Are You Creating A Unified Brand?

In January, Conan O’Brien suffered many people’s worst fear – he lost his job. And though he lost it in front of the entire world, he handled it like a professional. With the help of the Internet and his quintessential ORM power move, he was able to brand himself as the people’s Hero. Team Conan was created to honor the quirky giant and he bid farewell to NBC in style, eventually embarking on a cross-country comedy tour. A tour that was possible, in part, because of the positive buzz and following created through Team Conan.

In January, the Conan brand was full of energy, life and a spirit of screwing ‘the man’. It was something everyone could identify with. And it stayed that way for months.

It stayed that way until he sat down to talk to 60 minutes this past Sunday.

There’s been a lot written about Conan’s interview, but the Cliffnotes version is that it hurt him. It negatively changed the perception and conversation around the Conan brand. Instead of seeing Conan as the humble and charismatic man who once spoke to the ‘people of Earth’, he resurfaced bearded and beaten. He seemed increasingly bitter over what happened, taking serious (and awkward) jabs at NBC and Leno, and halfheartedly telling us not to feel sorry for him when it was clear he was feeling sorry for himself. He lost the grace he had in January, appearing more like a jilted bride who, three months after the would-be wedding date, still falls asleep in her wedding dress crying and cursing the man that put her there.

The interview created a disconnect because who Conan was in January and the bearded guy who now sat in that interview chair. Which is the real Conan? We don’t know. And that makes us uncomfortable.

A few years ago I published a post about matching your online brand to your offline brand. In that post I wrote:

You need to decide who you want to be and then be that. Decide what brand you’re creating and then embody it online, offline, and in between line. Get over the brand identity crisis.

One of the reasons so many people take to Rae is because her brand is clear. She is the same person online, as she is off; the same at a conference, as she is if you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle at her house (oh yes, Rae does puzzles). Love her or not, you know what you’re getting when you do business with her. The consistency of who she is and how she portrays herself is what establishes trust, authority and respect.

And that’s what separates the brands people seek out from the ones we steer away from. It’s also why creating a brand identity crisis is so dangerous.

Think about it:

  • We get frustrated when companies act differently online than they do off. [waves to Comcast]
  • It feels odd when trendy giants who laugh at others can’t laugh at themselves. [waves to Apple]
  • It’s weird to see the youthful, self-deprecating comedian appear on a stuffy newscast looking whiny. [waves to Conan]
  • We get confused when we meet that ‘outspoken’ online person IRL and find out they’re not so, well, outspoken. [waves at myself]

Brand disconnects hurt you because they weaken who you are in the eyes of your customer. It forces them to question your honesty and your authenticity.

Your brand is much more than just a logo. It’s who you are. And part of creating that brand means making sure that everything you do remains consistent with the image you’re trying to create. It doesn’t matter if the interaction is taking place online, offline, or through some hybrid – you need to build your brand on core values and remain consistent. And to me, that’s where Conan’s interview failed from a brand perspective and something businesses need to work to avoid.

In order to protect your brand, you need to develop a strategy for how you’re going to keep it consistent. That means figuring out the voice, who you are and what channels are appropriate for what your brand is about. These are three areas where I think Conan failed on Sunday.

How are you going to make sure you do it better?  How has your brand been incorporated into your daily business life?

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

31 thoughts on “Are You Creating A Unified Brand?

  1. I would have pegged you as VERY outspoken. I hope to meet you IRL sometime and we’ll be curing that. (oh, I’m not really a dog, just a character I play. And that is the secret to my success.. Shhh…)

  2. If only Conan could grow a flesh colored beard it would serve him well to break it out only every so often. I despise The Hills but if my wife yells across the house “the flesh colored beard is on!” I come running. Its so nasty it mesmerizes me, and it only comes out to play a few times a year.

  3. Wow, a link to classic Bruce Clay content, don’t you miss the lovely Simi valley? :)

    To the question in your headline I have to honestly say no, I’ve not created a unified brand online and off. It’s a work in progress but can’t say I have it all figured out yet. I won’t be growing a beard though, not any time soon at least.

  4. I had the pleasure of presenting a panel at South by Southwest this past March, and I had the opportunity to meet many people IRL that I had previously only known virtually. It is disconcertig to actually meet someone who seems talkative and open on social networks but go “Rain Man” in person. I think that a lot of people are introverts who find the online world to be an easy medium to express themselves, but when it comes to actual person to person interaction, they find the experience daunting.

    I try to be understanding when this happens and hope that I eventually get to know the true person. In time, manybof them usually open up and actually display a fair amount of verbosity!

