What Celebrities Have Taught Me About Branding

A brand is a name or trademark connected with a product or with the company that makes the product. Brands have become increasingly important components of culture and the economy and haven even been modified to encompass people and personalities. In Hollywood it’s no longer a culture of celebrity that drives ticket-goers, it’s the celebrity brands.

In my old ad agency life, brands were things or corporate entities, co-managed by the agency strategists, account managers and creatives. Pepsi was a brand. Hostess Frito-Lay was a brand. Chrysler was a brand. These brands didn’t talk. Didn’t have good hair days or bad hair days, and they certainly didn’t have complicated ryders in their contracts, specifiying that only organic foods could be served at photo shoots.

But brands are now personified by people. And working with celebrity brands to market entertainment has been both an eye-opening experience, and an educational one. In my agency world, the creative brief pretty much covered off all the do’s and don’ts for brands … but having grown up with many of the established brands, and being very familiar with them, you almost understood what the brand represented through osmosis. You inherently understood the difference between the Coke and Pepsi brands – you understood their brand personalities, the impact brand had on their respective marketing campaigns, and you understood the differences between Pepsi and Coke drinkers.

That said, think of the brand of Ashton Kutcher. Or Demi Moore. Or Robert Pattison. What are their brand personalities? What makes them different from other brands? Does their brand impact their publicity communication plans? Are their any differences between fans of Ashton, Demi and Robert … and what are those inherent differences? It’s a little more difficult because so much of it is in the mind of the talent, and their handlers.

Robert Pattinson's brand: Robert or Edward?

Whether you’re marketing a television show or a major motion picture, the brand is split equally between the talent and the vehicle they are starring in. Essentially, you are working with 2 distinct and usually different brands. Imagine in your agency world, having to wrangle Coke and Pepsi (plus their handlers) together into a Skittles candy storyline. Luckily for us in content land, the celebrity brands have to put their own brands on the shelf so to speak, and adopt the brand of the content they are appearing in. That’s all fine and dandy while their shooting and editing, but just wait until marketing time rolls around. All of a sudden, for example, your Robert Pattinson handlers are trying to sell the brand of Robert Pattinson, rather than the brand content. This can make for an interesting tug-of-war.

Celebrities hire publicists and agents to protect and serve their brands. It’s the publicist’s job to understand their brand demographics, and to ensure that their client is being exposed via the right media. For example, it’s not likely you will ever see The Pattz’s photo in a magazine for the over-50 set. Brands like Coke don’t need a publicist, they usually employ public relations to help them manage the branding frontline – the part of the brand that lives closest to the consumer. But some brands use publicists – with multiple content platforms the norm these days, it’s nice to employ someone to pitch stories and content on behalf of their brand. There is no hard and fast rule.

So how come you like a particular celebrity, and how does that relate to the brand?

People like brands because they like making decisions.

I find this part fascinating in a Psychology 101 kind of way. When considering how people make decisions, your mind employs two criteria to manoeuvre the complexities of life: moral and aesthetic choice. In almost every case, your conscience decision is based on the delicate balance of the rational and the irrational.

When choosing a bottle of wine, for example, the matter of expressing cultural refinement and personal pleasure is weighed against price and availability. Who you choose to root for in sports has as much to do with peer acceptance and social differentiation (or bonding) as it has with fitness and recreation. And the same analysis can be made with your choice of celebrity endorsement.

How does this relate to brand value?

Brands are increasingly becoming the currency of business. They link customers with enterprises. In this sense, smart business people now bestow virtual custody of brands upon consumers, while keeping management in the hands of companies. In other words, in the entertainment industry, it’s all about the packaging. In today’s world, entertainment brands define markets as much as they do products, services and organisations.

If branding is the sum total of all the parts, what brings brands to life?

This one is easy. For celebrities nothing gets attention like commercial success. Who was Robert Pattinson before Twilight? (In reality, Robert would probably be much happier without the downside of fame and fortune.) Robert IS the package. So all that is Robert … is the brand. But how much does “Edward” – the character Robert plays in Twilight, a part of the packaging is anyone’s guess. For Agency folks, and in the case of a packaged good brand for example, commercial success is also part of the brand ID. Design is used to package the brand, thus giving it a visual identity.
It's all about the brand image ...In the ad world, confidence is the brand’s promise to the consumer – it provides brand Integrity. The consumer who believes in the brand feels pride in being a customer, and carries a passion for the brand. It’s an emotional attachment. Celebrities have long tapped into this thinking because their fans expect and demand it. If you are a fan of George Clooney for example, you expect him to behave a certain way … to be a certain kind of person because his brand dictates that he really is the carefully-crafted persona that his handlers have put forth to the world.

