Wednesday, July 11

Branding Public Figures: Tom Cruise

I’ve been working on a mathematically provable brand theory for the last few months and Nicole Sperling’s article on Tom Cruise that appears in the July 13 edition of Entertainment Weekly provided a pretty good public figure example of its most basic (but not complete) premise.

She points out that Cruise’s brand used to be all about his boyish charm turned “rugged good looks, flashy smile, and three Oscar nominations.” But then something happened, starting just prior to the release of Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds (photo above).

Cruise’s increasingly visible dedication to the controversial beliefs that accompany Scientology has produced brand instability and disastrous results. Most recently, on June 25, the German Ministry of Defense announced that “it did not want him to film United Artists’ upcoming WWII movie Valkyrie at the country’s Bendlerblock war memorial” because, according to ministry spokesman Harald Kammerbauer, Tom Cruise is affiliated with a cult.

The ministry has since backtracked, now saying their decision has “nothing to do” with Cruise being a Scientologist. Likewise, Cruise has made the case that he is always an actor first and foremost. Hmmm… neither statement seems very credible and there is a very simple explanation that fits in within the aforementioned theory, which we might call the “Fragile Brand Theory.”

The Fragile Brand Theory accepts the definition that a brand is the net sum of all positive and negative impressions of the subject, Cruise in this case, and then breaks it all down into something that resembles an atom.

Imagine Cruise (the person, not the brand) is like a nucleus that represents the reality of Cruise. It doesn’t really matter what this reality is because people will generally accept realities regardless of what they are, which is why very, very different public figures usually succeed (whether you like them or not): Rush Limbaugh, Paris Hilton, John Edwards, John McCain, Al Gore, etc. Really, it doesn’t matter who any of these people really are because while the nucleus is related to and can be impacted by a brand, it is not the brand.

Unlike the nucleus, brands are reliant on the collective public’s perception about people, products, and companies. As mentioned, they are the net sum of positive and negative impressions. Using the atom illustration, they might look like layers of electrons that circle the nucleus, with the strongest, most authentic electrons being closest to the nucleus, and those that are “made up” or “stretched” being the furthest from it. When too many electrons are too far from the nucleus, the more likely a brand will become unstable, collapse, or be ripped apart.

In a case study of Cruise, the 1995 off-screen Cruise brand came close to mirroring the image of the much-loved character Jerry Maguire (and most characters Cruise portrayed before that). He was a somewhat private but daring actor who, despite being overconfident at times (the classic pride comes before a fall syndrome so many of his characters endure), always managed to better himself and triumph in the face of insurmountable odds.

That is a very different brand than the post-2005 Cruise brand we see today. Now, most of his impressions seem to suggest an arrogant and impulsive actor who frequently uses his fame to argue controversial topics if not create controversy while promoting beliefs grounded in Scientology. Actor first? We think not.

Regardless of how you feel about Cruise, Scientology, his relationship with Katie Holmes (including the Oprah brouhaha), or his war against certain prescription medication (which was at least half right as supported to the extreme by John Travolta), the Fragile Brand Theory suggests whoever the real Cruise is (1995 or 2005) doesn’t matter. What matters is that current public opinion is a reaction to the realization that the 1995 brand they loved is apparently very different from the reality that seems to be.

Generally, if the majority of all electrons remain close to the nucleus, they are more likely to remain in place, creating an extremely strong brand that can withstand anything. But when the majority of all electrons are revealed to be too far away from the nucleus (or in contrast to the existing brand), it becomes unstable.

In other words, if Cruise always acted like he has over the last two years, recent events would hardly be considered controversial let alone impact his career. But, since he has not always acted like this (at least that is the perception), he is suffering from brand instability.

Personally, I don’t really know whether the old Cruise or new Cruise is the real Cruise, but what I do know is that the Fragile Brand Theory demonstrates why a public figure like Britney Spears will always find public sympathy after countless train wrecks and public figures like Mel Gibson will always receive public scorn over a single drunken outburst. En masse, the public does not like it when public figures do not meet brand expectations. (Eg. the Paris Hilton brand can go to jail, but she’s not allowed to cry over it.)

