Celebrities Offer Branding Lessons

April 5, 2010

How public celebrities gain and lose popularity can be instructive for brand marketers, according to Dr. Bob Deutsch of marketing firm Brain Sells.

One of the biggest lessons, that stonewalling a scandal or problem never works and coming clean is always the best option, is already known by most brand marketers, according to Deutsch. However, Deutsch also advises that brand marketers pay attention to two other key lessons which can be learned from observing the rise and fall of celebrities.

Perfection Does Not Endear the Public
While perfection is awe-inspiring, a person or product is perceived as a leader when people can project parts of themselves into that individual or brand – when they identify. In contrast, perfection is uni-dimensional, absolute and unknowable. Mortals cannot identify with it.

In addition, there are other problems with “too perfect.” When seeking public adulation, perfection can be associated with robotic. The public does not like those who appear unfeeling. Deutsch offers the public backlash against the infidelities of golfer Tiger Woods, who projected an image of superhuman perfection, as an example of how people can be turned off by branding which is too perfect.

In contrast, former President Ronald Reagan’s perceived absent-mindedness was for many a forgivable flaw they could give Reagan a pass on because they identified with his folksy style and were comforted by his crooning voice. Reagan embodied the idea of the benevolent leader – the one who knows the way, but is as comfortable as an old shoe. Movie stars such as Tom Hanks enjoy this kind of image.

Leadership Requires Paradox
What compels peoples’ emotional attachment is a rendering of self with some complexity, contradiction and irony; just like real people. A paradoxical persona is attractive, first because it’s simply more human; and second, it engages the audiences’ imagination so that narratives of identification have more elbow room.

Human nature, and the nature of mind dictate that the design of attachment ride the cusp between two paradoxical injunctions: be familiar and be mythic. Be appeasing and powerful. This is true for those seeking to be a dominant global brand.

Neurological experiments have demonstrated that when people identify with another, an area in the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex is activated, a brain region much involved with self-definition. In this case, the spokesperson or product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of him- or herself.

In this case, a reverie about self is provoked in which a narrative envelopment develops around the person or product. In contrast, when a person just feels an attribute of the person or product simply is “good,” the brain region known as the putamen lights up. This experience is rewarding, but not self-involving. The object remains external.

Consumers Don’t Strongly Identify with Brands
Paying attention to how celebrities gain and lose popularity might help brand marketers overcome a consumer trend recently uncovered by consumer insights firm trendwatching.com. Namely, although consumer demand for quality brands and products remains strong, consumers generally do not strongly identify with brands.

For example, when asked “what brands care about you?,” not a single global consumer interviewed by trendwatching.com said they believed any brand cared about them, except as a source of profit. When asked what brands they love, more consumers answered Apple than any other brand. However, many consumers said they love no brand and even find loving a brand unnatural.

Large chain retail brands led the category of brands consumers hate, with more respondents mentioning fast food chain McDonald’s than any other brand. Wal-Mart, Gap and Starbucks were also mentioned. In addition, some consumers said they generally hate brands which engage in practices such as using child or cheap foreign labor.

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