At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):
Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd
[ open on Don Kirschner ]
Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.
[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]
That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.
Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. Hence the post by that title at the last link.
Since then I’ve been pointed to various writers and posts that put nice paint jobs on the cattle-burning practice that “branding” was originally — and still, in spite of all marketing spin to the contrary, remains. This here cartoon for example, which got me boiling again.
So I decided to have another go at it, partly because I don’t want the topic to die (until “branding” is exposed for the shallow thing it too often is), and partly because I just read Brand Rehab, the Schupeter column in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Economist. Like too much of everything else, it’s about Tiger Woods. But, being the Economist, it’s about the money, which always focuses matters. For example,
Tiger Woods’s penchant for cocktail waitresses and porn actresses ended up costing an astonishing amount of money: two economists at the University of California, Davis, have calculated that his biggest corporate sponsors, such as Nike and Gatorade, saw as much as $12 billion wiped off the value of their shares in the wake of the scandal.
That’s twelve billion. With a B.
One company that took a huge hit, of course, was Accenture. Dig Guanabee’s Worst Tiger Woods Accenture Ads for a reminder of what all of us heavy travelers saw printed on back-lit plexiglass displays in airport concourses over the years leading up to revelations about Tiger’s personal life, after which they all disappeared. (Except, of course, on the Web.) One sample:
Accenture failed here by assuming that Tiger wasn’t human. Which is close enough to true, if you’re just looking at Tiger as a golfer. The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.
Turn a person into a brand, and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.
The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.”I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.
Nike, the brand, famously supports its sponsored athletes because the company is about athletes and athletics. Which is all fine. What matters is what the athletes do on the field, on the court, on the golf course. Sure. But what matters more is what these companies actually do.
Here in Reality, companies buy Accenture’s services. Individuals buy Nike’s shoes. None of what customers buy from either company gets an ounce of substantive worth from Tiger Woods, or from anything those companies do with their “branding” strategies, no matter how much those strategies serve to help sales and stock prices.
We live in an age when we can kick tires hard. Accenture’s and Nike’s tires are not Tiger Woods. And Tiger Woods, even if he’s long been a lying sack of shit, isn’t a tire either. He’s a human being, and that’s what makes him interesting. Not what his golf game says about companies that pay him.
In his comment below my Brands are boring post, Chris Carfi pointed to this post on BlogHer in which Yvonne, a blogger there, unloaded on people who insist she act like a blogging brand, rather than the human being she’s been all along:
Blogging as I know it has changed.
And I just can’t keep up. Because this blog isn’t a business. My blog is personal.
I just want to keep writing about my life. About my kids. About my struggles with health and weight and body image. I just want to write.
I feel like a complete misfit in blogging, which is so weird because I’ve been doing this since 2002 and what the hell?
Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!
There’s no denying that I’ve been given some pretty amazing opportunities through blogging. (Interviewing the cast of New Adventures of Old Christine. Meeting Tony Hawk.) And that still amazes me. But that’s not WHY I do it. That will never be why I do it.
And suddenly, it feel like — if that’s not why I’m doing it, why even bother?
I used to be able to sit down and write a post about the most trivial things — like my trip to the doctor’s office yesterday, for example — hit publish, enjoy the comments and move on to the next post. Now I doubt every post. “This isn’t good enough.” “No one will care about that.” “People are writing about HEALTH CARE REFORM AND YOU’RE WRITING ABOUT PEEING WHILE YOU SNEEZE YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.”
I also used to be able to write about important things, like depression or body image and feel safe. Feel like it mattered. Like by writing my story I was helping people and that people were helping me by reading, by sharing their stories. I know that is still true, but sometimes? I feel like the stories aren’t being heard because we’re all too busy about traffic and page views and twitter followers and OUR BRRRANNND.
And that’s fine! It’s wonderful that women are finding success because of their blogs — I mean it, it makes me so proud. But also? A little sad. Sad that those of us who are just here for the writing, for the stories, for the good content are feeling so out of place and irrelevant.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore other than to say I’m struggling with blogging right now and I hope that by writing this out I will be able to make some sort of peace with it all and stop over thinking this shit and JUST START WRITING AGAIN BECAUSE I MOTHER FUCKING LOVE TO WRITE.