Certain pillars of popular culture have shown an ability to make a living by exploiting their public perception. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call this phenomenon “Persona Marketing.” One of the simplest, yet most poignant definitions of Marketing I have heard in recent years is the following: “Marketing is the orientation of a firm around its customers.” Applying this definition to the concept of “Personality Marketing” can prove to be valid if read with just a bit of imagination. In “Persona Marketing” the firm is the public persona and the customers are the public who are active followers of popular culture. Now that we have the parameters for this discussion constructed, we can take a look at some examples. The three personalities discussed in the subsequent sections of this discussion will be; Gilbert Gottfried, Sean Connery, and Mike Tyson (an eclectic trio which, I believe I can safely say, have never been linked together in any coherent form).
Gilbert Gottfried’s first major break into show business was a 12 episode stint on Saturday Night Live, during the 1980-81 season. It may surprise those readers old enough to have seen these episodes that he was a cast member. While he was given a recurring character, Leo Waxman, his appearances were limited to say the least. During this period of his career Gottfried had yet to exploit the persona which has made him a recognizable, albeit often unbearable, public figure in popular American culture of the last twenty years. Not sure who he is? Think of the parrot on the Disney animated movie Aladdin whose voice sounded much like fingernails traversing their way down an elementary school black board.
Gottfried realized that he could stand out from the legions of comics of that period who were vying for the same limited amount of air-time by creating a unique persona. This persona would become much larger that Gilbert Gottfried the comedian. In fact, few people realize that Gottfried has a normal speaking voice when he is not in character. What he created was unique. That uniqueness, although abrasive to some, provided Gottfried with niche in the market place which he could exploit for profit. Thus, Gottfried oriented his firm (his persona) around a niche in the market place, and created a virtual monopoly around that niche.
Sir Sean Connery broke into popular culture when he first portrayed James Bond in the Terence Young film Dr. No, which was based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name. Rare is the man who, at some point in his life, has not dreamed of being a special agent like James Bond. Why not…when a seemingly endless supply of money, beautiful women and adventure are the cornerstones of a fictional super-agent’s life? Connery adapted the Bond character to screen perfectly, and created a character whose arrogance was sufficiently diluted through its likability. Without this likability, the Bond character would have been viewed as a womanizing playboy who selfishly acted in his own interests even when hundreds of thousands of lives hung in the balance; however, because the character was likable, Bond came across as an adventurous maverick that always saved the day and got the girl.
Connery played Bond in a total of seven Bond films, and, to many of us, was the epitome of what James Bond should be (sorry Roger Moore fans… but it’s really not even a close competition). Through the frequency of his appearances as Bond, and the quality of his performances, Connery’s public persona began to mirror Bond. Example: How many romantic comedies can you name that star Sean Connery? None. Rather, Connery found his next major works in the prohibition era classic, The Untouchables and then as Harrison Ford’s father in the brilliant Indiana Jones films (the first three… the last one was distasteful disgrace).
Connery found a strong brand and grew that brand through his subsequent career choices. Unlike the comedian who wishes to display his range by acting in a serious role or the Detroit car manufacturer who gets into the mortgage business, Connery did something better than anyone else and kept doing it and improving upon it. Of course this is not to say that exploration and expansion is a bad decision, rather, it is strategy that can reap grand rewards if implemented correctly. However, abandoning the core-competency of your brand can alienate your current consumers by aligning yourself with a principle or product that is contrary to the brand you have worked so diligently to develop. Connery oriented himself to the public as a rugged adventurer and continued to procure this orientation throughout his career which culminated in a brilliant portfolio of work and immense earnings.
I think we can all learn something from Iron Mike. He was a terror in the ring during the late 80s when he won his first 19 professional bouts by knock-out and defeated Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. With arguably the most lethal uppercut in the history of professional boxing, Tyson eliminated his opponents in mere seconds and developed a reputation as a competitor of unmatched ferocity. However, Tyson’s fall from grace was abrupt and severe; beginning when he was knocked out in 1990 by unranked Buster Douglas. Tyson attempted to regain his unified title in a series of battles with Evander Holyfield. Certainly, you remember how those turned out… Tyson lost the fight and Holyfield lost part of an ear.
The next few years saw Tyson involved in one PR and/or legal disaster after another; a bankruptcy, a charge of tax evasion, a rape conviction for which he spent time in prison, a face tattoo and various public comments such as “I am going to eat his children,” and “I would fight a tiger if they paid me enough,” (I am still waiting on the Tyson vs. Tiger match to come to fruition someday).
Ok…so why am I discussing Mike Tyson in a blog about marketing? Well, strangely enough, Tyson’s story provides the perceptive audience with a valuable lesson about turning around one’s fortune.
Tyson realized (with the help of a public relations army) that he could exploit the persona that he had developed over his career. With his boxing career stamped out by more talented and better prepared Lenox Lewis in 2002, and nearly broke, Tyson began to make cameos in popular TV shows and movies. Most famously, Tyson played himself in the 2009 comedy The Hangover and more recently, in the HBO series Entourage.
Mike Tyson is far from being out of financial trouble, but his cameos have gotten back into the public consciousness and will, undoubtedly, lead to more comedic roles and thus more earnings. The takeaway from his story is this; adapting to the cards you are dealt can be more profitable than sticking to a failing business plan. I think it is a safe assumption that Tyson’s boxing career was over long ago, and the novelty to his fights were already beginning to wear off even before his fight with Lenox Lewis. Staying with his original business plan, boxing, would have soon proved to be unprofitable, so Tyson adapted his orientation to his market and began to exploit the ferocious persona that he had developed through comedic cameos. This lesson is probably most valuable for small companies as their agility allows them to adjust to trends more rapidly than larger firms.
The three preceding examples show that some of the marketing practices public figures use to promote their personas parallel opportunities that are available to firms. Just a quick word of warning though… If you are going to emulate the Mike Tyson example, try not to gnaw on your competitor’s ear.