Thursday, July 22, 2010

Meltdown Mel and the Rebuilding of a Celebrity Image

Mel Gibson provides us with one of the most interesting case studies of celebrity brand rehabilitation out there. Let's take a look at where he was, where he's at, and how he destroyed the various segments of his brand base. Ultimately, I’ll address the question is Mel's brand past the point of no return?

A Selective Chronology of Mel Gibson’s Career
Let's go back in time to 1985 when Deloreans allowed us to do this sort of thing. Mel Gibson was the toast of celebrity. He had been awarded People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive and he had the hottest actresses in Hollywood swooning over him by saying things like he's "the most gorgeous man I've ever met" (Sigourney Weaver). Indeed, the guy had the royal flush of looks. That's not a bad place to be to develop a gargantuan gaggle of female fans.

But Gibson had more than just a female fan base. His persona grew through the iconic characters that he played like Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapons) and Mad Max (Mad Max trilogy). These action characters grew Gibson's appeal with young men. In fact, in 2000, Gibson's star power was so universal and deep that he could drive blockbuster returns in action/dramas (the Patriot), romantic comedies (What Women Want), and animated family movies (Chicken Run). Let’s put this in a financial perspective. In 2000, the Patriot grossed $113 million, What Women Want $183 million, and Chicken Run $107 million. From my observations at IMDB, Gibson is only actor to be in 3 movies in one year that grossed over $100,000,000 each.

Of course, these numbers are impressive to any film producer and or studio exec. And if you are a good employee, as Gibson was, your bosses are your fans. So Mel made a lot of media moguls very happy- and a lot of the media moguls are Jewish. (Check out this fun article by Joel Stein on "Who Runs Hollywood".)

As we know, Mel Gibson was more than just an A plus-list actor- he was also a talent who could write, direct and produce epic films. Ask a group of guys what their favorite movies of all time are and I'll bet you'll hear "Braveheart" more than once. This movie champions the underdog and has contributed to some of the most inspiring moments in cinema. (YouTube clip - forward to 1:30) Through Braveheart, Gibson’s earned the respect and admiration of the artists in Hollywood and Braveheart was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and took home 5 Oscars including Best Director and Best Film.

Then of course, in 2004 Gibson did something totally off-the-wall. He produced the The Passion of the Christ. - a religious film with gritty levels of corporal punishment where the actors speak in Aramaic- a dead language. By Hollywood formula, this movie was doomed to fail. It was based on a religious theme, contained NC-17 level violence, was subtitled in an unusual language, and released in spring- traditionally a weak time for the box office. In spite of all of these "deficits", the film branded “A Mel Gibson Film: Passion of the Christ” became one of the top 15 best selling domestic box office movies of all times. Gibson's success in the box office was partly attributed to attracting a large Christian audience- a new and unlikely group of fans.

Gibson's personal life was also kind of cool. Gibson was rumored to be hard core partier, prankster on set and “an on the edge” kind of guy but he had also been married to the same woman for 28 years, a rarity in Hollywood where multiple divorces are the norm.(wiki) Even the Simpsons parodied America's love for Gibson and Marge felt a little randy thinking about Mel's fidelity and devotion to his family. In a way Gibson was like a wolf- as wild as he was he seemed to mate for life. This image clearly has a lot of sex appeal.

But all that began to unravel in 2006. Immediately before the release of Apocalypto, Gibson had a major meltdown. After being pulled over for drunk driving (12% blood alcohol level) in Malibu, Gibson called an arresting officer “sugar tits” and made his infamous insult to Jewish people. Gibson immediately had a PR team orchestrate a response: Issue an immediate apology, lie low to decrease the intensity of associations linking Gibson to racism and drunkenness, then beg for forgiveness from the Jewish community. Headlines about Gibson’s racism were extensive and the damage to the Gibson brand was particularly strong in Hollywood circles. Endeavor Agency founder Ari Emanuel wrote an open letter to the Hollywood community requesting Mel Gibson be blacklisted. Shock jock Howard Stern called Gibson "a filthy anti-Semite". Rob Reiner said that Gibson’s apology for his drunken remarks was not enough and Joan Rivers said that Mel Gibson "is an anti-Semitic son of a bitch. He should f’ing die!” (Wikipedia)