  5. I disagree that Conan’s image was negatively affected by the 60 Min. interview. Of course he should be upset– NBC has been defaming him in public for months. He has every right to be angry.

    The beard doesn’t denote brokeness, either. It is very sexy!

    • I think he has every right to be upset with what happened…but I’m not sure he should still be expressing that publicly three months after they let him go. Think of Conan like any other employee – continuing to talk badly about your employee and the new (old?) guy in your spot doesn’t necessarily help you. It makes you look like you’re stuck in that situation and that you’re still bitter over it. Whether he’s internally bitter or not, I don’t think he should be putting it out there for the public. But that’s just my two cents.

      And that beard was NOT sexy! :)

  6. Lisa, I’d have to disagree with your assessment here. While your points about “unified branding” definitely are true in regards to 99% of people/businesses out there – the entertainment industry is a completely different beast.

    The difference is that the general public is *aware* that their favorite stars are indeed actors or comedians that are essentially playing a character that are not likely their 100% true selves for the sake of entertaining the audience. We may suspend belief for an hour at a time when watching a TV show, movie, etc. – but we also understand that there’s a difference between on-stage & off-stage.

    As a working stand-up comedian myself, I rarely get into any conversation off-stage with audience members that appear “shocked” that I’m not exactly the same person with the same attitude as they just witnessed perform in front of them. Sure, most comedian’s acts are an exaggerated version of themselves – but there is never a feeling by fans/show-goers that they’re “lying” or misrepresenting themselves. That’s because it’s an *expected* practice that everyone is aware of.

    Do I feel that Tom Hanks’ brand is not unified when he doesn’t do sit-down interviews as a mentally-challenged southerner or veteran astronaut or an solitary island refugee for 4 years? He’s an actor. He plays roles. I know this. Everyone else does as well.

    Conan is in the same boat. His irreverent humor comes from the fact he’s self-deprecating, while still everyone realizing millions of people watch him and he gets paid millions of dollars. We suspend our belief for that hour, but still understand that he’s a performer playing a character in some fashion. Seeing him off-stage as a “real person” doesn’t harm his brand – we’re aware of the difference.

    • Ahh… I wasn’t sure exactly why I disagreed, but this makes sense. For me, watching the interview was like getting to see a new side of the real person. Entertainers are brands, but not in the same way that companies are. I expect a company brand to be consistent through and through. But I expect a personal brand will be much more complex. Seeing a more serious, if slightly jilted, side of Conan just made me relate to him more than before.

    • I think I disagree on the character point. Normally, I’d agree with you, but I don’t think comparing the Conan O’Brien situation to Tom Hanks and a move role are the same. Back in January when Conan addressed the People of Earth, he wasn’t being a character – which is why the letter worked. Because it wasn’t the silly or goofy Conan, it was real and people felt like they had connected with him on a different level. He stopped being the character that Conan is on TV.

      And then he did that interview. In the interview he appeared bitter and angry and completely unlike the other version we had received. The reason people supported him so passionately was because he wasn’t losing himself in the bullshit and he was standing up for himself. In that interview, he wasn’t the character version of Conan, nor was he the person version of Conan. He seemed to have lost the fire he had in January. It was sad to watch, IMO.

      Thanks for the long comment. :)

      • I think my closeness to the comedy industry may be the primary factor of our opposing viewpoint on this matter.

        The “People of the Earth” letter was *still* the performer-aspect of Conan – although it wasn’t the exaggerated silly/goofy voice we’re accustomed to, it was still meant as a “routine” to a mass audience. Sure that felt more “real” to his fans… but the Conan in the 60 Minutes interview is ACTUALLY him.

        It may be hard to fathom, but most comedians are not the wacky, silly people you see on stage or on TV. Some of the most fool-hardy, immature behaved performers in public are some of the most well-read, cultured & intellectually serious people in real life… and a large proportion are actually bitter, downtrodden souls. (which many psychologists claim as the crux of why they’re prone to producing the most creative observational humor)

        From my perspective as a stand-up comic, I actually identified more with the Conan I saw on 60 Minutes than with anything he’s previously done for 10+ years on television. Being in a profession in which success heavily relies on the use of non-owned platforms & decisions by 3rd parties in power & control of such platforms – I understand & appreciate Conan’s sentiment in the interview much more than anyone else.

  7. I think Conan’s mistake was choosing to break his silence with a serious interview, which in turn forced him to provide serious answers. That wasn’t the kind of interview that people wanted or expected to see, hence the disconnect.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree that it hurt him, certainly not in the long term. I thought Conan handled the interview with a lot of class, he took a view shots at NBC and Leno, but he pulled more punches than he threw, in my opinion.

