In Search of a Killer Persona

Last night I watched the movie Red Dragon for the second time. It was released in 2002 but is just available  on DVD, and while I don’t usually watch horror movies once, much less twice, I love Anthony Hopkins and make sure to see his work. One of the primary characters in Dragon is Dr. Hannibal Lechter, who became infamous in Silence of the Lambs. Even if you haven’t seen either movie you’ve heard about Dr. Hannibal Lechter. He is the worst of all evil, psychotic serial killers. He is a cannibal.

My husband waits until I’m traveling to put horror movies on our NetFlix list -- he knows I don't want to watch violence and gore. But he got me last night with the promise of a Hopkins movie, and I'd forgotten that I'd seen it before. Then an unexpected thing happened. I realized that there is a very interesting parallel between buyer personas and a murder mystery -- where life and death quite literally depends on a detective's ability to put together a picture of someone no one knows.

In Dragon the hero is Will Graham, a very likable ex-FBI agent who is the perfect counterpoint to Dr. Lechter and a new, equally sadistic serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde. At the beginning of the movie we learn that Will's unique talents allowed the FBI to identify and capture Dr. Lechter, who is now incarcerated for life (we hope). Will was almost killed in that take-down and is understandably reluctant to return to duty, having retired to a picturesque beach house with his beautiful wife and young son. But the new killer might strike again within a few weeks and the FBI pleads with Will to help them save another family like his own. In case you want to see the movie, I won’t go into more detail about how much this choice costs him.

So why am I writing about a movie? I can’t stop thinking about what a great marketer Will Graham would have made. His first step is to visit the crime scene, but he doesn’t just note the facts. Many other investigators have been there before him and documented that information. Rather, as he goes through each room we watch him really "be in the other guy’s experience." He is able to cut off his own feelings and empathize with his target so deeply that he gets new information about what motivates and drives the killer at each step. He avoids the traps of focusing on the end result. He has the patience and resolve to evaluate each tiny clue through someone else’s eyes. He knows that success can only be achieved through intuition and empathy, that thinking like his target is the only way to identify him and achieve the ultimate goal.

Will's next step is to visit someone who is similar to his target. Fortunately, Dr. Lechter is in captivity and Will is able to visit him. He uses the information he gained in the first part of his research to inspire Lechter to talk to him, and then he listens. He doesn’t get “the answer” in his meeting with Lechter, but that doesn’t stop him either. He keeps replaying the conversation in his head, looking for any data points that he could evaluate from a new perspective. Then he chases down these leads, continuously enhancing and building a persona that represents the real killer.

Ultimately this process of accumulating and synthesizing information leads Will to the killer's employer, a successful company that couldn't imagine itself employing such a madman. But Will needs their cooperation, and fast. This scene reminded me of the resistance I've encountered and the value of buyer personas when I've needed to change a cherished belief. Will confidently and clearly describes the type of vehicle his persona would drive, his physical strength, his marital status, his facial defects, and his loner personality. No one told Will this information directly, it was a persona he built after investing himself in gathering as much data as possible and then thinking like his target audience. Faced with such a clear description, the company cooperated fully.

I wonder if there's a detective class I could take.

Topics: Buyer Personas, Good Use of Personas, Market Research, Product Marketing Redefined


See all