I’m currently binge-watching my latest guilty pleasure, Cobra Kai on Netflix. The series is based on the beloved 1980s film Karate Kid, which starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and Pat Morita as his mentor, Mr. Miyagi.
The original film and its less well-received sequels were based on a very simple proposition – that good and evil are black and white, and good always triumphs in the end.
Of course, life doesn’t always play by those rules. And to its credit, the immensely watchable new series takes a more nuanced approach to its main characters, Game of Thrones-style. While Karate Kid pit Daniel, a poor New Jersey transplant living with his single mom in L.A., against his archenemy, spoiled rich kid Johnny Lawrence, in Cobra Kai their roles are reversed, 30+ years on from high school. This time around, Daniel is a wealthy owner of a chain of successful car dealerships, while Johnny never quite escaped the ‘80s. Here is a guy who doesn’t know how to use a computer or smartphone, and actually wears a Zebra concert tee for an entire episode (author’s note: this obscure Louisiana-bred band was among my top three faves in high school, along with Led Zeppelin and Rush, of course!) And at the end of each episode, I find myself shifting back and forth between rooting for Johnny and his dojo full of bullied miscreants, and Daniel and his smaller band of plucky charges.
Yet the overarching theme is still represented by the contrast in martial arts philosophies, and in turn life, taken by the two competing senseis. Daniel has adopted the philosophy of his late master, which is to employ karate as self-defense, to only strike as a last resort, and never in anger. Hey, that approach catapulted him to the All-Valley Karate Championship, so why change now?
Johnny’s philosophy is quite the opposite: strike first – strike hard – no mercy. Cobra Kai never dies. In the movies, this do-or-die ethic, as taught by the cartoonishly evil Sensei Kreese and put into practice by his spoiled rich-kid students, was wrong on its face. But in Cobra Kai, that philosophy doesn’t always seem so wrong-headed, if it helps a bullied kid gain confidence and a sense of self. Or does it?
Like many great pop culture touchstones, the lessons from Cobra Kai can be applied to marketing strategy. Not every technique or approach is going to work every time, for every campaign, and for all audiences. In some cases, a defense-first approach is the way to go – never strike first, protect your turf, and don’t make waves. Other situations call for more aggressive tactics. You may be targeting a new market niche already staked out by established incumbents, and need to establish your domain authority by creating a dominant thought leadership platform. Or you may be launching a new, innovative product or service and need to explain to your audience why it is right for them. In such cases, a bold, proactive approach is the way to go. Competition is grease to the wheel of business, and as long as your approach is ethical, legal, and respectful, any practice is fair game.
Regardless, there is a time and a place for both strategies. The key is to cater your content marketing plan to address the needs and pain points of the audience you have, or the market you desire. Miyagi Do or Cobra Kai – both approaches can lead to success, if deployed the right way at the right time.