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The importance of importance

November 2, 2009

Amy Winehouse and Mona who?Brand erosion warning – steer away from celebrity brats

I resent knowing who Kevin Federline is.

No offence Kev, if you happen to have a Google Search linked to your name, and you feel offended by this unsolicited outburst.

Thing is, I first realised I should know a lot less about celebrities and media brats than I do, when I first encountered Michael Fagan on 9 July, 1982. He’s the chap who broke into Buckingham Palace, sat on Elizabeth Windsor’s bed and had a natter with the Queen of England in the early hours of the morning.

Apparently, all you need to do in today’s world, is shoot a pop star, wake the queen, be the granddaughter of a hotel magnet and shoot less than average porn, and immortality is possibly yours. Enter Andy Warhol.

Therefore, if I know a lot more of what I shouldn’t then perhaps I also know a lot less about what I should. Maybe the space that Shiloh Jolie Pitt, Brooklyn Beckham, and Suri Cruise, let alone their parents, occupy in my cranium, would be better served by knowing who the world’s leading physicists, oncologists, educationalists, explorers, inventors, artists, and painters are. I know Stephen Hawking. He’s paralysed by some horrible disorder.  “Yes Mike”, I hear you say, “but what are his theories?” Huh?

Now, in self-defence I must state I’m not entirely dim. Like most of you, I do a fair amount of reading – the daily papers, lots of books – both fiction and non. Trawl the web endlessly for interesting stuff. And then I run a large company, write business papers, speak publicly on branding, leadership and communications. Yet, although I happen to have little to no interest in these people, the mass media and general dumbing down of the planet through celebrity obsession has ensured that one has little choice but to be in on the idiocy. And the United Nations is forced to be in on it too as you will see.

The most highly paid profession today are people who make a living pretending to be other people. They’re called actors. These folk often earn way more than the people they are pretending to be. I’m not sure how much money Geoffrey Rush earned playing David Helfgott in Shine but I’m sure it’s more than David Helfgott earned being himself. I’m sure Julia Roberts earned more playing Erin Brockovich than Erin got for saving those people from their toxic environment. Or maybe not that year but you get the point. As a result, Julia is the eleventh most powerful woman in America. For what?  On the local front, after seeing the biopic ‘Chopper’ starring Eric Bana, Mark ’Chopper’ Read, the real life convicted murderer on whom the film was based, said he felt Eric made a better Chopper than he himself did.

That brings me back to Shiloh’s mum, who besides being undeniably sexy, is a United Nations Messenger of Peace, like Charlize Theron, Michael Douglas, George Clooney et al. Sounds like something out of a Men in Black movie “we come in peace”. Peace to whom and how?

This is where I would like to start talking about my lack of knowledge of the brilliant minds that are shaping our planet, the cost of not knowing about them, and how that resonates in our own industry. I know precious few of them. Apple’s Steve Jobs, Google’s Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, author J M Coetzee, Andrew Lloyd Webber (not Simon Cowell) spring to mind. So without feigning to be an intellectual through resorting to Wikipedia, I need to fundamentally shift my focus outside of the traditional media to search for information that matters. I want to know who is leading the thinking behind children’s education, or put differently, the planet’s future. We should know the top ten medical breakthroughs annually, the scientific ones, and the arts. Nobel, respected as it is, today celebrates the talkers more than the doers.

Michael Jackson’s death not only cheated Farrah of her big day, but more tragically denied major news reports around the globe of any coverage.

The froth that’s all around us has a fun and frivolous side in the sense of entertainment. I’m not trying to be an old stick in the mud about that. But when what’s essentially a dessert becomes not just the entrée but also the meat and potatoes main course, I start to worry.

This costs those of us seeking to uncover and present ideas that will resonate over time, that are meaningful and can add value beyond the Gen Y style aspirations of 15 minutes of fame on YouTube.  It’s a phenomenon that also costs us culturally: Gen Y and younger are growing up with a different understanding of celebrity. They live in a world (which may be that of OK Magazine or just in their head) where “famous for being famous” is seen as better than “famous for something important”.

I say it’s time for brands to start associating themselves with real talent rather than dressing themselves up with what’s little more than decorative tinsel – and about as long lasting.

Instead of a watch brand having the latest James Bond actor or Brad Pitt as its personality, why not a designer, inventor or philosopher? Imagine Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci or Marie Curie as the brand personality. What would happen if instead of a hair brand using Sarah Jessica Parker who is famous for being Sarah Jessica Parker, they chose a leading athlete in the way Nike has done with Maria Sharapova?

We’re in a world where content is about consumer engagement, but where ‘fun’ doesn’t have to mean ‘tacky’ and ‘memorable’ doesn’t have to mean ‘in your face’.

Yes, brands must play a role in getting us to notice and understand what’s meaningful about a product or service offering.  But the people who are responsible for brands and all that comes with that role, need to ask themselves what meaning are they really attaching to something when a campaign features a celebrity superstar to ask us to eat more nutritious meals.

Don’t we want to try to create enduring importance for brands – surround ourselves with stuff that’s meaningful? That doesn’t have to equate with being dry and stuffy.

Thus, while the rest of the world is following the paparazzi in a daze, the opportunity is there for smart marketers and brands to surround themselves with information that’s liberating. That might mean going somewhere entirely new beyond the current wave of celebrity endorsement because isn’t it getting very tired?  This is the time for marketers to grasp the nettle, prove they are innovators and chart a new course. That might mean separating the wheat (Paris, France) from the chaff (Paris Hilton).

That old ad man David Ogilvy got it right when he wrote his famous Rolls Royce ad. The headline simply said, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the electric clock” with an image of the car. That ad had meaning, resonance, memorability and truth and huge impact – all without a famous guy in sight.

Kevin Federline, your time is up.

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