Die Hard”). So, you know what I’m going to do? This amazing post has inspired me to not only go back and watch the movie ASAP, but also to seek out the sequels for some “Die Hard” marathoning. And I’ll keep all of your marketing tips in mind as I’m watching and re-watching! 🙂

    P.S. I talk to myself ALL the time (not to the extent that Bret does, though), and I can attest to its effectiveness. Sometimes the solution is right there in my brain, but I just need to fish it out. Anyway, this post fills me with joy, so thanks for the extra dose of Friday fun!

    • Bret Bonnet

      I can’t help it if I have such a SEXY voice! 🙂

      • Jana Quinn

        The talking to yourself doesn’t bother me as much as when you spell something aloud five times in a row. LIKE YOUR OWN NAME. Tell me it’s a trick to focus your attention and not just trying to remember how to spell your own name.

    • Jana Quinn

      DUDE. You need a refresher. The original and 3 are streaming on Netflix. 2 is good, and I haven’t seen 3 in forever. I don’t care what anyone says – Live Free or Die Hard is AWESOME. And not just because I have a thing for Justin Long. Mmm… Now I’m distracted…

    • Juliette

      I had no idea you’d never seen the sequels! (I watch Die Hard at least once a year every Christmas along with Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas.) You’ll have to let us know what you think of them! I enjoyed the second one, liked the third and thought Live Free, Die Hard was pretty darn good, despite the reviews.

      Still, no one has come close to beating Hans Gruber as my favorite nemesis for John McClane.

  3. cyberneticSAM

    *Applause* This was brilliant! Great post!

  4. JPorretto


    “You can’t get shot if you’ve got all the bullets.” Brilliant! I’m saving that in the Clever Comeback Database. I’m always looking for new entries =)

  5. Joseph Giorgi

    Love it!

    “Die Hard” is one of the few action films that still holds up by today’s standards. So many classic moments—and it was made 23 years ago! Now that I think about it, I should pick up a copy on Blu-Ray. It’s just too bad “With a Vengeance” isn’t as top-notch as the rest of the franchise.

    In any case, awesome job with the analogy. I agree 100% with every point you made, and again, the humor is top-notch. We could all learn a thing or two from John McClane (and from that royal douche, Harry Ellis).

    • Jana Quinn

      It really does hold up. I was watching it about a month ago after not having watched it since Christmas (it IS my favorite Christmas movie) and had forgotten how intricate the story was with the terrorist plot misdirection. The bad guy has both the brains and the brawn to be a serious adversary for McClane; the conversation with Takagi in the elevator about the suits kills me every time.

      Definitely pick up a copy on Blu-Ray. My boyfriend got my Die Hard on Blu-Ray for Valentine’s Day, and it was the best gift I’ve ever gotten. If you’re interested in director’s commentaries, though, make sure you have a cup of coffee on hand when you listen to John McTiernan. His voice is SO BORING.

  6. Juliette

    Ah, a most excellent post for a Friday morning! I don’t have the newest one but I think I’m going to have to have a Die Hard marathon of the first three while doing some major spring cleaning this weekend (it’s also my favorite Christmas movie ever!).

    I loved your points! (especially the last one) I also talk to myself and every inanimate object around me far too often. Hey, it does work to help me figure things out sometimes.

    I’d probably also add that you have to be prepared to be hurt, especially when you know you’re in a tough situation. Sometimes there’s no way out of it without glass in your feet. Still, if nothing else, it makes you appear even more of a tough guy/business person when you can go through something like that and still stand on your own (bleeding) feet.

    Yeah, the glass in the feet scene always makes me wince.

    • Jana Quinn

      Thank you! Who wouldn’t want to start off their day with a little action hero hotness? 🙂 I’m so glad to see another girl who regards Die Hard as not only an excellent film in its own right but also the hallmark Christmas movie.

      I love your last point about the glass in the feet. Maybe it could be something along the lines of what’s worth walking through broken glass for or picking the lesser of two evils (letting the terrorists win vs. walking through broken glass). Hmmm… I smell a part two to this post…

      • Jill Tooley

        For the record, I think the world might implode if the three of us were in the same room. We’re all ridiculously alike!

        • Juliette

          We may have to test this the next time I’m up in your neck of the woods!

