The ‘Top Gun Effect’: What can a Tom Cruise Blockbuster Reach us About Customers?

Should CX teams take a leaf out of the Top Gun book and focus on providing feel-good experiences and spreading positivity? Prof. Steven van Belleghem certainly thinks so.

A fighter pilot top gun
CRMVoice of the CustomerInsights

Published: October 13, 2023

Steven Van Bellegham

Steven Van Belleghem

It feels like people around the world have been through a lot in the last few years. A global pandemic, political unrest, international conflict and an energy crisis have dominated the headlines in the media, and it has made consumers and businesses alike face up to how bleak the future might be.

Bleak times can cause people to become reflective and to wonder what it is, exactly, that they are longing for. The answer is simple: bright, blue skies.

The truth is, that customers do not want to listen to their suppliers grumbling about their problems. Steve Jobs put it perfectly: “Your customers don’t care about you. They don’t care about your product or service. They care about themselves, their dreams, their goals. Now, they will care much more if you help them reach their goals, and to do that, you must understand their goals, as well as their needs and deepest desires.”

This is not to suggest that customers are not sorry that their baker’s energy prices are rising. But the reason they are sorry is mainly because they are afraid prices will rise yet again for themselves.

When you are dining in a restaurant, you do not want to listen to the chef complaining that it is hard to find good staff. You are there to enjoy good food and have a good time. Customers are mainly interested in their own challenges. A company’s job is to help the customer with those challenges and provide value. In the current social and financial environment, we need positivity and a positive impact on our businesses more than ever.

The ‘Top Gun Effect’

In the summer of 2022, our family went to the cinema to enjoy Top Gun Maverick. For those who have not yet seen it, there are some spoilers coming up.

The great thing about the film is the pure feel-good vibe that it exudes. From the moment you hear the soundtrack and see Tom Cruise in his leather jacket, you know the film will be great.

Now, the film is set in a military context and features US Air Force fighter jets, yet no one dies in the film, and there are no bad guys. The story is totally predictable; the impossible mission is a success, and of course, Tom Cruise is the big hero.

Customers want feel-good stories and positive vibes.

The question is: are people really looking for this kind of feel-good story at present? The answer is emphatically, YES! Top Gun Maverick was one of the best-reviewed films of 2022 and finished as the highest-grossing film of the year. So why not add some ‘Top Gun Effect’ to your customer experience?

The ‘Top Gun Effect’ in practice

When we think about how we can improve the feel-good factor of your collaboration with customers, the ‘Top Gun Effect’ magic is often found in small things.

The Magic Castle Hotel in Los Angeles is a very simple and somewhat strange-looking hotel. It is painted pink and has castle-like features, but the rooms are nothing special, and the pool is very small.

Yet, in spite of this, it is the tenth best-rated hotel in Los Angeles on Trip Advisor. Most reviewers rate the hotel highly because of ‘The Popsicle Hotline’: a red telephone by the pool that you can use twenty-four hours a day to order free ice cream. Can you imagine how crazy children are about that phone?

Other examples are the initiatives of JetBlue’s CEO. Everyone knows how annoying it can be to wait around in an airport. But JetBlue passengers are sometimes surprised by occasional visits from the CEO, who hands out drinks and doughnuts to his customers while they wait to board.

Sometimes, there are surprises on the flights: one example was a quiz where the winner received a free JetBlue flight.

Another time, in response to a major delay in one of their flights, all affected passengers were given free flights.

What little surprises can you make for your customers to spread positive vibes?

The ‘Top Gun Effect’ on social media: GAS

Why are TikTok and Snapchat so popular? Because they are more positive and entertaining than other social networks. Anyone who has ever seen kids playing with the many Snapchat filters or collaborating on a (supposedly) funny TikTok video knows exactly what I mean.

The objective of creating videos is no longer about the number of views or likes but about having fun while making the video. Fun and positive social media are on the rise. The new GAS social network, for instance, is enjoying tremendous growth.

The name GAS comes from the phrase ‘gassing someone up’, which translates as ‘boosting their self-confidence’. The concept is very simple: the app invites teenagers to complement each other.

