Miley Cyrus Inc.’s Branding Tips

Originally posted October 28, 2013 by @DanSanker, President & CEO of CaseStack Inc.

While talking heads are still busy squawking about Miley Cyrus’ wild MTV Video Music Awards performance of Sunday night, the celebrity is moving on.

Cyrus’s performance was, in some ways, one of the most graphic and raunchy performances ever aired on MTV – and that says a lot. Rightfully so, there will be plenty of indignation and heated discussion about the new lows for pop culture.

To me, it just looked like a corporate rebranding exercise. From a branding perspective, her team probably saw no place in pop culture for a 20-year-old Disneyesque character. Good, bad, or indifferent – the Cyrus team decided to take matters into their own hands and radically rebrand.

A few rebranding notes:

Planning is Crucial – From the part of the MTV event that I watched, it looked somewhat accidental in the first few minutes. But, as you add the perspective of the pre- and post-event activities, it becomes crystal clear that Miley, Inc. was very in-control. The lead-up, the event and the post-game were all part of an elaborate plan. Branding isn’t accidental.

The Venue Matters – In this particular case, the actor planned to make radically inappropriate moves that would invariably insult her previous audience. If you are going to go there; at least choose an appropriate venue. Drinking and gambling scenes might be insulting, but they’re less insulting when you see them in a bar or at a casino. In Miley’s case, she butchered decorum, but at least she did it on MTV.

Learn from the Past – In business, it is always good to look for analogies. You can learn a lot from them. If you study other attempts in your field, you can learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s hard to watch Miley and not think she studied some Madonna footage.

Build on What You’ve Got – The Hannah Montana brand was powerful to its target audience – a huge demographic. Unfortunately, it looks like the Miley, Inc. team couldn’t figure out how to leverage the brand, so they just plucked out the platform – like regenerating from stem cells. They took the fame, added some shock & awe, and established a new brand position. As a student of brands and as a parent of young children, I would have been a lot more impressed if they kept the old brand equity and built on it. For most businesses, the Cyrus approach isn’t feasible. You usually don’t have that much fame, and you usually don’t want to use the crassness of shock. Obviously her and her people weren’t able to think of a way to leverage her old brand.

Relevance Matters – Miley’s Hannah Montana brand is still relevant, but not for her. So, she found a new brand that seems to have perpetual relevance in pop culture. A recent business example – JC Penney did the opposite. Ron Johnson saw looming brand irrelevance, but he replaced it with a new equally irrelevant brand. He misread what shoppers wanted, didn’t test his ideas, alienated core shoppers, and offered up an irrelevant replacement identity. In contrast, Miley killed Hannah, but she found a relevant new position.

Go Big or Go Home – Small changes to brands are a lot less disruptive and a lot less risky. But, evolving a brand can be even more difficult than creating a new one. Sometimes it’s easier to tear down a house and build a new one than it is to remodel an old one. If you really can’t think of a way to salvage the charm of the existing infrastructure, break out the bulldozers. Make sure there’s no going back. Miley torched Hannah Montana. It reminded me of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects (also rated R; also inappropriate for children).

Frankly, I think they could have salvaged the old brand and built on top of it. People want authenticity, and this new Miley brand looks contrived.

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