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The 5 Tenets of Personal Branding (Just Ask Madonna)

Madonna has not done everything right in her career. But when she started out, she had the magic.

Unlike any other musical artist of her time, Madonna understood that singing a song successfully has nothing to do with musical prowess. Nor is it about stirring emotion. It is not even about showing off as an entertainer.

Rather, in the age of branding, successful singing is about building a personal brand that translates out of singing into just about any other realm where the brand fits. That personal brand is established by telling a good story.

MTV was born in 1981 – I remember raptly watching “Video Killed The Radio Star” when it debuted – and Madonna’s 1984 “Borderline” debut took the art of the video beyond standing on a stage singing. She exemplified what it meant to be a video music star – a star in general – a great personal brand.

“Borderline” tells the story (fictional, but it feels authentic) of Madonna as a newly discovered star, torn between ruthless ambition and love. With this and her other early videos, Madonna established the tenets of personal branding:

·       Be authentic without oversharing and always maintain control - Madonna obviously does this by putting herself out there, while always holding something back – she weaves a spell and draws you into it.

·       Change frequently enough to keep the audience interested, but weave a core theme throughout the various faces of the brand – Madonna has clearly evolved her persona repeatedly throughout more than two decades.

·       Represent something unique and different that also has roots in contemporary pop culture – in Madonna’s case a version of L.A. street style.

·       Experiment boldly and abandon what flops – I did not like every early video, and fast-forwarding to other projects there have been other bad moves – but she picks herself up and keeps going.

·       Incorporate spirituality or social good into the message – early on, with “Like a Prayer,” one could see Madonna’s religious faith clearly on display. She distinguished between the pretense of religion and the actuality of spirituality, particularly holding up the African-American community as a source of deep connection with G-d.

Madonna is endlessly interesting to me, even today, even after making bad movies and dubious fashion lines with her daughter. She is into Kabbalah, adopting disadvantaged children, and generally cares about the world.

Madonna is also deep. She was quoted on the news the other day, responding to Lady Gaga, and said something like: “I have no response because I don’t know if her obsession with me is profound or superficial.” Somebody who says things like that is careful with her words, respectful of her audience. Evolved.

Contrast Madonna with Britney Spears, a very pale version of Madonna. Britney, whose music I love and whose videos are artistic accomplishments in their own right, appears to me to be a young person with an interesting personal brand that has been created, commercialized, and exploited by many other people. I think she is incredibly talented, and that the brand that has been created for her works, but it is not hers. Unfortunately, she seems sheltered, lost and out of control of her own message. This was very clear to me watching this year’s Video Music Awards, when she appeared dazed and to be reading off the teleprompter.

And then there is Lady Gaga. At first I dismissed her as even more superficial than Britney Spears. But then I realized, first, that Britney is not superficial. She is tortured. But we don’t get to see that side of her – the complexity of her inner conflict – because it is kept hidden from the rest of the world, except when she explodes.

Similarly, Lady Gaga is also tortured, particularly about gender, relationships, etc. I remember reading an interview with her where she explained that she tended to get into bad relationships, and that she was afraid she would lose her creativity if she got close with someone. I don’t see that tension in her music or her videos at all. They are so elaborate, but so dead. “The wheel is turning,” but where is the hamster?

On the VMAs this year Lady Gaga appeared as her “alter ego,” a man, and she made Britney Spears very nervous onstage because she kept the joke going for too long (she tried to kiss her). It was clear to me, at that moment, that I was seeing something of the real Lady Gaga, something also hidden away, not used or referred to for the personal brand. And the omission of the complexity hurts her brand terribly, making her look much more superficial than she is.

And then she gave a short speech about sexuality – saying that whatever you are, you are fine. And I realized that Lady Gaga’s brand is about being “Born This Way,” but she never talks about it. Which is why her music, though brilliant in its way, is also such a letdown.

The bottom line for personal branding, as always, is that you have to find a balance between being real but also being interesting, unique, and in touch with your audience – and do all of this while maintaining sufficient control to commercialize the formula. Madonna can’t do it anymore, but there are others today who can – most notably reality stars like the Kardashians and Snooki.

The great thing about a personal brand is that nobody else can duplicate it. Products, services, processes and technologies all can be copied. Even culture can be copied. But a person’s unique sense of self can never be.

The bad thing is that a compelling personal brand is also fleeting, because it is tied to place and time. If you happen to have a good one, find the place where you can make the most use of it, and then go for it. Take that fifteen minutes of fame while you can.

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here

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