That being said, Gibson had several Hollywood defenders come to his side including the late Patrick Swayze, Jodie Foster and M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Downey Jr, and Richard Donner. These celebrities blamed Gibson's alcohol for Gibson's problematic behaviour.(Wikipedia)

Then in early 2009, paparazzi publshed photos of Gibson having an affair. In April of the same year, Gibson debuted his pregnant girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, at the premiere of X-Men (Times) and began divorce proceedings with his wife of 28 years. The divorce settlement was kept private but reports surfaced estimating Gibson's treasure between $800million and $1.2 billion. Gibson’s wife's share via the divorce settlement has been estimated around estimated at $470,000,000 with the couple sharing joint custody of their 7 children. (Australian, TMZ, BittennBound). But, Gibson's affair with Grigorieva was short lived. In April, 2010- the couple split after Grigorieva delivered Gibson's 8th child (People).

On July 12th, the first of series of professionally audio-recorded phone fights between Gibson and Grigorieva were released by Radar Online, an independent online entertainment magazine. These files ended up being cover stories on celebrity magazines, lead stories on news variety shows, and fodder for talk show banter. Far worse for Gibson is that the recordings make for excellent Internet consumption. The transcripts of Gibson’s rants are truly despicable and disgraceful but do not give justice to the intensity of hatred and anger that Gibson spews. You can listen to the alleged recordings here. Warning they are extremely fowl. (Censored Leak "Racist rant"; Uncensored "Angry Racist Rant", Uncensored Violent Rant If these tapes are indeed legit and non-doctored, Gibson has assaulted his girlfriend while holding their child, and slurred against Blacks, Hispanics and his girlfriend in venomous, toxic rages.

So what’s the point of the above chronology? The point is this- Gibson was the Hollywood hunk who could act, produce, and direct blockbusters in pretty much any genre. He was the guy who earned critical acclaim from his peers and lived the ultimate success story in art, business and family. And, he was the “edgy man” with one of the largest fan bases out there. Then he had 2 major meltdowns that stripped away his fan segments. Through his verbal abuse and alleged physical abuse of his girlfriend, he obliterated his female fan base; through his derogatory slurs against Jews, Blacks and Hispanics, he has enraged many in Hollywood, insulted those ethnic groups and offended the sensibilities of all people; through his adultery, Gibson betrayed his family; through his cursing, Gibson blasphemed his Passion viewers. In short, Mel's image stripped away pretty much every segment that loved him. In the process he was fired by his talent agency and is getting counselling from Britney Spears. Things do not look good for Gibson’s brand.

Should Mel Gibson be Rebuilt?
I am going to by-pass a lengthy discussion on the question Should Gibson’s career even be rebuilt? Even though ideologues make the case that society should not reward behavior like this, the reality is that many celebrities have done a lot of horrendous things and have come back. Alec Baldwin was caught on tape making menacing threats against his 14 year old daughter who he called “little pig”. Charlie Sheen’s been in hot water for multiple accounts of domestic violence. Michael Jackson had a litany of child molestation charges. But the grand-daddy of sick behaviour belongs to director Roman Polanski who was convicted of drugging and anally raping a 13-year-old girl. Yet, Polanski never served any criminal punishment for that despicable crime. Celebrity seems to create immunity to deviant behaviors.

Complexities of the Gibson image rebuild
The Gibson rebuild is more complex than other celebrity brand rebuilds for a few reasons. First, because of Passion of the Christ, Gibson was exposed as a practicing Catholic meaning that his recent behaviors are hypocritical. Hypocrisy adds a juicy nice news story dimension and makes forgiveness a lot less believable. Second, Gibson’s rants are tailor made for the Internet. Unlike the other transgressors, Gibson voice is all over MP3 files that are being virally spread over the internet. Third, Gibson already has done one Mae Culpa so a second one is less likely to be believed. There is a line in the movie Thank You for Smoking where the Captain (Duval) asks Nick Naylor (Eckhart) if he likes his work. Naylor responds, “Yes sir…if you can do tobacco, you can do anything.” Well, in PR, if you can rebuild Gibson, you can rebuild anything. Let’s dive into the best way to do it.

