Marketing & Branding

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.