Justin Bieber and Persil

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.

Brand Newsrooms

A really interesting read from Taulbee Jackson about the pointlessness of Brand Newsrooms. It caught my eye (in the very excellent Digiday) because I had been taken with this idea ever since Chris Satterthwaite told me about it, which was probably 10 years ago. This was of course well before the Social Media phenomenon. Chris’ idea was that every week stuff happens that brands should react to, latch on to, spin off, in order to keep a consistent brand message fresh and relevant. He used the analogy of the Newsroom, a place where all the brand people and their communications partners should meet to review what they had done, what was going on and what they should do.

Although I have spoken about this to lots of people over the years, as I’m sure has Chris, I wasn’t aware that anybody had actually tried it. So now here is Taulbee’s blog post which implies several people have and that it doesn’t work. You can read the piece but in summary he cites several reasons why it doesn’t work, the first of which is quite controversial – brands are not in the content business and should leave it to the professionals. His other reasons for the foolishness of this model strike me as “been there, tried that” realism. The approval process for brand creative is too cumbersome and consensual (compare that to a hard-assed editor), brands are lousy judges of good content (he thinks these days only the audience is), and overall it implies an agility and speed that brands simply don’t have.

Interestingly he does not mention, at least not explicitly, the main concern that I always had, namely the rigidity of the brand budget and planning cycle. This kind of “fast on your feet, learn quick, fail cheap” culture requires you to be very vague not only about where you will spend your brand budget but when and how much. I reckon you’d need to keep about a quarter unallocated with the flexibility to overspend if you were getting the results. If a story is getting traction and pulling an audience a Newsroom will very rapidly divert a lot of their resource to it. I presume they keep a number of outside broadcast units and journalists on stand-by ready to fly to Korea, Syria or “wherever the story takes us” as CNN boast. Brands are not able to react that way unless they are owner-managed like, say, Virgin (or is the brand Branson?). I suppose that might be what Taulbee means when he says corporate-owned brands have all the flexibility of a three-legged elephant.

Nevertheless, I am left feeling that while he may be right, brands are not good at behaving like a content generating newsroom, they bloody well should be, especially in a social media world. They should be good at earning media through interesting, on-message, content and stunts. They should react to what is happening and what is breaking and, where possible, latch their brand on to this. Brands should be able to keep a big chunk of their budget unallocated – perhaps not unallocated in terms of the brand objectives, which can be set in advance, but to the activity that might best achieve those objectives. There should be consistency of purpose and message but not delivery. And in order to achieve all this they must meet often, grab the insights and learnings and apply them quickly, with a fast and decisive approval process.

Other brands do this – celebrities, sports franchises, news channels, political parties – why not the brands that are supposed to be the epicenter of great marketing? Is not the realization that they can’t the fundamental proof we needed that the traditional brand management model invented by P&G nearly 50 years ago is well and truly buggered?

I think Taulbee Jackson may be right, he speaks with authority, but it is wrong that the idea of a focused but fast-reacting brand newsroom doesn’t work. It should do and I would argue in this digital, technology, rolling global news stories, social media age it has to.

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