Last updated: Cobra Kai’s formula for success: A lesson in rebranding

Cobra Kai’s formula for success: A lesson in rebranding


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Cobra Kai never dies. Set more than 30 years after the All-Valley Karate Tournament in 1984’s “The Karate Kid movie, the show, “Cobra Kai” is continuing to break Netflix streaming records. It’s described by the Karate Kid himself, actor Ralph Macchio, as a “Karate Soap Opera.”

After two seasons on YouTube Red, Cobra Kai was picked up by Netflix for a third season and became a streaming sensation almost overnight with an estimate of 41 million viewers. Season 4 dropped on December 31 and trended No. 1 on Netflix in the US for two weeks, with over 120 million viewing hours within the first three days.

In a decade of reboot exhaustion where everything old is made new again to the point of ad nauseum, how was Cobra Kai able to resurrect the Karate Kid Franchise with a series that’s both nostalgic and novel?

What Cobra Kai teaches marketers

On the surface, the show’s success may not seem to have much to do with product marketing. But as it turns out, Cobra Kai actually reveals important lessons for marketers revitalizing a brand.

  1. Don’t over-segment your audience; appeal to common areas of interest
  2. Develop realistic personas that resonate
  3. Think outside the box
  4. Rely on the power of customer advocacy

The importance of broad appeal

“It is people, not the signs, that guide us back to the right path.” – Kumiko

Cobra Kai’s fanbase spans generations. Anyone who’s seen the original Karate Kid films over the decades has a reason to tune into the show. However, for the show to be successful, it needed to bring in new viewers from new generations. This meant expanding The Karate Kid lore with new characters that viewers care about.

Cobra Kai capitalized on that broad audience appeal by creating two distinct character groups 1) grown-up versions of the original Karate Kid characters, like Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, and 2) a new generation of teenagers who call Daniel and Johnny sensei.

Cobra Kai serves up plenty of flashbacks to go along with their nostalgia story points, so new viewers don’t need any knowledge of the original movies to follow the storyline while original fans enjoy all the throwbacks. Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z find plenty of relatable characters and plotlines.

Often companies over segment, minimizing entry points or narrowing their focus so much that they ignore what could be a larger market opportunity. As much as marketers would like to speak uniquely to each individual and hit all their needs and wants, there’s still benefit in finding common areas of interest.

Instead of microscopically targeting segments by overemphasizing differences, optimize your value proposition and find commonalities in your segments, while still addressing unique preferences and desires.

Cobra Kai: Make it real and relatable

“Karate isn’t all about punching and kicking. It’s actually more about balance.” ~ Daniel LaRusso

What Cobra Kai does so well is that it puts the focus on telling a great story, like its predecessor. The Karate Kid followed the standard story framework:

  • A character: Daniel LaRusso
  • With a problem: moves from New Jersey to LA, where he doesn’t fit in
  • Meets a Guide who understands his fear: Mister Miyagi
  • And gives him a plan: teaches him Karate
  • That calls him to action: Daniel enters a Karate tournament and stands up to his bullies
  • That leads him to Success: He wins the All-Valley Karate tournament against his bully, Johnny Lawrence

Picking up the story decades after Daniel faced off against Johnny, Cobra Kai is more complex than its predecessor franchise. The show shares a multi-generational saga that at its core is a quest for balance for all those involved. Cobra Kai gives fresh energy to an old story instead of trying to simply recreate old storylines.

Too often, brands create personas and messaging based on more caricature type people than actual living people. In Cobra Kai, we see compelling heartfelt storylines, many times wrapped in humor, that the core audiences can connect to, root for, and keep coming back for more.

Take risks, and let your customers do the talking

“Just because something’s been around longer doesn’t make it better.” – Johnny Lawrence

The show had a lot of odds stacked against it. When the initial trailer dropped in 2018, fans of the Karate Kid shared their skepticism. So how and why did it succeed?

Before the show was bought by Netflix, Cobra Kai launched on YouTube Red, which is owned by Google. There were plenty of YouTube ads around the show, but the company could have easily dumped millions more into ads as its sole marketing strategy. However, they knew that wouldn’t be enough to sustain viewership and drive subscriptions.

The prevailing opinion is that the show succeeded because of word of mouth. Early screenings of the first few episodes along with active participation on social by showrunners promoting the show to fans and sharing clips of the series, contributed to early viewing numbers and loyal fans.

Brands who have depended on their tried-and-true marketing strategies may be hesitant to take risks, but your customers will always be your best marketers. Rely on the power of the customer experience. Deliver a great product to the right audience and they will be the best driver to your brand.

Remember, Cobra Kai never dies.

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