Perspectives on Mel Gibson image rebuild
Gibson is currently lying low and not making public statement. This is standard PR celebrity rebuild strategy. Defense of Gibson is being done by a 3rd party through the court system. Some of this may involve discrediting Grigorieva. In the meantime, the PR firm is collecting the facts, advising Gibson to keep out of the public eye. The next steps of the conventional strategy are:

1> Once the scope of the recordings has been ascertained, issue an apology to family, fans and take ownership of the rants. It is easy to believe that Gibson was under the influence of alcohol during some of these rants. Gibson the actor clearly has the ability to deliver a charmed “I’m sorry”.
2> Check into substance abuse rehabilitation, relationship therapy, and anger management classes.
3> Quietly settle a child support settlement with Grigorieva., if possible. Some would call this hush money.
4> Stay out of the public eye- and trouble for a couple of years. A sabbatical to one of Gibson’s islands could be one of the resting places.
5> Return to his trade using a big talk show circuit.

But there are a few glitches with this approach. First, the recordings are being leaked out one at a time and appear unlikely to stop. Furthermore, Gibson, who was clearly unaware that he was being recorded, has no idea how many more recordings remain or what might be on the subsequent recordings. This makes the “I’m sorry” defense positioning much trickier. I will argue here that the ongoing recording leakages are calculated and orchestrated to exhibit maximum damage to the Gibson image. The ongoing leaks that link Gibson to violence and racism are going to be harder to shake. It appears that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned– especially when she teams up with Radar Online. Second, Gibson’s already had a major Mea Culpa and has already burned a tremendous amount of goodwill with media friends, colleagues, and his public. In other words, a radical, non traditional approach is necessary for the Gibson rebuild.

So, while Gibson has his lawyers defending his financial interests, family interests, and honor in the court system and has detectives examining illegal recording of phone conversations, extortion etc., here are a few much less conventional PR brand image rehab approaches.

Get on a popular sitcom... Rather than lying low, Mel Gibson’s should increase his visibility. That’s right- Gibson ought to do the exact opposite of what conventional publicists, agents and managers will be recommending. While Gibson’s recordings continue to drip out like Chinese water torture, Gibson should be making a guest appearances in some tv shows. If Gibson appeared on, say 2 and a Half Men, Gibson will be appearing in a popular comedy which will help take some edge off of his angry, abusive image. Viewers frequently spill television/movie characters’ persona on to the actor himself (the argument I made about how Gibson attracted his male fan base) and a likeable character can return some Gibson goodwill. Furthermore, Gibson would be staring alongside Charlie Sheen who is himself going through a difficult period. If Sheen gets some forgiveness, surely some spill-over forgiveness can head Gibson’s way. Why would 2 and a Half Men go for this? Ratings. Ratings. Ratings. Who wouldn’t want to tune in to see how Meltdown Mel is doing?

Get back to the Robyn's Nest... if you can!
The people betrayed the most in the scandal has been Gibson’s ex-wife Robyn. Ironically, she is the woman who has been Gibson’s most ardent defender and, according to TMZ ( has stated, : "Mel never engaged in any physical abuse of any kind toward me before, during or after our marriage” and "Mel was a wonderful and loving father." Whether she has financial incentive to keep Mel out of trouble – or if the woman is just a saint- in either case, Mel returning to his wife would certainly be a public relations triumph.

Film is where it's at for Mel
The best of Gibson's career past is in library of 30 years of films. So an active campaign to have Gibson reruns on cable TV and networks is an obvious step to relink audiences with the likable Gibson of old. Which takes us to the final point.

Gibson still has a fortune to spend on movie-making. Getting Gibson very quickly behind the camera to direct another Icon Pictures film would shift some of the nasty press to “Gibson is shooting another movie.” Gibson’s still got the money to hire an A lister (IMDB reports that he was in early stages of a Viking movie that may star diCaprio) or go it alone with another independent headline-less film. Any film produced by Gibson will receive tremendous publicity which will reduce marketing costs and make making a profitable film that much easier. This is what helped to bring back Sheen, Polanski, and Baldwin. The faster Gibson is back at what he does best, the better off he is.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A few observations on the Buckland Eight

About a week ago, Jason Buckhead posted an interesting editorial on msn: The Most Hated Companies of All Times. Selecting the most hated companies will always have a degree of subjectivity (e.g. Is a company with 1,000 spiteful haters more hated than a company with 2,000 less spiteful haters?) but Buckland does a compelling job of backing up his list by describing some nasty corporate transgressions. The Buckland Eight includes: Union Carbide, Dow, Enron, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, BP, AIG and Exxon. His posting is a good read and I suggest you take a look at it. In my post tonight, I'm going to share a few observations regarding Buckland's list.