The defining moment for Tom Cruise's brand ...

But what happens when a brand implodes? Witness the near-fatal brand destruction of Tom Cruise. Way back when, Tom had one of Hollywood’s best publicists on this team. As is wont to happen, they parted ways at a crucial time in Tom’s career. With his sister sitting in the publicity hot seat, perhaps not expecting the land mine that was lying ahead, Tom meet Katy Holmes and before you could say “where’s Penelope?” Tom was jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch like a lunatic. Couple that with some disasterous press conferences, where Tom and Katy’s antics took the spotlight away from Steven Speilberg and the film they were promoting. The press had a field day and Tom’s career took a hit that a lesser star would never have recovered from. What happened? Tom cracked the emotional code when his behaviour was demonstrated outside the carefully-crafted Tom Cruise brand. He broke the sacred trust – the confidence that he had with his fans. His behaviour was inconsistent with his brand. He invoked embarassment. Pity. Anger. Disbelief. And people started believing what the press were writing about this new Tom Cruise brand. Tom the crackpot. Tom the wierdo. The brand was many things. But a couch jumping fool wasn’t one the fans were willing to consider.

In short, be it packaged good or celebrity brand, when they don’t deliver the brand promise, it can be the kiss of death. Don’t believe the brand as celebrity angle? Visit a hotel review web site like TripAdvisor.com. Check out the travelers’ comments section and you’ll likely come across more than a few who cite poor customer service for their negative hotel reviews. On the other hand, employees who represent the brand flawlessly and consistently can propel a business to stardom. The brand is the sum of all its parts and brand consistency is vital. Without it, like Tom Cruise’s actions, you erode your brand equity and create misperceptions about your company in the market, that in turn could lead prospective customers, employees and even fans, to take a pass on your product.


About Jill Atkinson

From concepts and smart headlines to original content and transmedia storytelling, to television pitch materials, directors treatments, long format writing, blogs and web copy with SEO, I write it all. I'm a writer, copywriter, and a content writer. My job is to help you say it better with ideas and language that get noticed. With copy and content that engages customers and audiences and ideas that make a connection with them. Ideas that generate a response. Materials that can sell a pitch. When you work with me you're working with the big boys: Maclaren, BBDO, Taxi, Sharpe Blackmore and also a great bunch of mid-sized agencies, b2b shops, a national television network (CBC), 15 specialty channels (History Channel, National Geographic, Showcase, Action, IFC, BBC Canada, + many more) and start ups who have taught me everything I know about how to get you noticed, remembered and sold. Or clicked. Or talked about. There are lots of ways to try to sell your products or to sell people on your offer or to engage them in your content and your show. But there is only one way to get it done right and on strategy. My experience is a foot in the door for your brand or your television idea . And no matter the size of your project, my commitment and attention to detail remain the same, big or small and always on deadline. Great conversations have to start somewhere. Give me a call or shoot me an email zookeepersboot@sympatico.ca Check out my work at http://jillatkinson.com
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4 Responses to What Celebrities Have Taught Me About Branding

  1. jeremywaite says:

    Fabulous article. Really great to meet someone with a similar mindset to myself (I write a blog on what brands can learn from celebrities). I’m from an agency background too and I just got sick of all the marketing speak that we dazzle our clients with.

    Celebrity brands seem like a great way of helping to make marketing principles more accessable.

    I’d love to quote some of this article in my new book (with all the appropriate credits and weblinks to your good self) if that was something that you wouldn’t mind? The book will be launched hopefully in September and is going to be called, “Sex, Brands & Rock’n’Roll”

    Kudos again on the article. Hope to hear from you soon! Jeremywaite@me.com | jeremywaite.wordpress.com

    • jillatkinson says:

      Thanks for your very kind comments Jeremy. Celebrity brands are certainly an easy way to break down the concept of branding – good luck with your new book!

  2. Great point of view, something we’ve been preaching about for years.

    Only to marketing communication firms.

    For so many branding experts out there in the biz, finding one with a well crafted brand is difficult at best. Too many read like something I wrote for the first agency I worked for years ago – “we’re a full service agency that believes in the power of brands, strategic direction, outstanding creative, generating results and doing it all in a fully integrated way.” Add in great great client service and fun place to work and I could be talking about any firm on Madison Ave.

    And they are all attributes. Just like great corp brands, defining and communicating your agency brand personality is the key.



    • jillatkinson says:

      Hi Bob

      You are so right. I’ve never understood why some of the most creative agencies in the world stumble over this most critical understanding. Alex Bogusky’s “I hate advertising” was a clear statement of his brand personality, (if not a reflection of the Crispin Porter side) … at least I knew what direction he was going to take well in advance of his “retirement” announcement.

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