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Man As Brand

August 24th, 2009

Thoughts on the passing of two individuals whose talents and accomplishments elevated them to brand status.

The Most Trusted Man in America and the King of Pop

Chances are if you knew and identified with one of these figures, you probably did not appreciate or identify with the other. Could be generational. Could be something else.

If you were alive when Walter Cronkite earned the moniker, The Most Trusted Man in America, you understand why. He told the country what it needed to know, the way he saw it. And because he was an excellent reporter, you believed him. His signature signoff every evening, “And that’s the way it is…” is an apt eulogy to a man who many relied on for the truth when it was hard to find. He had a definitive delivery that you intuitively trusted.

His contemporary counterpart from the entertainment side of television, Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday, uttered “Just the facts…” every episode. But we understood Jack Webb’s wooden delivery was simply meant to portray an LA gumshoe in the spirit of the time. He was a trustworthy character, but a character nevertheless.

Walter Cronkite only played one role – objective reporter. That’s what we needed. He filled the bill. The Most Trusted Man in America is a descriptor that only one man can have. Walter Cronkite has taken it to the grave with him.

The fractured state of the media landscape today, makes it impossible for anyone to achieve the status Walter enjoyed.

Michael Jackson’s meteoric rise to fame as the King of Pop began while Walter was in his prime. The Gloved One became a global phenomenon long after Walter had left the stage. Michael’s early success was within the context of his family’s musical act. His talent quickly became recognized as a unique gift escaping the confines of the family act.

His talent catapulted him into worldwide fame with hit after hit coming from individual albums that set sales records the industry had never seen. His success gained a global following. His musical genius earned him millions of dollars and millions of fans.

But his fame was complicated by a rather bizarre personal life. Fans loved him for his ability to express, in music and dance, something universally appealing. The loyalty of fans was tempered with disheartening and sordid stories of the man – personally.

What the hell does this have to do with brands? Plenty.

First, and foremost, is the simplest of virtues to understand, yet the hardest to attain – trust. Without trust a brand has no real foundation, nothing to base the rest upon.

With Walter, what you saw was what you got. There may have been things in his personal life that could have been judged unbecoming, but we never heard about it. Times were simpler then. Chances are unseemly activity never happened, because he was too damned busy bringing us the story, without fail, without bias.

With Michael, although you might appreciate the creative expression of his talent – the show – it was always understood to be just that – a show. Lacking the substance of reality.

There is a gap between entertainment and real life. A distance bridged by artists in the expression of their art, the performance, the show. Although real life requires entertainment to be full and satisfying, one is a subset of the other, not a substitute, unless of course, you are an entertainer. But even entertainers leave the stage, and the show, behind after every performance and enter the same world that mere mortals like you and I occupy.

Ordinary folks may love the gifted few that rise to the level of icon status, but the focus of all this adulation must be accessible by being aligned with the same, or at least similar, values. Otherwise, there is a disconnect that is hard to bridge, regardless of the talent exhibited.

Walter was accessible simply because he was what he was, nothing more, nothing less. Michael was not accessible because he was what he was, with hard to reconcile personal issues, for many, if not most.

This all speaks to trust and the lack thereof. Brand loyalty is based on trust. It is a sacred contract between a brand and its followers. Breaking the contract, breaks the trust, that diminishes, erodes and ultimately destroys loyalty.

Brands are dynamic. Like people they are born, live and die in a natural cycle. They reflect the needs, hopes and aspirations of their time and those who care for them. When the accomplishments of individuals distinguish them to the degree that they are known for their achievements, they can become brands.

When man becomes brand, the brand is captive to human nature and the entire spectrum of activity – good and bad, healthy and destructive.

Walter Cronkite, The Most Trusted Man in America, and Michael Jackson, The King of Pop, are classic examples of man as brand. Their brands live on while their real lives have ended. Both brands will fade in time. They will be eclipsed by the accomplishments of others whose achievements elevate them to the point of becoming brands.

And the cycle continues…

Thoughts … On Brand

Neither deep nor finely crafted. Feel free to take exception – or not. Need help? Just ask.

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