I’m in a horrible position. I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about a snake-hipped minor celebrity with bird’s nest hair who boasts about his ladykilling status. I’m talking about comedian Russell Brand, who last week lost his job at the BBC after a phone prank. Whether you believe he deserves it or not, the tale has a lesson or two for marketers.
You see, this is not really a story about Brand or his bedmates at the BBC; it’s a tale of a certain mood pervading British culture that will have a dramatic effect on brands and businesses.
Let’s look at the story that started me thinking about the issue. Brand and fellow presenter Jonathan Ross made some ill-advised calls to actor Andrew Sachs’ answerphone on Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show. Brand claimed to have slept with Sachs’ granddaughter, a burlesque dancer who goes by the name of Voluptua.
Since the radio show was broadcast, the BBC has received more than 30,000 complaints about the incident. Brand has quit the corporation and Ross has been suspended without pay. Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown has seen fit to pass comment on the affair.
The furore might seem like overkill to many of us wondering if we’ll have a job in six months’ time. Out in the real world, the economy is plunging into recession, food and fuel costs are rising again and corporate restructures are aplenty. Does a crass joke deserve so much attention?
Ironically, the state of the world is exactly why there has been such an outcry. The real issue at stake here is consumers feeling contempt for those who are benefiting while others suffer.
People feel they are being ripped off at every turn. BP has posted quarterly profits of $10bn (£6.2bn) when most people are struggling to fill up their cars. The head of Lehman Brothers, which acted as a catalyst for a global shares plunge when it collapsed, had received about $300m (£185m) in bonuses since 2000.
I would argue that anger about Jonathan Ross’ salary – reportedly £18m over three years – has a lot more to do with this zeitgeist rage than anything else. He is employed by the BBC, which is funded by consumers paying their licence fees. People resent someone funded with their millions gratuitously offending old men while they worry about the next mortgage payment.
All of which throws up a few valuable lessons for brands. First, think carefully about using a celebrity to sell your products. A year ago, when we all aspired to designer handbags despite our non-designer salaries, famous faces summed up our hopes and dreams. Now many consumers just see rich, spoilt individuals being paid too much for doing too little.
Tesco, never knowingly behind the times, has already announced that due to the “mood of the nation”, it will not be running ads crammed with celebrities this Christmas (MW last week). Last year’s festive ad starring the Spice Girls was rumoured to have cost at least £5m. This time, Tesco will be telling consumers about what “value” they can get by shopping at the retailer.
Second, if you absolutely must use a celebrity to push products, be honest. This is not a time for playing tricks on consumers; they already believe that financial institutions have played around with their money and they aren’t in the mood for stunts.
Earlier this year, the Indian media reported that actor and ambassador for Pond’s cosmetics Arbaaz Khan and his wife of ten years, actress Malaika Arora Khan, were divorcing. The separation was revealed to be an elaborate publicity drive for the brand when a new product was promoted on the back of the Khans’ “remarriage”.
This is just bad marketing. The Khans were seen as role models for happy marriage at a scary time for many families with rising costs and unemployment. Pond’s sales have not benefited to say the least.
Back in the UK, I would also question the wisdom of supermarket Iceland sticking with its spokeswoman – former pop star Kerry Katona – in this climate. The partnership has endured because Katona’s tabloid persona – best summed up as “the mum who has overcome” – has always appealed to the chain’s customers.
But now it seems inappropriate for a retailer for cash-conscious families to be represented by a woman so profligate with her spending that she has been declared bankrupt. Katona represents a credit-happy Britain that doesn’t exist anymore. If Iceland can use this situation to tell a story that resonates with other people in Katona’s financial situation, then great. If not, it needs to move on.
Ultimately, brands – not just snake-hipped Russell – need to demonstrate to people that they are part of the same world as their consumers. They too are feeling the pain of economic slowdown, they too would like to get more bang for their buck and that they are trustworthy recipients of our hard-earned cash.