Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When Your Brand is a Teenager - Literally

Alright, so I admit part of this blog entry will border on something you would find on celebrity blogger Perez Hilton's website. But today I wanted to remind fellow "marketeers" of the risk of building a brand tied to an actual person – especially if that person is a teen who is growing up in front of the public eye. Prime example? Disney’s billion-dollar “Hannah Montana” brand.

Sure, many of us business types would love to have the golden touch as it appears Disney has had over the years. They are, first and foremost, very in-tune with their target market(s) and seem to have a knack for taking unknown actors/actresses and turning them into “the next big thing.” Not only this, but they are very good at copying successful models. For example, Disney tends to use a very similar franchise model for popular shows, expanding a lead-character's brand into clothing lines, dolls, DVD releases, novels, bedroom sets, perfumes, board and video games, soundtracks and even McDonald's Happy Meal toys. They've used this model for such characters as Lizzie McGuire, Raven Baxter and now Hannah Montana.

So what's the deal with Hannah Montana? For those of you who don’t have kids and don’t know much about the show, here’s a brief background. Debuting on the Disney Channel on March 24, 2006, Miley Cyrus, the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus (who also plays her dad on the show) plays the role of Miley Stewart a.k.a. Hannah Montana. Miley lives a double-life, as a teenager (Stewart) and as a rock-star (Montana). If you've ever watched the show, it's definitely not geared towards adults (I'll admit I watched it once just to see what they hype was about and think most adults would find the characters and story lines annoying). But to kids, the allure of being able to change from a normal teenager into someone who is popular and cool is very appealing. In 2006, the show attracted 4 million viewers per episode, growing to 4.4 million viewers per episode in Season 2. Its popularity drove Disney to release Hannah Montana branded products (clothing, jewelry, apparel, dolls, greeting cards, iPod accessories, etc.) in December 2006. And in 2007, Hannah Montana went on tour in the United States, with Disney morphing her from a make-believe TV star into a real-life pop star...one who caused concert venues all over the U.S. to sell-out and tickets to go for over $2500. Hannah's self-titled CD went triple-platinum.

As teenagers grow up, they start experimenting with their own image, interests, etc. Resultantly, tying a brand to a person, specifically a teen, makes it very difficult to keep control over brand image. Hannah Montana is a perfect example of this struggle. Over the past year, there have been several "scandals" involving Miley Cyrus. The first consisted of scantily clad (i.e. Miley wearing only underwear) photos posted on MySpace (later rumored to have been fakes). Then Miley posed for Vanity Fair wearing a bed sheet wrapped around her partially naked torso, outraging parents of fans. Disney had Miley issue a public apology and according to Page Six, a high ranking Disney employee was overheard saying: "You won't be seeing her for a while…The company is keeping her away from events and wants her to keep a very low profile for the next four to six months. They're trying to keep her contained." In an ABC News radio interview mentioned by the New York Post, Hilary Duff (a.k.a. Lizzie McGuire) was quoted as saying, "It's not something that I would choose to do, but if she did them, that's fine. I don't know how her fans would feel about it, but maybe they won't mind." But the point goes back to – this is definitely the risk for a company when banking their brand on a person.

Though Disney has relied on teen-based brands in the past (Raven-Symoné’s Raven Baxter and Hillary Duff’s Lizzie McGuire), a brand image being "scandalized" hasn't really been an issue. Why not? Perhaps it's because the teens playing some of Disney's other successful characters were wise...they knew the business of a brand image, what it means to be a role model and what it takes to appease fans (and their parents).
We look at Raven-Symone who at the age of 3 played the role of Olivia on “The Cosby Show.” She then moved on to “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” and then to Disney’s smash “That’s So Raven,” a kids show that ran for an almost-unheard-of 4 seasons. Her Raven Baxter character was even spun off - Raven became the lead singer of Disney's hightly successful "Cheetah Girls." Raven-Symoné is now 22 and enjoying a successful career post-Disney which includes a slew of music, TV and movie credits. Throughout her career she has led a pretty low-key life, avoiding the spotlight/gossip headlines and keeps her personal life what it should be – personal. Hilary Duff follows a similar mantra. In an OK! Magazine interview she states: "Everybody makes mistakes, but I just don't think it's for everybody to watch. It comes down to that I want people to focus on my work and I want to have my life completely separate from that."

So back to Miley Cyrus. As of late, Disney appears to have another Hannah Montana brand preservation issue on their hands. Miley, (who recently turned 16), is rumored to be dating Justin Gaston. An aspiring singer who appears as Taylor Hicks' love interest in her "Love Story" video, Gaston is 20 and an underwear model. (I'm guessing the fact that he's 20 and appears in photos half naked won't sit well with parents of teenage girls. What do you think?)

Sure kids need some guidance (so some of this brand image control should belong to Miley's parents). But as we all know, teenagers don’t like to listen - and tend to do the opposite of what we want – especially in cases of dating. So if you were Disney, what would you do? Would you work to hype up the next best thing and hope for the best (i.e. hope these new protegees are more like Hilary and Raven)? Or cling on to the successful Hannah Montana empire for a couple more years, teaching Miley (and her parents) about brand image sustainability (i.e. how she should learn to keep her personal life more personal)? My bet's on the former rather than the latter...

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