      • Juliette

        Oh let there be a part two!!! I could totally see it being the lesser of the two evils. Though did you ever find it odd that Hans tells Karl to shoot the glass in German and Karl just looks at him as though he doesn’t understand. Hans then repeats it emphatically in English and Karl gets it.

        I think I loved Die Hard the first time I saw the movie. (it was also the first time I’d seen Alan Rickman in anything) And yes! It’s definitely the top of my Christmas movie list, even before my beloved Tim Burton movies.

        Oh! There is another point, one that McClane talks to himself about. When they kill Takagi and he doesn’t do anything he asks himself why (after escaping) he didn’t stop them. Then he reminds himself that if he’d tried he would have been dead too. Sometimes the best course of action is no action. Not until you’ve gotten all the facts and can make an informed choice/move/planned explosion. 🙂

        • Jana Quinn

          Haha, I guess I always assumed that Karl was confused that Hans was telling him to shoot the glass instead of McClane. I never really realized it wasn’t until he said it in English that Karl did it. That’s pretty funny.

          Excellent tip for the second lesson there! I’ve got the creative juices really flowing here…

          • Juliette

            Jana, I just realized you wrote the blog about the 501st back in august (amusing, on my birthday). Just gotta tell you I loved it (as I love all things Star Wars) and I was thrilled you focused on the 501st. I’ve actually done a promotion (in costume) with the Mid-South Garrison of the 501st. They’re a pretty awesome group of folks. 🙂

            And I can’t wait for part 2 of this post!

            • Jana Quinn

              Yeah, they’re always a blast to check out at conventions – that’s so cool that you’ve been a part of it. Glad I could give you a nerdy little birthday gift.

              You, Jill, and I must be sisters from another mister, because we have WAY too much in common for it to be random!

  7. Josh

    Love the post! There’s so much to learn from John McClane haha. I do disagree to an extent with the first lesson however. While it’s definately not good to be the guy or gal that promises the world and NEVER comes through, there’s something to be said for making promises and pushing yourself to the limit to make it happen. If you only engage in situations where you are comfortable, or know there is NO risk, then you never allow yourself the opportunity to grow. Even if you fail to come through on occasion, there’s always plenty to take away. I’m a huge advocate of ‘putting yourself out there’. No truly great reward ever comes without great risk! Check out Justin Long. No way is he on par with McClane or even remotley suited to handle the task. Dude was in way over his head, but he was committed and couldn’t turn back. It forced him to rise to the occasion! (And made for a cookie cutter ending, but that’s another story)

    And I also have to say that you are completely right that Die Hard is one of the best Christmas movies ever made. People always think I’m weird when I throw that title out for Christmas movies…

    • Jana Quinn

      Good point, Josh. I do like the idea of giving yourself a challenge to force yourself to continue improving and get things done. I guess what I should have emphasized was the power dynamic – when the other guy holds all the cards and you are really unsure about putting yourself out there, the potential long-term damage may too big a risk to take if the benefits are not guaranteed. After all, there was no guarantee that Gruber wasn’t going to just kill all the hostages anyway, McClane or no McClane.

  8. Bret Bonnet

    I think John McClane might be my biological father.

    My mom WAS in New York the weekend that this movie “supposedly” took place.

    I talk to myself, I think I’m a bad *ss, I always pretend to be a cop, and I’m known for babbling! 🙂


    I agree with your second point though “Loose Lips Sink Ships”; if there is one thing that I’ve learned from my grandma, and let me tell you – she’s bat shit crazy!, it is to keep your successes and information to yourself. No matter HOW tempting it might be to share, people get jealous EASILY, and they will either grow to resent you, or worse, use this information against you.

    This is why the only person that I air my dirty laundry to is my dog. She never talks back and is GREAT at keeping secrets.

    • Jana Quinn

      I definitely don’t think you should shove people’s faces in your success – especially if they’re going through a particularly tough time – but I also think people are too ashamed to have confidence and pride in their work. Specifics on the strategies that got you there, though? Mum’s the word.

  9. VingVee

    I never thought about it liek that before dude.

  10. mary

    You could write a book “Everything I Need to Know in Life, I Learned from Die Hard”

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