Four Vital Lessons Joe Dirt Surprisingly Teaches us about Strategy

Joe Dirt

By Clint Rusch


In 2001, David Spade’s magnum opus ‘Joe Dirt’ was released, to critical fanfare (11% at Rotten Tomatoes) and commercial success ($27M in domestic gross). A coming of age tale about the eponymous antihero (played by Spade), the film tells the story of a young man whose parents had a mullet wig surgically grafted to his head because his skull failed to completely form, before leaving him behind at the Grand Canyon at the tender age of only eight years old. Joe would go on to grow up in a plethora of foster homes, each with a series of misadventures more imposing than the last, before leaving the love of his life to try to find his parents, eventually ending up in a janitorial job at a Los Angeles radio station, where his tragic story became fodder for a morning show disc jockey. Joe eventually finds his parents, discovering their abhorrent and crass commercialism and rejecting them for the friends he discovered during the course of his search and recapturing his lost love.
Along Joe’s journey, four key lessons about strategy emerge from his life’s story, each illustrated by a different character in the film, and each of which – no matter whether you agree with the first paragraph of this post or if you side more with Roger Ebert, who described Joe Dirt as one of his most hated films of all time – offers a key insight into the problems and quandaries that bedevil firms in the modern marketplace.

1. “Well, that might be your problem. It’s not what you like…it’s the consumer.” The culmination of Joe’s comedic recitation of ostensible fireworks (including church burners, spleen splitters, and finger blasters) is his most important lesson for his friend Kicking Wing (Adam Beach), related to operating a profitable and successful pyrotechnics distribution business. Kicking Wing has built his operation around two products: sparklers and snakes. He has selected these products because he enjoys them, and assumes that his clients will as well. Joe, meanwhile, offers the Voice of the Customer, explaining that simply because the business owner believes in the excellence of a service or product, the market does not necessarily react the same way. Instead, Joe identifies – correctly – that customer preference is vastly more important, and that listening to customer preference would point Kicking Wing toward wider variety of more targeted products and would better align Kicking Wing’s offerings with market demands. Many businesses fall into the trap of assuming that their preferences match those of their customers; only by listening carefully to their customers’ messages, both direct and implied, can they identify the more nuanced desires of their customer base.

2. “Don’t church it up son. Don’t you mean Joe Dirt?” At the beginning of the film, as Joe attempts to gain entry to the KXLA radio lot for his job as a custodian, he attempts to pronounce his last name ‘Deertay’ and is called out by the security guard (played by the late Chris Farley’s brother, John) for ‘church[ing]’ his name up to sound more upper class than both his station in life and appearance would indicate. The security guard’s admonishment, while comedic in intent, provides outstanding counsel to the business leader – authenticity is essential. Whether in the form of product managers attempting to claim that a product is further along in development than it is, managers overstating their role, position, or company size, or organizations pursuing systems, processes, and bureaucracies that are vastly overscoped to their size, this inauthenticity is quickly evident to others. Ultimately, authentic businesses are lasting businesses. As leaders better understand that with only a modicum of effort, their duplicity can be identified, they will more fully appreciate the importance of authentic, straightforward, honest positioning within the market. The customer will know – very quickly – if the name of your product or service is pronounced ‘Deer-Tay’ or ‘Dirt,’ and organizations who authentically embrace who they are will reap tremendous benefits in our modern economy.

3. “Zander just asked this Joe Dirt why he doesn’t cut the wig – you can tell he’s never thought of that!” When disc jockey Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller) asks Joe why he’s never cut his mullet wig, the movie cuts to a collection of Los Angeles sorority girls listening to his morning show, one of whom points out that Joe has never even considered the idea. The mullet is simply ‘who Joe is,’ and while it’s essential to be authentic (see #2 above) in presenting a business or organization, that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. IBM famously pivoted from being an organization heavily focused on computer hardware to one that offers successful and wide-ranging consulting service…they were willing to cut their mullet wig and try something new. Leaders are notorious for their worship of sacred cows, and it is these sacred cows that very often hold businesses back from making transformative and exceptional changes – changes that frequently represent the difference between stagnation and breakthrough performance. Whether an outmoded product or service offering, an archaic way of doing things that’s just ‘always been how it’s done,’ or an unrelenting attachment to an ineffective model, the ‘mullet wigs’ within a business need to be found – and cut – for that organization to thrive.

4. “This is a business, not a charity. Maybe one day UNICEF will get into the impound business, but until then, we’re the people to see.” Kevin Nealon’s cameo as the greasy mechanic who refuses to let Joe get his second-generation Plymouth Roadrunner out of impound without paying the full fee provides the fourth key lesson about strategy in the film. Businesses must price their services or products at a level that generates profit and makes the business worthwhile to operate. Slashing price to win market share may work in the short-term, but is a risky tactic in the long-term, as it requires organizations to continually acquire new clients, and diminishes the capability to deliver long-term profits from a customer relationship. As Nealon’s mechanic character explains, Joe can have a car for the money he has…just not the Hemi Roadrunner that he wants. Having a diverse set of product offerings is vital to ensuring that key products or services maintain the quality, value, and prestige that their pricing imparts. Apple’s use of different laptop lines (MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air) is an example of this need to provide different tiers of products rather than simply lowering price to gain share.

Clearly, this article was written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, regardless of how you feel about the movie, these four lessons are vital for a leader in any business to consider as they craft strategy and develop an approach to their business challenges.

At Propulo, we work hand-in-hand with organizations that cut their mullet wigs, avoid churching up their names, don’t compete with UNICEF in the impound business, and ensure that their fireworks stands sell more than snakes and sparklers. If your business is interested in generating a stronger, more cohesive strategy, or if you’re just struggling to figure out how to cut your mullet wig or to find the husker-dü’s (or husker-don’ts), we’d love to discuss our innovative ‘People Meet Process’ approach, and how we might be able to help you.