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March 4, 2010
What Brand Strategists Can Learn From Celebrities

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

The one axiom that most executives understand: When you have a blip on the screen, come clean and do it quickly. Stone-walling never works.

However, more subtle learnings exist for brand managers to help obviate future problems. The first: Too much is never good when seeking public attention and attachment. 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. They identify. Perfection is uni-dimensional. Absolute. Unknowable. Mortals cannot identify with it.

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; and Senator Simon, too intellectual.

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

The second subtlety in successful branding: 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 likeable, cannot endure in the public heart. Leadership requires depth of 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 ride the cusp between two paradoxical injunctions: Be familiar and mythic. Be appeasing and powerful. This is true for those seeking to be an alpha-male chimpanzee, head of state, 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 spokesperson or product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of himself 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 feels the attribute of a person or product is good, the brain region known as the putamen lights up. This experience is rewarding but not self-involving. The object remains external.

This helps explain the cheering crowds at Sarah Palin’s book tour. We humans crave the satisfaction that comes when our would-be leaders confirm our identities.

We see many attachment processes at work by listening to how people talk about one of the great brands of today. Take Apple’s iPhone for example. The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle; it’s smooth and it glides. It’s easy and makes one fee he or she can do things more easily and do more.

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. The iPhone is fun and natural, and let’s one do his or her own thing. This makes one smile and a happy person.

In today’s all-access world in which no one can step offstage, the era of the mythic hero is no more. Whether monarch, movie star, or CEO, if they seek to ascend the thrown of popularity, they must be perceived as someone familiar. To stay on top, they must be as “comfortable as an old shoe,” even if their own shoes are handmade and cost a king’s ransom.

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Dr. Bob Deutsch is the founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells. He has worked in the primeval forest and on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues. His focus, since the mid-’70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been to understand how leading ideas take hold in cultures. Since opening Brain Sells, in 1990, he has applied this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances. He is fond of saying, "Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue. The brain evolved to act, NOT to think." Bran Sells’ retail clients include: TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Home Goods, Radio Shack, Sephora, Verizon stores, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.

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