What Brand Strategists Can Learn from Celebrities

We live in a performance-based culture where celebrities are our kings and queens. Therefore, It can be instructive for marketers to understand the dynamics of mind that cause us to idolize and occasionally turn away abruptly from celebrities we once extolled.

The one axiom most marketing executives understand is: When you have a blip on the screen, come clean and do it quickly. Stonewalling never works. However, more subtle learnings exist for brand managers to help obviate future problems.

Don’t Be “Too”

When seeking public attention and attachment, too much – too much of anything — is never good. Tiger Woods is a case in point. Tiger always seemed too perfect.

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. People relate to perfection as something uni-dimensional, absolute, and unknowable. Mere mortals cannot identify with it. So when Tiger Woods was caught in his own too obsessive-compulsive sexual activities, the understanding his audience had for him was too small.

Other problems exist with being too perfect. When seeking public adulation, perfection can be associated with robotic. The public does not like those who appear unfeeling. For specific examples, think of also-rans in presidential campaigns: General Haig, too power-hungry; Governor Dukakis, too bureaucratic; Senator Simon, too intellectual; Mitt Romney, too corporate.

Ronald Reagan’s perceived absent-mindedness, or occasional nap (for example, during an audience with the pope) was a forgivable flaw many gave him a pass on because they identified with Reagan’s folksy style and were comforted by his manner and 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.

Paradox Helps People Identify with You

The second subtlety in successful branding is, when vying to be number one, what compels peoples’ emotional attachment is a rendering of self with some complexity, contradiction, and irony — like real people. Johnny One-Notes, even if the tune is likable, cannot endure in the public heart. Leadership requires a layered character.

A paradoxical persona is attractive because it’s simply more human, and it engages the audiences’ imagination so that narratives of identification have more elbow-room. Think Walter Cronkite: grave but grandfatherly; Greta Garbo: chaste but seductive; or Elvis: profane but sacred. We all are “God and buffoon.”

In fact, human nature and the nature of mind dictate that the design of attachment rides the cusp between two paradoxical injunctions: Be familiar and mythic, and be appeasing and powerful. This is true for all those seeking to be an “alpha” — be it chimpanzee, head of state, tribal shaman or dominant global brand.

Neurological experiments have demonstrated that when we identify with another — when we feel something is part of us — the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex is activated, a brain region involved with self-definition. In this case, the person or product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of himself or herself. Hence, a reverie about self is provoked in which a narrative envelopment develops around the person or product. We humans crave the satisfaction that comes when our would-be leaders confirm and elongate our identities.

In contrast, when a person feels the attribute of a person or product is simply good (but not necessarily self-involving), the brain region known as the putamen lights up. This experience is positive, but the object remains external; a commodity.

From Prose To Poetry

We can see the attachment process at work by listening to how people talk about brands. When there is real emotional attachment, people speak about the object of attention, not in prose, but in a kind of poetry. Take Apple’s iPhone, for example. Listen to a customer’s monologue: “The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle; it’s smooth and it glides. It’s easy and makes me feel I can do things more easily and do more. With it I can be a bigger and better me. All other phones and network providers are a box; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have too many rules, and are too technical and linear.”

In today’s all-access world in which no one can step offstage, the era of the mythic hero is no more. Nevertheless, whether monarch, movie star, CEO, or global brand, if one seeks to ascend the thrown of popularity, one must be perceived as familiar and as a stimulus for others’ self-expansion.

Think: Moses.


This article appeared in Dr. Bob Deutsch’s column in the Huffington Post