Using The Lion King to Understand Subconscious Marketing

If you haven’t been on planet Earth the past couple months, The Lion King remake just passed the $1.5 billion mark at the global box office, making it the ninth highest-grossing movie ever.

The original movie made about $970 million at the worldwide box office in 1994. When you adjust for inflation, that’s about $1.67 billion, giving the two films a combined, eye-popping haul of $3.17 billion in today’s money. Even if you don’t adjust the 1994 earnings for inflation, The Lion King (original and remake) is one of the most profitable film properties of all time. 

Millions of parents have watched the circle of life unfold with their children, myself included. I took my son Nicholas to see the new film and we both loved it. How could you not?

After I saw the remake, I kept coming back to the same question: aside from the joy these movies have brought us (and the buckets of cash they’ve brought Disney), what can they teach us about using behavioral psychology to drive consumer behavior, also known as mindstate marketing? We’ve already looked at mindstate marketing through the lens of Game of Thrones and The Bachelorette. In this article, we’ll turn our attention to the Pride Lands to examine Scar and Simba’s mindstates and understand how it drove their actions throughout the movie.  

But first, if you’re new to this series, let’s start with an overview of mindstates.

What is a Mindstate?

A mindstate is a temporary state of mind in which we’re under high emotional arousal and rely on more nonconscious, emotional factors, making us more susceptible to influence.

Mindstates shift us from rational thinking to irrational, emotional thinking. 

A mindstate is made up of a person’s goals, a core motivation, a regulatory approach, and cognitive heuristics. There are 18 mindstates, each comprised of a motivation (achievement, autonomy, belonging, competence, empowerment, engagement, esteem, nurturance, or security) and a regulatory approach, which dictates how you approach your goals.

You either favor a promotion/optimistic focus, meaning you want to maximize your chances of success, or a cautious/prevention focus, meaning you’re looking to avoid failure. 

Now that you understand mindstates, let’s see which one drove Scar’s decision-making.

Scar Will Stop at Nothing to Reach the Throne

To understand the power of our subconscious mindstates, take a minute to reflect on our antagonist in the movie Scar.  

Scar had a singular focus and desire to become king of the Pride Lands. We don’t know much about Scar’s past, but it’s clear he’s feels marginalized, and maybe even punished, for being second born. It’s obvious from this interaction in the original film that Scar doesn’t respect his brother, Mufasa. Listen to the way he says, “Oh no, Mufasa. Perhaps you shouldn’t turn your back on me.” The entire scene makes it obvious: Scar views Mufasa—and his nephew, Simba, the future king—as obstacles to be overcome on his way to the throne.

That’s why I say Scar’s mindstate is “optimistic achievement”, which I’d summarize this way:

Being successful in our life’s activities is a goal all share. Whether it’s losing ten pounds by eating healthy or working hard to get a promotion at work, we all want to feel the sweet success of achievement. Striving to achieve and celebrate our goals is a healthy part of everyday life. 

Scar takes several big risks throughout the movie to achieve his goals. For starters, he forms an alliance with the hyenas, who’ve long been sworn enemies of the lions. It’s a “swing for the fences” type of move because Scar needs foot soldiers in his war against Mufasa.

With that alliance secured, Scar sets in motion two plans to eliminate all obstacles to the throne. The first is a plan to have Simba killed by sending him to the elephant graveyard, where the hyenas are lying in wait to ambush him. To trick Simba into going to the elephant graveyard, Scar appeals to the young cub’s mindstate (which we’ll get to a moment) by saying:

“It’s far too dangerous. Only the bravest lions go there!”

He makes the elephant graveyard appealing to Simba, then makes his nephew promise to never go there. Think back to when you were a kid—wouldn’t you want to go there?!

When this plan fails, Scar sets into motion his backup option. He lures Simba into a gorge below where the antelopes are grazing. Scar then has the hyenas create a stampede, while he runs to tell Zazu, the king’s messenger, that Simba’s life is in danger. Unlike the first plan, this one has the desired effect: Mufasa is killed and Simba runs away in shame, likely to his death. 

The path is cleared for Scar to assume what he perceives to be his rightful throne, thereby validating (at least in his mind) the aggressive moves he made to get there.       

Young Simba Wants His Father’s Affection

Let’s pivot now to the object of Scar’s two assination attempts: Simba. Throughout the movie, we actually see Simba under the influence of three mindstates as he works to build his identity and find his place in the world. He yearns for the same things many of us desire, starting with the love, affection, and admiration of his parents. Early in the movie, Simba’s wants nothing more than to be like his dad. By being brave like Mufasa, the king, Simba believes his dad will be proud of him. That’s why I believe young Simba’s mindstate in these early years is “optimistic nurturance.”

