Back at the turn of the Millennium the venerable Jeremy Bullmore delivered a lecture to the British Brands Group entitled “Posh Spice and Persil”. Victoria had apparently declared at an early age that she wanted to be more famous than Persil and Jeremy took this as his theme to expound the importance, and the magical mystery, of brands to CEO’s. I wasn’t there but like many thousand others I read the transcript. I had heard him talk before about the powerful quality of fame that brands have which, if nothing else, will create preference. When found at the heart of a coherent, yet never fully definable, set of relevant associations it can drive loyalty to a brand of soap powder or baked beans (or at the very least deep, deep inertia).
Was he the first to see celebrities as proper brands? Who knows, probably not, the notion was becoming popular and even back then it was clear the Beckham brand was being managed (and to great effect). I recall many years earlier hearing Peter York (aka Wallis, he of Sloane Ranger fame) liken brands to soap opera stars. We like them because we know them yet every now and again they can surprise us. Product brands hope to surprise us in an appealing way, celebrities often surprise us in a disappointing way that has them reaching for Max Clifford’s number on speed dial. Anyway, my point is celebrities started to realize they were like Persil and more recently Persil et al realize they need to learn to be more like celebrities. They envy their social media status, their content, their multi-media ubiquity – their loyal following. Brands want to be newsworthy.
I am in Cape Town, as I write, and my wife and son are off to see Justin Bieber tonight at the impressive Green Point stadium. The whole city is buzzing, young Beliebers have been camping out all night to get the best spot in the Golden Circle, the traffic tonight will be awful. Justin, I am sure, will be amazing. What a great brand he is, if you happen to like his music, which I don’t.
But here is my point – one I intend to focus a lot more on in my writing, in terms of the marketing technology businesses I am investing in, and for the occasional client I am advising. Justin is a lot more than a strong brand. Justin is a global media channel. This diminutive 17 year old crooner has 45 million facebook followers (his most recent post attracted 2.5 million likes in an hour, I just checked) and 21 million Twitter followers. ”Baby” has been watched 750 million times on Youtube. His total album sales since 2009 are only 12 million – I say ‘only’, obviously this is good going but can’t you see? His music is not the product, the numbers are tiny in comparison to his audience, his reach and frequency. Justin – or one presumes his agent – is amassing a valuable portfolio of investments in social media platforms like Spotify and other internet start-ups. Because Justin can make or break a social media platform. Because Justin is the Social Media Platform. And then there’s Lady Gaga, Oprah, Jamie Oliver, WillIam etc etc etc.
If Justin tweets today that he is wearing his favourite white jacket that he insists is washed in Persil and only Persil wherever he is in the world, a gazillion young girls and future mums will be hooked for life, more than any campaign dreamt up by Jeremy’s and Persil’s old agency JWT could ever have achieved. Am I just pointing out the obvious and age-old power of celebrity endorsement? No, I am pointing out that with his endorsement comes a global audience of his making and under his control, one that will amplify the message with their own audience via re-tweets and likes.
Celebrities are the new media platforms and Social Media is their prime weapon. The top/smart celebrities are managing themselves not just like brands but like social media platforms. And here is just one thing that interests me about this. Most of the technology start-ups I talk to are very keen on securing brand support. They want to charter with the Persils, Cokes, Nikes, Samsungs as their partners because they are the ones with the budgets and inferred credibility. Some are now realizing that if they charter with celebrities (which in Justin’s case means he wants equity in the business) the brands will follow. But the reverse is not true.
Jeremy my old friend – it’s gone way further than any of us could have imagined. Justin Bieber is not just bigger than Persil, he is bigger than commercial TV. He, or more realistically he and all the other savvy celebrities, may end up being bigger than facebook.
So should brands be looking to celebrities for clues about the new model of branding and brand communication? Perhaps, but more importantly they should be looking at celebrities the way they used to look at ITV and have started to look at facebook. Persil and all the other big brands need a Bieber strategy and budget.