Like many people in Australia, I woke to the news today that music icon Michael Jackson had died of cardiac arrest.
While we can safely anticipate the wave of tributes, the flood of nostalgia and the slight discomfort we’re all likely to feel celebrating the musical achievements of a grown man who once hosted slumber parties for pre-teens (and monkeys), there is a legacy we should never forget.
I’m not talking about his one white glove, his ‘early-adoption’ of surgical masks or his ability to make zombies seem simultaneously camp and cool. No, I’m not talking about the moonwalk… the moonlight, the good times or the boogie.
I’m not even talking about his music.
The legacy Michael Jackson leaves behind is his unequivocal, life-long dedication to the power of publicity – a four-decade demonstration of media-mongering and manipulation as a tool to support his commercial interests.
Jackson is not dead and will never be while we have the following lessons to live by:
Develop a Personal Brand
Michael Jackson will forever be known as ‘The King of Pop’, in the same way that James Brown is the ‘God Father of Soul’ and BB King is ‘King of the Blues’. For those with a passion for trivia, the nickname was conceived by actress and friend Elizabeth Taylor when she presented Jackson with an “Artist of the Decade” award in 1989.
It’s perhaps better known that Jackon’s camp cultivated the expression and in 1994, when Jackson married Lisa-Marie – the daughter of Elvis Presley, the ‘King of Rock n Roll’ – the expression gained new levels of meaning.
While many entertainers employ this marketing staple, few have used personal branding to create a personal brand that has lasted decades.
A more recent application of this marketing rule was the creation of British pop-group ‘The Spice Girls’. The fivesome, popular in the 1990s, are still largely known as ‘Posh’, ‘Sporty’, Scary, ‘Baby’ and ‘Ginger’, despite the passage of time and their later careers.
Lesson #1: Create a brand that’s simple and reflects your core strengths.
Cultivate the Evolution of Your Brand
While the ‘King of Pop’ has proven ‘sticky’, so have other expressions used to describe the unconventional star. For example, “Whacko Jacko” was particularly popular in the Australian tabloid press (although less likely to be used in the near aftermath of his passing).
While this might have frustrated the singer at times, it’s again clear that Jackson and his crew exploited (and may initially have even engineered) his eccentricities.
In 1986, the tabloid press ran a story claiming that Jackson slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to slow the aging process; he was pictured lying down in a glass box. Although the claim was untrue, according to Wikipedia, Jackson disseminated the fabricated story himself. The singer was promoting his upcoming movie Captain EO and wanted to promote a science-fiction image of himself.
A more recent application of this rule was its use by actor Hugh Grant when arrested by California police in the company of escort Devine Brown. By ditching lead role status for bit parts as the ‘rogue-ish English gentleman’, Grant revived his career by simply accepting and cultivating the evolution of his brand.
Lesson #2: It’s impossible to control your brand 100% of the time. Watch it evolve and manage your brand accordingly.
Exploit Your Brand to Achieve Your Goals
When a person decides to enter the media spotlight, a difference between the real person and their public persona inevitably emerges.
When Derryn Hinch starred as the presenter of Channel 10’s current affairs program That’s Life in the 1980s, I always admired the way that this ‘journalist-turned-anchor’ could gather with his producers and devise new ways to upset the Australian public every day.
I have no doubt that those who know this similarly controversial media identity in his personal life will say that there are two Derryn Hinches stalking the planet. (The one on TV and radio, engineered to boost ratings, and the one known to his family and friends as fun loving and compassionate… and reasonable.)
In recent times, Jackson beat some very serious, reputation-damaging accusations (and some very hefty jail time), aided by people’s uncertainties surrounding his state of mind (and personal maturity).
His brand was clearly ‘elastic’ – in the same way that Virgin can produce airlines and cola-flavoured soft drinks.
Lesson #3: Create a brand that’s elastic and use its elasticity to exploit your goals.
In fact, while writing this post, it occurs to me that an entire book could be based around the life and times of Michael Jackson, as a 21st century P.T. Barnum – creative, passionate, provocative and able to make money hand-over-fist.
If only he’d worked out how to keep the spoils of his toils, rather than blow it on the likes of Ferris Wheels and freak-show remains (another rumour that Jackson helped cultivate), Jackson would be a real contender for ‘entrepreneur’ immortality.