Or perhaps this provides a better example: Rosie O’Donnell can run amok at the mouth because we expect it; Oprah, on the other hand, has to be a bit more cautious as she presents herself to be a grounded and trusted advisor.

In sum, one of the most basic concepts within the Fragile Brand Theory suggests it is more important to stick with your brand choice — whether you choose a halo or horns — than the choice you make.

Of course, you also might want to keep in mind that if your brand is more made up than real, sooner or later, it will collapse under the sheer weight of contrary actions or be pulled apart by unanswered accusations made by more credible sources. It also assumes you or your consultants know how to brand from the inside out; sadly, many say that they can, but most cannot.



Rich on 7/11/07, 5:28 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

Using William Arruda and Kirsten Dixson's personal online brand calculator (hat tip to Steve Rubel), I plugged in Tom Cruise's infromation and this is how it scored him:

"Sorry, you are digitally disastrous. There is a lot of information about you on the Web, but it has little relevance to what you want to express about yourself. This can be a challenge since it can be difficult to get irrelevant information to disappear."

You can try it at Career Distinction Online Identity Calculator on yourself too.

Unknown on 7/11/07, 6:40 PM said...

Hey Rich,

I laughed when reading your article, only because it is true.

I think this applies to most celebrities or public figures. I wonder if it because they are under a certain microscope that they feel the need to change their "brand". I just think in their line of work, they would have to.. because the audience changes.

You could argue that's based on the individual on how they perceive their brand. It works for companies too doesn't it? You always have to be competitive. It's hard to remain, as you were 5-10 years ago.. You can say that Tom Cruise has accomplished a lot over through his decades of acting.. with or without a tarnished brand. He's able to keep up with the competition, young and old.

Sweet Tea on 7/12/07, 9:48 AM said...

Here's mine:

"You are digitally dabbling. There is some on-brand information on the Web about you, but you need to work to build your volume of relevant results. Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Read Chapter 11 of Career Distinction to learn how to build your brand in bits and bytes."
Rather have mine than Tom's.

Rich on 7/12/07, 12:54 PM said...

Hey Ruth and JS,

Yes, the Fragile Brand Theory applies to all brands, not just celebrities (or individuals). In Tom Cruise's case, I think a couple things happened. His separation from Nicole Kidman forced him to start creating a public presence for himself (never mind that you never want to try to build one after you are in a crisis).

As he become more public, it seems his image conflicted with the reality (he seems so human!).

Personally, I agree that too many people place a lot of emphasis on his beliefs, but it seems to be party his fault after targeting psychology. Don't get me wrong, since I live in a market where it is estimated that almost one third of our adults and a quarter of our children are medicated, I agree with that portion of his argument and was happy to see someone said what needed to be said.

However, given his position mirrors Scientology, what needed to be said and what was good for his brand were two totally different things. Sadly, the more public you become, the more you have to think about what you really want or need to say.

And JS, as far as your score, that is exactly were you want to be. And yes, it is not only better than Cruise, but several online personalities I mentioned today. Congrats!

All my best,

Chaffee Street Cafe` on 7/12/07, 11:01 PM said...

My view is that once an actor has earned a certain amount of money, they feel it's okay to open their mouth without using a script. Their personal opinions surface and suddenly there is a brain behind the image. When actors leave it til this late to make a point, their faux pax has a lot more impact and draws the public's attention. Be it good or bad.

"Sleeping Kitten - Dancing Dog!"

Rich on 7/14/07, 12:56 PM said...

Hey Theresa,

I don't know if this applies to Cruise or not, but there are certainly many celebrities it does apply to, especially any who happen to one day play the role of an elected official.

All my best,

Rich on 9/23/07, 5:31 PM said...

More words:

After all the publicity, the German government changed its mind. Cruise is quieter than ever.

Anonymous said...

Not a great actor. Not bad. Good looking certainly.
But nuts.

What you do and who you are are separable.

Tom Cruise Photos on 8/6/10, 7:29 AM said...

What you write brings up an important point about Tom Cruise with regards to religious beliefs: It's not always popular to mix one's belief system with his/her career. I agree that it can take away form one's celebrity status.


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