What Cobra Kai Teaches Us About Brand Strategy

Kirk Wells
October 13, 2020

A Study of Why Miyagi-Do Karate is Arguably a Massive Failure—But Cobra Kai Will Never Die

Recently I started watching the series “Cobra Kai” on Netflix. The show basically picks up where the movies leave off, following Johnny Lawrence (as in “Sweep-the-Leg” Johnny or “Put ‘Em-in-a-Body-Bag” Johnny), as he attempts to rebuild his life by reviving his former Cobra Kai dōjō. Across town, his old rival, Daniel LaRusso, is starting his own dōjō, Miyagi-Do. I know this is just a TV show, but I was fascinated by what it can teach us about brand strategy.

We have two very different brands in a niche market, competing for the same small pool of students. One is operated in a strip mall by a surly alcoholic with bad credit and anger issues. The other is in an open-air Japanese garden by a wealthy former All-Valley champion.

It seems obvious which dōjō should own the market share, right? You’re thinking Miyagi-do, right? Wrong. Despite Johnny’s bad reputation and confrontational attitude, he not only gets Cobra Kai off the ground—but turns it into a thriving business. Meanwhile, LaRusso struggles to attract students, despite offering free classes and all the sanding and sweeping you could want.

What is Cobra Kai doing right that Miyagi-Do isn’t? Well, really, it comes down to three things:

1. Have a Clear, Consistent External Message—and Tell It Often

Cobra Kai

The day he opens the dōjō, Johnny paints the Cobra Kai creed on the wall. And whether you agree with the philosophy—“Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.”—there is a beautiful simplicity to it. As a child, I thought that only the bad guys hit first. But as an adult, I think this concept is genius—and most importantly, it’s consistent. It establishes the brand and the experience you’re getting up front. And the same brand qualities are carried out through the logo, flyers and other marketing materials for the dōjō.

Miyagi-Do

At Miyagi-Do, the main goal seems to be to create a meticulous space for training—focusing on the elements of the business that only the students would see. All of LaRusso’s efforts were internal and not outward facing. Miyagi-Do may be a more “zen” karate experience, but how would anyone know without the marketing efforts to promote it as such? Why not tell potential students what the dōjō is all about, and what their experience will be? A lack of branding and external promotion, coupled with too much naval gazing, really underwhelms prospective students. But worst of all, it misses a huge opportunity to showcase potentially their biggest selling point and main differentiator from the competition. Seriously, where would you rather train: A poorly ventilated strip-mall storefront or an open-air Japanese Garden?

✔️ Messaging Point: Cobra Kai

2. Design Like You Mean It

Cobra Kai

You’ve built your story—but what about the visuals? The majority of people respond more quickly to visual cues than text. Good design communicates ideas simply, appeals to emotion and connects with your audience in a meaningful way. Cobra Kai excels at this, not only because it has a unique message but because they have also identified and appealed to their audience in their brand’s design. It is aggressive and bold. They use symbols like cobras and fists to communicate their values and their brand experience. Potential students have a clear choice, and the ones who want to Strike First & Strike Hard know where to go.

Miyagi-Do

Miyagi-Do takes its design seriously and is clearly appealing to a different audience. The elements of their brand are simple and evocative. The Bonsai tree silhouetted by a setting sun illustrates the zen-like philosophy of the dōjō. And its beautiful outdoor garden and high-end sandalwood furnishings reflect the time and patience required to achieve the ultimate balance in life through the teachings of karate. But what it lacks is a well-designed, outward-facing marketing that connects with the teenage demographic. It doesn’t matter how uplifting your message is or how engaging your business may be if you can’t tap into design to bring those messages to people in a way that excites them.

✔️ Design Point: It was close, but… Cobra Kai

3. Build a Community, and Create A Great Experience for Them

Cobra Kai

Nothing encapsulates a brand experience more than the community that surrounds it. Cobra Kai built its community by actively seeking out and cultivating a connection with its target audience. But the true energy of the brand is in the community it provides among the students themselves. Students at Cobra Kai train together, whether you are a beginner or a black belt. This kind of inclusion creates a passionate community with fierce brand loyalty.

Miyagi-Do

On the other hand, having too much structure and hierarchy in your brand creates engagement barriers that can isolate your potential customers. At Miyagi-Do, you can’t begin training until you’ve completed menial chores that are designed to build your muscle memory and establish your willingness to be trained (think: wax on, wax off). This approach doesn’t initially feel like an engaging brand experience. It’s kind of like an airline status program: unless you’re a Gold Member, how excited are you about a brand that ranks their customers? Likely not very. People want to engage immediately, not pay their dues.

✔️ Community Point: Cobra Kai

WINNER.

In the end it was really no contest. With a clear message, a well-designed brand and a passionate community, Cobra Kai landed all the blows. And even though they didn’t need to, they probably swept the leg, as well.

Miyagi-Do has my respect, but Cobra Kai has my money.