First, the Buckland Eight has disproportionate representation of companies that had recent transgressions. More specifically, three of the "eight most hated companies of all times" got "hated" because of "crimes" that occurred within the last decade: BP, Enron, and Goldman Sachs. But, I think Buckland is on to something here. There are many other companies that could have joined this list due to their recent transgressions including Halliburton (overcharging on government contracts 2006), Andersen (fraudulent accounting 2002), Fannie Mae (credit scandal 2008) and Freddie Mac. Some might argue that the list has a bias- the so called recency effect - but I'll argue in favor of the author. Today's companies are much larger than ever before. Many firms have revenues larger then the GDP of sovereign states and have international trade flows significantly larger than a nation's. All this to say, transgressions from today's multinationals have a greater opportunity for financial and environmental catastrophes which can affect larger populations than ever before.

Second, Buckland's rankings correlate well with the most hated brands on Brand Mojo. A quick look at the leaderboard reveals that Enron and BP are the most despised brands while Exxon, Wal-Mart and Goldman also have a strong hater constituency. Pushing this one step further, Buckland's summaries of the company transgressions help explain why these brands have so many haters.

My third observation relates to Wal-Mart. There's no doubt about it that there are a lot of folks who hate Wal-Mart. For example, a quick search on Google for "Walmart sucks" cranks back 225,000 web sites and Google images tosses back thousands of negative images. Yep, that's a lot of upset people. Just think how much animosity towards a brand you would have to have in order to spend time and money to campaign against a brand. Yet, to the dismay of the many haters, Wal-mart continues to be successful. Unlike the Enrons and BPs of the world which do not have any brand lovers, Wal-Mart has an ardent fan base (see image below). Clearly, these lovers appreciate Wal-Marts discount price and value offering. And this explains why being a hated company does not always damn the brand.

Friday, July 16, 2010

BP, Brand Mojo & competitors in the best of times- and worst of times.

Yesterday I had a few requests for the BrandMojo ratings of BP. The entire energy sector receives low ratings (usually around 2.8 overall ratings). In the best of times, this entire sector seems to need an image overhaul. I'm speculating that many consumers rate the oil and gas companies particularly low because of two perceptions: 1) price gauging; and 2) low commitment to tackling greenhouse emissions.

So how has the BP crisis affected the BP brand and competitors in the worst of times? Have the competiting oil and gas companies received elevated ratings because the public contrasts their "competence" with BP "negligence"? Or has the BP disaster infected the other energy brands?

BrandMojo sheds some light on all of these issues.

First, and not surprisingly, BP has received only hate ratings over the last 60 days. (I'll argue that if BP had done the suggestions from my last posting, some negative ratings would have been "neutralized" or even "slightly positive".)

Second, over the last 60 days, the overall ratings of competing oil & gas companies have fallen, although less rapidly than BP. All oil and gas companies have been accumulating a higher percentage of "haters" than before the crisis. This suggests that the public has the perception that "oil and gas companies are all the same" and that the BP crisis is indeed a category crisis. In other words, the other oil and gas companies have incentive to help BP resolve the category crisis. Some energy companies like Petrobras are helping their energy brothers but are doing so below the radar. There is also one other twist to the BrandMojo data. A handful of high ratings for competing oil and gas brands, suggesting that the BP disaster has changed brand preferences- at least for a segment of the population.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What BP should have done (and should be doing) from a PR perspective

It always amazes me about the lack of lucid public relations thinking during corporate crises. After all, there are tons of case studies to study about effective (and disastrous) handling of a crisis. The gold standard for dealing with a crisis was set back in the 1980s by Johnson and Johnson after it had to deal with cyanide tainting of Tylenol. The Tylenol crisis case has been studied to death in every MBA class and PR manual. But tonight, I'll make a few remarks on BP's handling of its crisis and will comment on what it should have done (and should be doing) in terms of PR. Of course, a pure parallel can not be drawn between Tylenol's crisis and BP's oil disaster. For one, the Tylenol poisoning was not the fault of Johnson & Johnson (or at least was not perceived to be) because a sicko tampered with the packages of Tylenol at stores whereas BP is allegedly for the underwater oil geyser because of cutting corners. Then again, Johnson & Johnson didn't have anywhere close to the $12 billion in annual profits that BP has to play with.