In my book, I define optimistic nurturance this way:

Some of us view the world as needing greater compassion and love—a place where people are more empathetic, cared for, and supportive of each other. This behavioral mindset is a result of our deep desire to feel protected, supported, and appreciated by the ones we love in life. 

We know he favors an optimistic (or promotion) focus because he’s willing to take chances to win his father’s respect. That’s why he takes Nala to the elephant graveyard despite the fact it’s dangerous and he’s secretly scared to death: he’s driven by his desire to impress Mufasa.

It also helps us understand Simba’s actions in the gorge when he’s trying to find his roar. As he asks Scar in this scene from the new movie, “Dad will be so proud, won’t he?”

Everything young Simba does is about achieving greater nurturance from his father. That’s why Scar is able to so easily ensnare Simba in his plans. The wily old lion knows that Simba will go against his father’s warnings to prove himself, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage.

Young Adult Simba Just Wants to Escape

After Simba runs away and meets up with Timon and Pumba, we see him turn into a young lion who is driven by the “cautious engagement” mindset, which I would describe this way:

Avoiding the monotony of daily tasks to elevate everyday experiences is the hallmark of a happy life. Whether it’s playing on the phone while waiting to be called in a doctor’s office or choosing sushi over an uninspired sandwich for lunch, we all want a daily escape from the norm.

In a cautious engagement mindstate, you seek out things that will prevent your good times from ending. Engagement is either about amplified excitement or escapism. That’s why we go to the movies sometimes, right? Just to escape normal life for a couple hours.

The teenage and young adult years are difficult for most of us as we try to find our way. When you layer in school, social life, and gaining greater independence, we all need moments of escapism. With Timon and Pumba’s help, Simba crafts a whole life built on escapism. The warthog and meerkat convince Simba to live carefree and with no troubles.

You know, Hakuna Matata! (Here’s that scene from the new movie. You’re welcome.)

Simba doesn’t work hard for food and generally just plays around all day. When Nala finds him, he does everything he can to avoid losing his relaxed lifestyle. In fact, he tries to convince her to join him even though he knows she would never do that. Everything this version of Simba does is motivated by his desire to not lose the sense of escapism he holds so dear.

Two Conversations Change Simba’s Mindstate

What changes Simba from the carefree young adult we see in the middle of the movie to the heroic king we see by the end? It’s the same discovery that many young adults make: life is best lived with others. Like most of us, Simba desires a tribe (or pride, if you will) of like-minded peers who share his desires, beliefs, and who’ll protect him. In return, he’ll protect them.

A conversation with Rafiki—and later, Mufasa—shifts Simba’s mindset to “optimistic belonging:”

Long-lasting relationships can be difficult to build and maintain, so finding ways to connect with others is highly desired. This desire is often so powerful that people will go to great lengths to find connections with others to know they belong to something larger than themselves. 

Simba doesn’t go back to Pride Rock because he wants to be king. That’s what motivates Scar, and nobody would argue that Scar and Simba share the same desire. Simba returns home to reconnect with the family he left behind and get them out from under Scar’s rule.

After meeting up with Rafiki, Simba talks with Mufasa’s spirit, who comes in the clouds. Look at what Mufasa says: “You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. Remember who you are.”

That last line is significant: remember who you are. The Simba who grew up lounging all day forgot that at one point, he was a young cub who was driven to impress his father. He was a king-in-waiting with an entire pride who loved him—and who now need his help.

Being reminded of who he really is by Rafiki and Mufasa, combined with Nala’s urging to come back and help the pride, triggers a hot state that compels Simba to abandon the Hakuna Matata lifestyle and journey back home to rejoin his tribe and help them overthrow Scar.

In this mindstate, Simba takes big swings, including challenging Scar for the throne. Again, not because he craves power, but because Scar threatens what he holds so dear.  His belonging to his pride!

Simba wins, and to nobody’s surprise (except maybe Scar), the hyenas turn on their former ally. That big gamble Scar took aligning with the hyenas didn’t quite pay off long term, did it?   

What Can Scar and Simba Teach Us?

When you understand Scar and Simba’s mindstates, their actions make far more sense. In fact, if you knew their mindstates going on, you could’ve predicted their actions during the movie.

Marketing is no different. Understand someone’s mindstate and you can amplify their motivation and bring out their innate desire—what do they really want to achieve? Armed with that intel, you can frame why your brand is the right choice to help the customer achieve that goal. 

Each mindstate has clear strategic guidance and specific tactics to engage this person and influence their behaviors via behavioral design. By understanding mindstates, you have a new window into what drives people at a subconscious, emotional level. It helps you understand the seemingly irrational behaviors of your customers, as well as the actions of two iconic lions.  And once you know this, you have increased the ability of your messaging to emotionally engage with your customer at a much deeper level.