    I also couldn’t disagree more with Andrew Wallenstein’s piece in the Hollywood Reporter, I’m really not sure if he was watching the same interview I was.

    • I think Conan’s mistake was choosing to break his silence with a serious interview, which in turn forced him to provide serious answers. That wasn’t the kind of interview that people wanted or expected to see, hence the disconnect.

      I’m definitely with you on that point. Choosing 60 Minutes seemed like a very odd choice for that interview – it’s grittier news for a much different audience.

  8. Let me suggest a different lesson here. The Conan story was an example of the limits of brand power and positive image. We all cheered Conan, the lovable and irreverent victim. You wrote “you can bet his offers have just skyrocketed, both in numbers and cents. … Even if NBC doesn’t care about Conan, his audience does. They will fight for him. … Conan is the hero. That’s how you save a brand.”

    Well, brand affinity was cute and all, but his fans didn’t particularly fight for him. He didn’t get great offers, other than a nice package from NBC to go away. He played the cute victim for a few months and the act got old, because he failed to rebuild his career.

    Perhaps the lesson from all this is that people who deal with brand awareness for a living often overestimate the power of brand. We’d like to live in a world where powerful brand leads to success. But often it doesn’t.

  9. I thought the 60 Minutes interview was very odd, and he seemed very odd and slightly uncomfortable doing it. And hearing him on the one side complain about NBC and Leno and then keep insisting he was fine (and he *is* fine, lest we forget) seemed a total disconnect to me right there.

    My brand is probably pretty consistent. Still working on the beard, tho.

  10. I completely agree with James above. It was an honest and gritty interview, one that took his fan base by surprise. He spent the last episodes of his time on the Tonight Show doing the things that made his audience laugh (see the Rolling Stones or the NFL coverage). It’s unfortunate that seeing Conan act like more of a business-man and less of a funny-man caused there to be a disconnect with an audience that had been in his corner.

    The fact of the matter is that he built that “grand following” around the fact that he could laugh at the situation, poke fun at NBC, but still walk away with with pride and dignity, and now, he sounds bitter. That’s not what people want to see from him, nor is it what they expect — and he’s the one who defined our expectations.

  11. I think if you were to remove the celebrity aspect of this discussion then this interview would be labeled as a bitter ex employee that should be frisked before entering the building. It is amazing what being famous allows you to get away with. That being said, I feel for Conan and I did find it refreshing to see him drop his mask and share. Now I feel hypocritical because if Joe Average did this same thing I would probably say, “grow up and get another job”

    • I think if you were to remove the celebrity aspect of this discussion then this interview would be labeled as a bitter ex employee that should be frisked before entering the building.

      Totally agree. In January he was Jerry Maguire. Now he’s a disgruntled laid off employee. THAT’S the difference.

  12. Grr! I wrote a good comment and then closed the window. Just jumping on the bandwagon now, so I’ll keep it concise.

    I agree w/Jordan’s comments about Conan the man vs Conan the comedian. We rarely catch a glimpse of Conan when he isn’t being ridiculous, so I appreciated the candid dialogue. The lighting, the camera and the interview were staged to bring the real man into our living rooms, not the comedian. In my eyes he definitely had a pity party, which he’s entitled to for losing a dream over strong morals. However, he quickly picked himself up and threw himself into planning the live show and finding a new home on television. He looked exhausted because touring the country amid major professional changes has to be just that, exhausting. It’s interesting to me that there are so many different reactions to the interview. Fortunately, there’s a home and an opinion for everyone and Conan found his on TBS! I’ll be tuning in.

    • In my eyes he definitely had a pity party, which he’s entitled to for losing a dream over strong morals.

      No he’s not. Public figures are not entitled to public pity parties. He was paid $30 million to go on tour and stop working. He should have taken it, licked his wounds in private, and then resurfaced in public full of fire and ready to build momentum for his new gig. He didn’t do that. He came in like an emo ginger.

      However, he quickly picked himself up…

      I think the interview showed he hadn’t moved on — which was actually the problem. He was still angry and jilted over what happened and didn’t even seem that enthused about what was to come.

      He looked exhausted because touring the country amid major professional changes has to be just that, exhausting.

      Again, he’s a professional. He’s been doing this for years. This is his life. And that’s why God created makeup. Showing up to your first public interview in months looking dead probably isn’t the best brand move, the rest of it aside.

  13. Lack of a beard aside (which, sadly, I still cannot grow even at 30), I still can’t understand why people DON’T have a single brand / persona / personality, etc. While there are certain things people should keep private, it’s just unnatural to be two people. Unless you’re schizophrenic.

  14. Lisa,

    You are spot on. There are are far too many business owners that have the most amazing USP on paper and that completely do the polar opposite of that when you interact with them.