So how should BP have handled (and be handling) this disaster from a PR perspective? Here are three thoughts.

The right spokesperson

I resent even commenting on this first point because it is so elementary. Crisis management requires two immediate steps (i) notify all stakeholders so that they get your message properly framed; and (ii) have a single, competent, credible, spokesperson to provide the message to the key stakeholders. Again, there are excellent case studies that provide guidance on this. Tylenol did it right. Chysler when dealing with staffers who rolled back the odometers on new cars, on the other hand, did as bad a job as was thought possible - until BPs Tony Hayward came along. Let's revisit some of Tony's faux pas and tactless remarks:

"What the hell did we do to deserve this?" - April 29th (Daily Finance)

"I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." - May 14 (Newsweek)

"...the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." -May 18 (Fortune)

"...there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." - May 30 (Newsweek)(Don't forget that 11 of his staff lost their lives during the explosion)

"... food poisoning is clearly a big issue" June 1,(Newsweek) responding to claims that workers were hospitalized with nose bleeds, nausea, headaches, dizziness and chest pains while cleaning up the slick with dispersant.

Point one is clear. BP either needed to train Tony a lot better on PR or get a better spokesperson, which they eventually did. But keeping Tony Hayward, who probably has a lot of other decent skills, as the face of BP was a big, bad mistake.

Save the whales and dolphins too...

Let's compare Exxon's 1980's spill in Alaska to BP's 2010 Gulf disaster. Again, any PR professional will tell you that pictures are a lot more powerful than words. Exxon's brand got blistered by the media which constantly showed pictures of oil-drenched birds and soggy coastline. Let's look at BP's situation. BP's sludge is much bigger and covers a much larger area than Exxon's. The Gulf, by virtue of its geography, has more abundant and vibrant wildlife. In 2010, people have digital cameras and access to the Net and there are more news channels than ever before. Environmental awareness is at an all-time high. Furthermore, more people live in the Gulf area than Alaska meaning that more people are going to be taking more pictures to a larger, receptive audience. Translation: there will be a record number of oil-drowned birds, dying dolphins, sick sharks, suffocating Portuguese man-o-wars, ailing whales and sick turtles coming out of the BP carnage. BP needs something bold. It ought to have mobilized (and still should) a massive "save the animals" initiative. A $1 billion initiative to rescue and clean-up Gulf animal inhabitants would go a long way to saving animal life as well as show BP's commitment to Mother Earth. Let's take this idea one step further. BP could also announce an environmental refuge for these saved critters. In addition to being "a right thing to do", these efforts could be used to frame many positive news stories creating goodwill for the brand. Other brands like Ivory or Dawn would probably want to join in the clean up and natural refuge. There would also be spill-over benefits for the local communities if local folks could be hired and trained to help rescue and clean the animals and manage the wildlife refuge. With additional jobs, the local economies are buffered a bit from the oil sludge calamity. In addition, BP will have some good will when facing judges and politicians' wraths at election times.

Buy businesses

BP's has already agreed to pay out compensation to businesses and communities affected by their spill. So, BP's about to deal with lengthy court cases, massive legal fees, bad-speak by politicians and more negative press. How about this for a novel solution, courtesy of a buddy of mine? BP could buy out the local businesses affected by the sludge. Think about it. BP could make offers to buy out hundreds (if not thousands) of small businesses for a measly $1 billion. This will infuse a lot of money into the local economies which would help to avoid legal pains, and political and PR wrath. It's a radical idea but BP needs to do something big and proactive. But, time is running out.

So What?
If we revisit PR case studies, Tylenol came up with bold, proactive initiatives (rewards to capture the murderer(s), tamper-proof packaging, deals with the victims' families) and dealt with third parties (including governmental agencies) to come up with solutions. Chrysler, by contrast, played its hand only when forced by regulators. Tylenol rebounded immediately and came back stronger than ever; Chrysler tarnished its brand. The reality for BP is that it is going to pay very handsomely for its disaster. My point is that it is a lot better off for the everyone involved- communities, environment, and BP - for BP to take some bold, massive environmental initiatives and communicate them clearly to all stakeholders. So far, BP has failed on both fronts.