What the heck’s going on in the world of brands? If you haven’t been paying attention lately, lots of great companies are suffering significant headaches dealing with the body blows their brand images are taking almost every single week.
Look at Nike, the sportswear company that has built its dominant brand on the broad backs of superstar athletes and their sponsorships. From Michael Jordan to Florence Griffith-Joyner to Tiger Woods, Nike has both created their brand and the brands of their spokespeople athletes through enormous investments and laser-focused marketing.

But suddenly it seems like Nike’s most visible athletes are self-destructing both on the field and off.

Lance Armstrong spent years vociferously denying his regular use of the performance-enhancing substances that helped him dominate competitive cycling. Armstrong was so adamant in his protests that Nike even filmed a commercial showing Armstrong on his bicycle asking, “What am I on? I’m on my bike, six hours a day, busting my ass. What are you on?”

Of course, now we know that Armstrong was on a lot more than his butt. And Nike had to cut ties with their spokesman after they saw his growing unpopularity start to damage their own brand.

While Armstrong was enjoying the Tour de France, Tiger Woods was busy enjoying his Tour de Pants.** But after Elen Nordegren, Woods’ model wife, attacked Tiger’s car with one of his signature golf clubs, Nike again saw their brand start to take some of the lumps intended for their spokesman.

Even more recently, Oscar Pistorius – the Para-Olympian known as the Blade Runner – was arrested in South Africa for fatally shooting his model girlfriend. Unfortunately for Nike, not only was Pistorius one of their spokes-athletes but they had run an ad featuring the Blade Runner with the headline, “I am the bullet in the chamber.” Of course the ad was yanked from Pistorious’ website lickety-split but the damage had already been done. Once again, the sportswear giant has to decide how long to continue to publicly support their spokesperson even before they know if he has a leg to stand on.

I Am The Bullet In The Chamber

Let’s move from the field to the seas. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line company, suffered an engine fire that stalled their Triumph ship in the Gulf of Mexico. No one was injured and Carnival’s staff was lauded as going way above and beyond the norm to help the stranded travelers. But even though the company refunded their customers’ fees, promised a free replacement cruise, AND paid each cruiser $500, class-action lawsuits have already been filed and Carnival’s brand has become the punching bag of news shows and late-night comedians. Why such an aggressive response? After all, everyone knows ship happens.

So why is all this occurring now? Some people have suggested that the burgeoning 24/7 news cycle is so hungry for stories that they’ll publicize any corporate hiccup just to entice viewers based on the motto that if it bleeds, it leads. Others say that it’s the proliferation of smartphones and mobile technologies that have turned all of us into a new breed of citirazzi – citizen paparazzi who aggressively capture the corporate gaffs that would otherwise go unseen and unrecorded. And still other experts suggest that the corporate world is just a reflection of society in general, and that the scares and scandals affecting brands go hand-in-hand with the degradation of civility and ethical behavior we’re seeing in politics and society in general.

All of those factors contribute to the current situation but don’t thoroughly explain it. Instead, I think that it’s the recent proliferation and expansion of the brands themselves that has caused the problem. As I’ve written many times before, as products become more and more genericized, the brand itself has emerged as the way companies differentiate themselves. And as products and services spend more time in a digital environment where customers can see but can’t touch, the brand personality becomes the way consumers differentiate, decode, and decide what they’re going to buy.

So it stands to reason that the squeaky wheel would get the grease. After all, if good things make a brand stronger, then bad things will also do great harm.

But the major reason why big brands are taking it in the shorts runs even deeper. You see, when branded companies are most successful, their customers use the brands themselves to tell the world who they are. The cars we drive, the athletic shoes we wear, and the vacations we enjoy all become badges that consumers use to create their own personas. We used to say, “Your are what you eat.” Today we say, “You are what you consume.” The result of this is that we are so personally invested in the brands we use that we are hypersensitive to any chinks in our image armor. And so when we notice that the brands we’ve built our own self-images around have the same human frailties that we do, we feel betrayed.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, corporations and organizations are seen as humans and entitled to the same First Amendment rights as you and me. It seems that thanks to the recent ascension of the brand, brands are too. And just like in the political arena, brands have to take the bad with the good.

** This hysterical line was not mine. It was written by my good friend and very funny guy David Glickman.