My friend Mikol and I kinda sorta snuck into the Ted Conference a couple of years back (2001, I think it was.) Okay, we didn't exactly sneak, we got temporary guest passes (a friend of ours was presenting that year.) But.. and this is how stupid I was.. I didn't really realize what a big deal THE TED CONFERENCE was.
Hell, it was in Monterey. I'd been to a couple crappy ThunderLizard conferences there before, and I guess I just assumed guilt by association. (In my defense, our friend who was presenting is notorious for downplaying the extremely effin' rad achievements in his life... all that Mikol and I knew was “yeah, I'm speaking at a conference in Monterey. Come on down and we'll get Indian food or something.”)
As I recall, we got quite a skeptical reception by the organizers when we showed up to sign in for our guest passes. I suspect that guest passes are not a request that the TED conference typically humors. Hell, attendance is northwards of $4,000 and, even then, they have to screen people out. (And we were probably looking a little scruffy, too.)
But I suspected that this was no crappy thunderlizard production when I saw people totin' some pretty high-powered schwag around. Gift bags with Palm Pilots and decent cameras and, and... real stuff. Like, crap you'd want to get at a conference! I wish I could remember in more detail exactly what attendees got, but.. as you can guess.. my guest pass might've gotten me through the door (for the morning only, did I mention that?) but it sure as hell wasn't gonna score me one of those sweet goody-bags.
We finally knew something was up when we found our way to the main auditorium.. it was right in the middle of a break so we grabbed some decent seats. Our friend would be on later, so we settled in. I'm talking to Mikol as the crowd returns to their seats. I casually turn to my right... and say 'hi' to Jeff Bezos.
As Martha Stewart takes the podium.
She spoke about 'Life as a Brand.' Martha, at the time (this would've been about 2 years for the DOJ investigation, and 3 years before her prison stint) was one of a handful of persons in the world who's also recognized as a multinational brand, Martha Stewart Enterprises. (Which has since been renamed 'Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.)
She spoke of the realities of living life in the public eye, when her life - and the way that she chose to live it - could have such an impact on the bottom line of her company. Does your company suffer for opinions you might have? Actions you might take? How will the company go on once you're no longer able to? (I'd like to say that she ended her talk by defiantly waving her fist at the crowd and shouting “No comeuppance, d'you hear me? There will be no comeuppance!” But of course she didn't. That was Homer Simpson.)
Of course, Martha thought that these were all rhetorical questions at the time. How could she know that, within a span of months, she'd find out the very real answers to all of these questions, and then some.
But I remember being kind of vaguely... turned off by the whole thing. It all seemed so vain at the time. But I wonder now if the strain of carrying that responsibility around wasn't starting to wear on Martha. Did it lead her to make some questionable decisions in the months ahead?
Then, as now, there were a handful of other 'living brands'.. Oprah Winfrey. Donald Trump. Maybe Richard Branson, although .. really. What exactly does that guy do anyway? At least Martha can make wonderful little boxing gloves out of broccoli florets. Rosie O'Donell made a stab at it, until the whole 'lesbian haircut' incident shook some sense into her.
But Martha's observations then are, I think, just as relevant now. If anything, the notion of the 'Personality as brandable commodity' is only growing, and whole rank of 'Junior brands' are swelling the ranks: Ty Pennington (for Sears!); Rachel Ray; Dr. Phil. All out there pushing to build not just notoriety but whole dang enterprises around themselves and their winning personalities.
But the latest trend? The Personality-as-Umbrella brand. Oprah excels at this, and has actually spawned second-and-third-order 'spinoff brands.' So here's how it works...
Oprah basically created Dr. Phil. Took some hiccuping hilljack from Texas, called him 'Doctor' and made him a star. But I wonder to what extent Oprah's promotion of Dr. Phil made sense to her business, from a brand perspective. What market or demographic does he appeal to, that enhances their connection to Oprah by proxy? Isn't his brand a little too close to her own for comfort?
I know the tabloids like to make much of the 'Oprah is feuding with Dr. Phil' thing, but.. when I look at the semi-cool nature of their public relationship today (Oprah hasn't, for instance, appeared on his show like she did her new ingénue, Rachael Ray recently) I wonder: is there too much overlap between their brand appeal? Self-help, uplifting, 'get real' bladdah-bladdah... Oprah manifested her tulpa and -- as these things do -- it's now turned to threaten her.
But all is not a loss! No indeed: she still makes an ass-ton of money off of his show (which is, after all, a Harpo Production); and she's learned. That she can make a star, and launch a brand. Even from the crudest of materials.
So she's working on a new crop.. These ones seem better-chosen. More junior, less seasoned than the wiley ol' snakehandler Phil McGraw. Less likely to put up a fight (and carefully chosen to enhance the primary Oprah-brand:
- Handyman Nate Berkus is hunky-but-gay (but.. did I mention, handy!) He appeals to all demographics: straight, gay, male, female, or anyone who aspires to handle a hammer or hang a piece of wallpaper. And he is definitely Oprah's bitch, no worries there.
- Rachael Ray is being groomed to eventually knock Martha off her domestic throne, but I worry that Rachael's unrelenting abrasiveness will be her undoing. Her daytime show makes me pine for Tony Danza.
- Recently I've noticed that Lisa Ling has somehow entered Oprah's orbit. She provides some much-needed 'authority' to Oprah's lineup (with her 'real newswoman' aspirations -- here she's (barely) covering the Golden Globes.) Late of The View, Lisa seems to be a bit of a perpetual “brand-intern”, first nurturing at the teat of grand-dame news-brandie Barbara Walters.
- And finally... the one potential troublemaker in the bunch is Oprah's longtime BFF Gayle King. It seems that Oprah is finally taking some steps to push Gayle's brand into the spotlight lately (first with that “um... okay?” press conference to announce their, like total not-gayness, then with the frito-feet smells and chilly radio-control stare-downs of their cross-country Big Adventure.)
Oprah has, thankfully, eased up a bit on the literary brand-brokering, after the whole James Frey debacle.
And what's Dr. Phil been doing while all this is going on? Why, of course, he's building out his own little sub-branded umbrella empire. With Phil, though, it's all about the nepotism. First his goony son had a couple of books and, I think, a show of his own. (He seems to have settled for a Playboy playmate trophy-wife.) Now Phil's wife Robin has a book out ('Inside My Heart') and is poised to extend the brand even further. Ah, there's so much more to cover here, but it's late and I'm tired...