The founder of GAS is Nikita Bier, who is also the founder of a forerunner app with a similar mission: tbh or ‘to be honest’. Facebook bought tbh in 2017 but did nothing with it, and the concept died a quiet death.

“The reason I built it [GAS] was because I wanted to bring back what tbh did for so many kids five years ago, which was raise self-esteem and spread positivity,” says Bier.

The science behind the ‘Top Gun Effect’

Tom Cruise’s character does not doubt for a second that he will make the mission a success. He is confident in his abilities and believes his instincts and experience will make a difference. His hopes are based on reality. He is optimistic about his chances of success without being blind to the dangers of the mission. His positivity ultimately proves to be a driver of his team’s success.

Optimistic people tend to be healthier, mentally stronger, and more successful than pessimistic people.

Believe it or not, my belief in the ‘Top Gun Effect’ is actually underpinned by science – the science of optimism. Tom’s character says, “In uncertain times, I always expect a positive outcome.” He could have said, “If something can go wrong for me, it definitely will.” Which outlook is closest to your company culture?

Researchers studying optimism have found that your outlook can have major consequences for your well-being and future. People who tend to be optimistic and identify with the first sentence tend to be healthier, feel mentally stronger and are often more successful than more pessimistic people.

Optimistic people expect positive things to happen in their lives. Optimism does not mean completely denying negative things or certain risks. It is all about mindset. Even if there are challenges and difficulties, optimists continue to believe that things will turn out well for them.

2020 Forbes study demonstrated that optimistic employees are 103% more motivated to perform in their jobs. Optimistic employees not only make themselves feel better, they also create a better atmosphere and dynamic that improves the performance of entire teams.

An optimistic leader conveys good vibes to their team and builds self-confidence; a pessimistic leader puts a damper on enthusiasm and confidence.

If you want to recruit customer-oriented employees, you could almost conclude that one characteristic is enough: is this person rather optimistic or rather pessimistic? Choose optimistic employees to add the ‘Top Gun Effect’ to your customer relationships.

The risk of negative bias

So why is it so difficult for many organisations to stay committed to the ‘Top Gun Effect’?

Many people suffer from what is known as the negativity bias.

On a basic level, there are five basic human emotions: joy, sadness, envy, fear and anger. Four of the five emotions are negatively charged. No wonder we complain so much.

Is your company suffering from negativity bias?

The same phenomenon happens in our relationships with customers. If 5% of customers respond in a mean way to staff, statistically, that is a very small group of problem cases. In practice, however, we give so much weight to this group that after a while, that 5% can seem to be the average customer.

The danger of the negative bias is that after a while, you start tailoring procedures for the 5%, which, in a way, punishes the 95%. That is the most dangerous risk of being influenced by the negative bias.

Dr Jane McGonigal’s ‘Urgent Optimism’ concept is based on the hypothesis that if people feel an urgency to solve a problem and are optimistic about their ability to do so, they will succeed. She has found that optimism makes people likely to take positive action, and describes three elements on which her concept is built:

  1. Mental flexibility: The ability to resist being mentally blocked. The mental strength to recognise that everything could be different in the future and that things that seem impossible today can nonetheless be solved in the future.
  2. Realistic hope: The ability to balance positive and negative imagination; to know which risks and threats are important enough to worry about and which new solutions, technologies and positive actions are important to get excited about.
  3. Future power: The sense of having control over what the future will look like, by consciously initiating certain actions today.

Just when the pilots on Maverick’s team no longer believed in the mission, he used the ‘Urgent Optimism’ model. By showing himself that it was possible to meet the sky-high demands of the mission, he relieved his team of mental blockage (mental flexibility) and allowed a realistic hope of success to emerge.

The team then copied their leader’s behaviour, and this instilled the belief in them that they would succeed in their mission (future power).

Could you be the Tom Cruise of your organisation’s customer experience strategy?


Prof. Steven van Belleghem is a world-leading expert in customer experience and best-selling author. His new book, A Diamond in the Rough, is out now. 

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