So the word that defines my livelihood is grist for the dumpster? That’s the opinion of Timothy Egan, anyway, as stated in a recent editorial in The New York Times. “Brand,” along with “artisan,” “gluten-free,” and “whatever” are just a few of the terms he deems the “most annoying, overused, and abused words of the year.” That I earn a living helping brands gain success in the marketplace had me just a bit unsettled as I read Egan’s piece. But, to be honest, I did get the point he was making relative to the word in question, and I’d actually like to build on his thoughts.
Egan’s assertion is that creating a “brand,” traditionally the job of corporate marketing professionals, is now fair game for anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account along with the ability to construct a story about their lives, even if their lives are but 9 years in the making. This is, conceptually, true. A brand is a story about what someone, or something, stands for. While the theory of brand-building is pretty straightforward – as Eagan said, any 9-year-old can do it – the execution and maintenance has become increasingly hard, subject to what I call the “gotcha” syndrome. That’s because, the tools people are using to build a brand are the same ones they’re using to call foul on others’ brands. The minute you don’t stand for what you promised, well, they’ve gotcha.
By way of example, I offer up Justin Bieber. I wrote about Mr. Bieber a few years back, making a strong case for the secret behind this young man’s brand success. First and foremost, he and his savvy management team, inclusive of Scooter Braun and Usher, determined what they wanted the pop star to stand for in the minds of consumers and, second, they did whatever it took to cement the required associations. They understood that no detail was too small, from vocal coaching to hair stylist, back-up singers to public relations initiatives, from studio albums to full-length movies. Braun and company ensured that every nuance was flawless, every aspect of the brand persona perfectly crafted and managed, until it wasn’t. And people, Beliebers and non-Belibers alike, saw it.
Consumers today are super-honed to watch for slip-ups, for cracks in a brand’s shell. And, they have become well-trained in reporting on the slip-ups between a brand’s promise and its delivery. In an era in which a brand is as a brand does, Bieber hasn’t been doing what his fans have long associated with his brand name and it’s costing him. There is a clear and present jolt of reality intruding onto his carefully crafted brand narrative. Whether due to his shirtless walks through the streets of London, his profanity-laced lunges at paparazzi, or his insensitive notes written in the visitor’s book at the Anne Frank house, his public image, his brand has taken a tumble.
Now, yes, I know, like most kids moving from tween to teen, teen to adult, Bieber is testing and experimenting. That’s to be expected. But as he looks forward to his next chapter as a brand, if he wants it to be a strong and respected brand, he’s got to reestablish what it is he wants to stand for, and do whatever it takes to deliver. It’s the execution and maintenance that will be the key to where, or if, he ends up on the pop charts.
Lest you be concerned I’m picking on a little kid, there are any number of other examples of brands, people and things, which had their own gotcha moments in 2013. There was the whole Paula Dean episode, wherein her sweet Southern brand didn’t seem all that sweet to her TV viewers after some of her less than savory comments hit the social media scene. There was the Nigella Lawson episode, another celebrity chef who, after spending lots of time and money perfecting her hot and sexy cooking story, got caught in the hot seat with her less than on-brand behavior. Then, of course, there was the Duck Dynasty debacle, the twerking of the Miley Cyrus brand, and the embarrassing and, no doubt expensive, Tesla’s car fire issue.
You can do everything possible to project the brand you want, but actions speak louder than even the most carefully crafted words or personal Facebook pages. When the image you are trying to project doesn’t match up with your brand promise, it’s a problem, a problem all brands must deal with in an increasingly open and watchful society.
Timothy Egan had a good point. Anyone can build a brand. But as someone in the actual business of doing so, I would like to add that while building one is the relatively easy part of the process, delivering and living the brand as the consuming public expects is very difficult. One wrong note in the orchestration of every point of touch or contact, from advertising to public relations, customer service to product (or personal) performance can wipe out the whole image. My lesson for anyone (Justin?) with a brand is to carefully monitor and prevent disconnects between promise and execution. My prediction for 2014: With everyone a brand critic, there will be more gotcha moments to come.