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Brand Magic: the Anti-Brand Cometh

Op Ed by Liz Nickles

August 12, 2021

I remember going to an opera rehearsal that the great Maestro Sir Georg Solti was conducting. Pavarotti was singing. Pavarotti rolled onto the stage with a huge cooler full of drinks and food, which he kept onstage during the performance. I was told he actually sometimes ate during the performance. He sat in an oversized chair, like a throne, that was not in the script, but he demanded. He also had a large white cloth which he waved around and mopped himself with. Solti kept muttering darkly about these accoutrements, which he felt were unnecessary dramatics. I eventually asked him why he put up with it. He said it was because Pavarotti was a great maestro with a talent, which - -and I don’t know if this was actually true, but he said-- did not come from formal music education and training, but was like a natural instrument in his throat, which overcame and surpassed anything rational and made an emotional connection with the listener to the point where, when he was singing, nobody noticed or cared about anything else. Marilyn Monroe could turn the magic on or off at will. Truman Capote wrote about how he once was walking with Marilyn down 5th Avenue. Nobody noticed her. He commented about that. She said, “Want to see me be ’Marilyn’? “ She shifted something internally and within half a block, they were mobbed. Those are examples of Brand Magic at its best. Charisma? What charisma is, is real, unmanufactured Brand Magic: the instant and enduring emotional connection.

On the other hand, rational presentations of products or people are quantitative and can come off like a brochure, a walking, talking list of features. At a certain point, people stop listening and it all sounds the same. In a world that is increasingly led by technology, technical superiority is not enough. Nike did not list the features of their shoes. They said, “Just do it” and that changed the game. People speculate on how Donald Trump got into the presidency. Among other things-- Trump got into office via a perception among his constituents of being the “Just Do It” candidate. The problem arises when the Magic is manufactured.

Real Brand Magic can’t be manufactured, but it can be harnessed for good (Mother Teresa) or bad (Hitler), or politically (JFK—a not always good guy, often personally outrageous; his brilliant widow papered over everything with the glittering Camelot brand). When introduced, Apple was an inferior brand, rationally, to IBM. Steve Jobs knew he could not compete on the features list, so he had his computer say “Hi” when you turned it on. You can have wonderful features, but without an emotional component to your brand, it won’t matter. If you make an emotional connection with your brand, you are bulletproof. That is why a mystifying number of individuals who are jerks and often do nothing, or worse, can remain fixtures in leadership roles. Henry VIII was basically a serial killer in a crown. His wives were the least of it. During the 36 years of his rule, he ordered the executions of over 57,000 people. Yet his brand remains one of an overweight imperial rogue. Once you have it, it’s hard to kill Brand Magic—but if you have drifted from its roots, relying on an overmarketed Frankenbrand—you’re on a collision course.

Branding has always been part of humanity, so we’d better recognize it and harness it. And understand it so we are armed to make the best decisions, to challenge the Magic and make the authentic connection. In the end, manufactured Magic won’t hold up. This is where Gens Y, Z and Alpha are stepping up, and the Game Change begins. Their values have shifted from those of their predecessors. At the recent Olympics, several young superstars stepped away from their megabrand sponsors to make personal, emotional choices—in the global spotlight.

The Anti-Brand cometh.

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