IMD Tommorrow's Challenges: Anything Can Be Branded – It Takes Stamina and Renewal

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By Professor Dominique Turpin – October 2009

Anything can be branded, from toothpaste and tourist destinations to cartoon characters and Chinese revolutionaries. Professionally managed celebrity brands have been around for several decades; one of the most famous, Elvis Presley, has been so successfully handled that he has sold more records – not to mention coffee mugs and calendars – since he died in 1977 than while he was alive. It looks like Michael Jackson will be 2010’s top-earning celebrity brand – making an almost $250 million from beyond the grave.

Professionally-managed branding of athletes is a slightly more recent phenomenon but it’s undoubtedly big business. For example, David Beckham, the former England captain, managed to take his popularity on the field and turn it into a brand worth an estimated £200 million thanks to endorsement deals including Vodafone, Adidas, Pepsi, Brylcreem and Marks and Spencer. He almost certainly learned a lot about how to build a personal brand from his pop star wife, Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams, who already had a strong brand in her own right when they met. Together, they merited a great deal of tabloid coverage. Interestingly, when Manchester United sold him to Real Madrid in 2003, some analysts suggested that the Spanish club was more interested in buying his brand than his sporting ability.

But creating a strong brand for a real person – one that lasts and that means something commercially – takes more than good looks and a famous spouse. In fact, it starts from exactly the same principles as any brand strategy. First, any great brand must have something different and distinctive. For a footballer, this is likely to mean world-beating talent. Second, the brand’s messages must be simple, consistent, clear and easy to communicate. (Executives who are building their own personal and professional brands can learn from this as well. Many try to communicate far too much with their brand; it’s better to emphasize one or two things that make you unique.)

On top of this, for a footballer to become a successful brand he must represent moral values or ideals, such as professionalism, tenacity and team spirit, that will make him valuable to the companies that endorse him. When companies link themselves to celebrity brands it’s because they want the values associated with them to transfer to their own brands. For example, a business that sells men’s grooming products may link itself with male athletes who are seen as healthy, attractive and successful.

However, companies must be wary of relying too heavily on celebrity ambassadors. Famous names should never be the main driving force behind a business’s brand or it will run the risk of the celebrity’s personal brand overwhelming that of the product or service. This can result in people remembering the celebrity but not the product they were paid to endorse. Ultimately, corporate and product brands need to be built on, and be able to stand up on, their own distinctive merits. Careful use of celebrities can enhance or strengthen existing product brands but it should not be seen as a way of creating a brand.

The other big risk for companies is that celebrities may behave in a way that’s inconsistent with the values that they were brought in to represent. When this happens, it threatens not just the individual’s personal brand but that of any associated products; this is one of the areas where it is most certainly not true that any publicity is good publicity. After all, a company that recruited a celebrity athlete based on his wholesome, hard-working and sportsmanlike image would be less than enthusiastic about keeping him on if he was caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, for example.

From the celebrity’s perspective, the downside of interlinking brand and personality is that misbehaviour that may once have been seen as purely private can seriously damage his or her brand commercially even if it is not linked to their core activity. For example, when the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo was hit by a scandal involving transvestite prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro it didn’t affect his ability to find the back of the net but it did lose him an advertising contract worth $4.8 million per year. Clearly the mobile telephone company involved no longer wanted its name linked with his activities.

For both athletes and businesses the best way to maintain and develop a brand is by stamina and renewal. Many brands disappear or experience a decline simply because they lack a regular stream of innovations, whether in the product itself or the way in which the brand is communicated to the public. For a player coming close to the end of his professional career, the challenge is always to continue to make news, either as a player, an individual or in association with the brands or products that he or she endorses. For example, George Foreman, a former world champion boxer has made over $150 million from the sales of his barbecue grills, a sum that is substantially more than he earned as a boxer. But he still has a way to go before he matches Elvis!

Dominique Turpin is Director of the International Seminar for Top Executives. He also teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance and Strategic Marketing in Action open enrollment programs and in IMD’s Partnership Programs.


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