Miley, Justin, and Personal Branding

Miley, Justin, and Personal Branding

Miley Cyrus got the world talking, but did she strengthen her brand?  It depends.
Miley Cyrus got the world talking, but did she strengthen her brand? It depends.
I didn’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards last night. I spent the evening listening to old ragtime music on YouTube. But like a man sheltered safely underground while the tornado passes over, eventually one has to come out and walk through the wreckage. So this morning, like many Americans, I turned on the television and the computer and got a massive, if filtered, retelling of the award show escapades.

Of course the Miley Cyrus “performance” at the MTV awards was the lead story in multiple outlets. This week we’ll see plenty of editorializing about this young woman’s choices and what they say about her, her family, and the culture in which she has achieved her notoriety. For now, though, let’s just look at two elements of the MTV Video Music Awards and consider what they mean for brands.

The obvious story is the Miley Cyrus story. Her hyper-sexualized attire and movement got her in the news, probably in exactly the way she intended. Like Lohan, GaGa, Madonna, and a long line of others going back to time immemorial, she is happy to be discussed regardless of the content of the discussion. Her brand is (currently) built on notoriety and shock value. Rather than being damaged by the incident and the disapproving headshakes of commentators including myself, her brand is probably being strengthened in the eyes of her target audience. However, it will take a constantly increasing level of shock value to break through the ever shorter and more desensitized attention spans of that audience. Whether her body and her psyche are resilient enough to withstand that in the long term remains to be seen. We all know that this kind of behavior has limits and eventually, those limits will be reached.

Was she amazing? In my model, she didn’t demonstrate an overt expertise, and she didn’t exploit any hidden properties of natural laws. She didn’t demonstrate an inexplicable connection with the thoughts of others, or the ability to predict the future. What she did – and what all shock performers do – is break the conventional norms. The spectacle of contradicting normal processes and accepted social mores is engaging, even though in this case it was done in a superficial way. So her act may have qualified as amazing on that basis, but because the message associated with that amazing act is questionable, the effect on her brand in the eyes of the public at large is mixed at best. In other words, that “twerking” is basically a conjunction for “not working.”

Why JT Got It Right

Justin Timberlake touched on two kinds of amazing and elevated his brand.
Justin Timberlake touched on two kinds of amazing and elevated his brand.
The other big story from the VMAs, though, was Justin Timberlake. His performances managed to break through much of the Miley Cyrus noise to get some positive press.

Was Justin Timberlake amazing? He demonstrated quality skills and expertise, and he appealed to nostalgia by putting together a (somewhat) unexpected reunion with N-Sync. By reuniting a group that doesn’t officially exist anymore, he tapped into the “impossible experience” and gave people a fleeting taste of something they can’t really have anymore. He touched on two kinds of amazing – expertise and mystery – and elevated his brand in the process.

Contrast this approach with that of Miley Cyrus, who gave people a look at everything and practically begged the audience to take it.

Which approach elevated the brand more effectively? Which approach diminished the brand?

Be amazing, but for heaven’s sake, be careful!

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