The Blake Project, the brand consultancy behind Branding Strategy Insider, delivers interactive brand education workshops and keynote speeches designed to align marketers on essential concepts in brand management and empower them to release the full potential of the brands they manage.
Back in February we touched on Michael Phelps and celebrity endorsements. The topic brought to light varying opinions on people as brands. Are they? I asked a few colleagues.
Mark Ritson: No
It's a common error to assume that people, countries and cities are all brands. Yes, they all possess symbolic meaning but as I point out in my post so do road signs. The point is that brands are more than just a cluster of meanings. On the consumer side you have to be able to purchase them and own them, on the organisational side you have to be able to control and alter them if you so choose. Neither applies to people.
Take Michael Phelps. Do you own him when you buy a box of cereal with is name on it? Could we reposition Phelp's personality and talents if we decided a strategic review was needed – perhaps into an intense soccer player?
Put it another way. We have an extensive academic body of work on celebrity endorsement in the Journal of Consumer Research for example, starting with the superb work of Grant McCracken. We also have an extensive and empirically verified series of papers on Co-Branding published in journals like the Journal of Brand Management. Even a cursory look at these two literatures confirm that the relationship between two brands, and between a celebrity and a brand, are entirely different. If we were to accept the premise of celebrities as brands we would have to unite these two disparate literatures somehow.
There is a final and most important rationale for rejecting people as brands. To do so would be to commit what Marx called "the commodification of self". When we turn people into brands their humanity is lost. Yes we use people to sell brands, but when we start to use the literature on brands to sell people we forget the essential humanity that sets apart people from things.
This terrible literature that teaches people to market themselves or brand themselves asks people to become products, and in doing so, asks them to forget the things that makes human beings very different from baked beans.
I am all for brands, I spend my life working on them, but it is a fundamental and very common mistake to assume we can apply our knowledge to the sociology and psychology of the human condition. For both theoretical, practical and philosophical reasons it makes no sense.
Brad VanAuken: Yes
Brands are the source of promises to consumers. They promise relevant differentiated benefits. They can make these promises because they are the personifications of products, services, organizations or other entities. Brands have personalities, they possess character and they can stand for something. I have long contended that not only can companies and their products and services be branded, but so also can colleges and universities and museums and other not-for-profit organizations and municipalities and countries and musical groups and yes, even individuals.
While most people do not need to be personified, some arguably do. Indeed, many celebrities are packaged as brands. The trick is to draw out a person’s authentic brand, one that is true to him or her. The same is true with all other brands. And authenticity usually reveals a combination of positive and not so positive attributes. The role of the brand marketer is to accentuate the positive attributes, especially those that will give the brand an advantage in the marketplace.
Some celebrities recover nicely from a crisis situation and some do not, just as some companies do and some don’t. For some celebrities, a brush with the law or the demonstration of particularly lewd behavior is not a crisis at all. It is a PR opportunity. Yes, depending on the intended personality, all publicity can be good publicity.
Regarding using celebrities to endorse products or to be spokespeople for them can often be problematic. Remember Anita Bryant and Sunkist or O.J. Simpson and Hertz. While I think Tiger Woods is a perfect endorsement for Nike (the “authentic athletic performer” [Nike’s brand essence] just doing it [Nike’s tagline]), that relationship could still be problematic depending upon how Tiger Woods conducts himself in public and private.
Branding is the process of managing identity and perception. This can be done for virtually anything. At least that is my belief.
Al Ries: Yes
Sure people are brands. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, etc. These names stand for something specific in the minds of consumers. Furthermore, brand names can be leveraged across a number of generations. Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush.
Jack Trout: Yes
Some people are brands because they build powerful reputations in their field of endeavor. Steve Jobs is a brand at Apple. Michael Dell at Dell. DeBackey in heart surgery. But most never quite get to that status.
Where do you stand?
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