    There is no such thing as outside life and business life. You are the same person and people are always watching. It doesn’t matter how much or little celebrity status you have. If you are out there representing a brand or an image, you better make sure that all the parts line up or you will lose customers FAST.

    Great blog by the way, just found it by accident. I will be back again.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionare

  15. I watched Conan’s interview on 60 minutes and I don’t think it influenced the perception of him in a negative way at all. I don’t think he appeared defeated, hurt, any of that. But 60 minutes is generally a more serious interview than others.

    With respect to his little red beard, I thought it actually made him look better. I think it definitely suited his musical act better when he was on the road. I think it’s probably difficult for him to have unified his on-the-road act and his late show persona since they’re very very different.

    Perhaps he shouldn’t have gone on the road? TBS is a different animal than network. Maybe the bearded Conan you’re seeing is how he is going to try and re-brand himself? But I didn’t see anything hurt, scorned, defeated in anything he said. Sorry.

  16. Brand disconnects hurt you because they weaken who you are in the eyes of your customer. It forces them to question your honesty and your authenticity.

    Agreed on this, and the rest of what Lisa’s saying in the article here. The thrust is that Conan is playing the pity card and he didn’t do that on his show. I didn’t watch enough Conan to have any affinity for him, but those who loved him did rally. (So, I completely disagree with Gil Reich in the comment, “Well, brand affinity was cute and all, but his fans didn’t particularly fight for him. I remember his fans standing for hours on end in the pouring rain fighting for him. They wore special Conan support bracelets. How do you define fight if not that? They’re paying good money now to see him on this tour. They’ve fought with their feet and dollars.

    I think if Conan’s still needing some tender loving care (and I’m absolutely not being cheeky here), he should stay home with his wife (who seems, in the interview, incredibly supportive of her sour-faced husband). Get back on his feet before going out into the public eye. The trouble with personal brands and creating a “unified presence online and offline” is our online brand can sustain itself while we sleep. It can be going 24 hours – through our logo, our bios, our brand statements, our blog posts and other creative endeavors.

    Our bodies need rest. Our minds crave stillness.

    If there’s a disconnect between your “personal brand” and your self, it’s that. It will always be that.

    In Conan’s case, he’s triggered left and right in the interview. He appears exhausted and moody. Even his makeup looks packed on. Watch his facial expressions as he speaks. It’s not just what he says that shows his exhaustion, in my opinion. It’s the whole package.

    The brand Conan takes a hit because the man Conan is, or at least appears to be in the 60 Minutes interview, needing self-care.

  17. I think the message of this post is absolutely spot on. Unified brands are important because if consumers see conflicting brand images for the same brand, they feel like there’s some kind of scam going on. Like they’re being had.

    The majority of the disagreement in the comments so far seems to come not from disagreeing with the message, but disagreeing with the example.

    I have to admit, I was a little disturbed to see the interview. Conan didn’t look great. And while I’m not a huge Conan fan, if I had to pick a team, it was Team Coco. The interview didn’t change that for me. Maybe because Conan’s brand is a human brand, and his responses to those questions on 60 minutes seemed real to me.

    The other thing that hopefully doesn’t get overlooked is that the interview was something like 12 minutes long on television. How long do you think the interview actually took? How many questions do you think Conan actually answered?

    That interview was edited by a news crew that had its own agenda, to get ratings, and create buzz for the interview, and not for Conan. Editing can make a huge difference between the actual tone of a conversation and what it comes out looking like.

    Is Conan a bit down? Probably. Is he as down as that interview made it seem? Probably not.

    I think Conan did make a mistake: his mistake was to trust his brand to the editors and producers at CBS (who, by the way, have a vested interest in making NBC look bad). At the end of the day, though, Coco’s brand is strong enough right now that I think he’ll come out just fine.

  18. Brand is the sum of all the intagibles. It is the emotive element of a company.

    People got upset because their belief was challenged.

    Brand is consistency.

    If you are not creating a unified brand, you are not branding. You are one of millions of companies not standing out from the rest.

    Corporate Communication by Paul A Argenti is a laypersons reference work for this.

    I’d put it on anyone’s reading list who is interested in branding.

    In webmarketing we talk about Brand as the name. And that frankly is a load of Bull!

  19. Conan and some of your examples show that brand strategy does not fit into one set of rules / guidelines. Every “brand” needs to understand their audience and their own brand limitations. A company (or person) who is building their brand has to follow specific rules. An established brand (i.e. Apple) can make their own brand rules – this to me is the greatest power of being a “brand”, the ability to set how, where, why and when people interact / engage with your company.

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