What Marketers Can Learn From Cocaine Bear

Nostalgia, simplicity and humanity win

If you live in the western world, by now you've likely heard of the absurdist horror-comedy film, Cocaine Bear.

If you haven't, let me catch you up: it's based on the true story of a black bear that ingested 30 kilos of pure cocaine in the ​​Chattahoochee National Forest in the summer of 1985. Elizabeth Banks' movie imagines the bear—high out of its gourd—on a joyous rampage, terrorizing a rogues' gallery of shady drug dealers, horny park rangers and bungling cops.

Paying attention yet? If you're in the business of brand marketing, you should be. Because Cocaine Bear already made its production budget back during opening weekend. It's on its way to being one of the most profitable films in Hollywood. A nouveau cult classic. And a likely franchise, if the buzz is real.

The movie's breakout performance is even more impressive when you consider its title means Cocaine Bear is banned from advertising on most mainstream platforms. Relying instead on omfg-can-you-believe this?! word of mouth and the age-old Saatchi marketing philosophy: brutal simplicity. 

Here are five things agency creatives and brand marketers can learn from the runaway success of 2023's craziest movie:

Keep it simple.

Cocaine Bear. A two-word movie title so telegraphic it doesn't even need a tagline. The Saatchi brothers would approve. In a world where no one cares about your ad campaign until you earn their attention, how can your messaging be reduced, reduced, reduced? Be ruthless. Because your audience is. The best example may be "Just Do It," but there are plenty of other examples where it's "be brief, be brilliant, be gone."

Know thyself.

Gen Z consumers don't hate advertising, they just hate being treated like a click. They'll play along as long as they're in on it, so let them in. This movie is fully itself—from the key art to the closing credits. Brands need to be themselves too, fully. If you're Crocs, be ugly and comfy. If you're Listerine, be the taste you hate twice a day. If you're Diesel, be dumb and sexy.

Strong flavor.

When it comes to reaching younger consumers, "They love things with strong flavor. That's the word I hear a lot in my marketing meetings," Banks says. Within the confines of their own authenticity, brands should strive to be big, vivid and strong on the palette. Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Liquid Death and RuPaul's Drag Race would be brand neighbors with Cocaine Bear. 

Go big with nostalgia.

One of the funnest (not a word, we know) elements of Cocaine Bear is the faithful nods to peak '80s. From Depeche Mode to Air Jordan 1s to a glorious baby blue Members Only jacket. Funny thing about nostalgia: it's disarming, even for audiences born after the era. Look no further than Stranger Things and Ready Player One. How can your brand play into its own version of throwback sentimentality?

Humanity wins.

Yes the film is hyper-violent, but our hearts are in good hands. Keri Russell plays a fearless nurse out to find two lost children (all of them blessed with plot armor). We quickly learn that only the detestable characters are torn limb from limb—whereas Russell and the child actors form the heartbeat of the movie. What about your brand marketing connects on a human level? Even in the surreal context of Zilllow's monsters or John Lewis' alien love story, we see strong examples of how to make the audience care in a real way.

Future scholars will no doubt study the virality of Cocaine Bear. But you don't need to wait. Line up some learnings from this breakout hit, inhale deeply, show your claws and take your brand work higher. 

And in the meantime, feel free to join the internet in speculating whether a record drug bust in New Zealand waters will fuel a sequel. Cocaine Shark anyone?

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