Brand Advisory: The Bong ”Crisis” Can Help The Michael Phelps Brand

Brand Advisory

The Marketing Doctor says:

The Bong ”Crisis” Can  Help The Michael Phelps Brand

Folks, everyone is saying Michael Phelps has a problem because of the bong photo —I say he has a great opportunity to define his brand for his Target Market.

This wouldn’t be a “crisis” if unreal expectations hadn’t been raised about the guy in the first place.  Let’s face it, he’s a 23-year-old kid.  He’s got ADD.  He’s been in a pressure-cooker, competitive world since he was 11. 

He’s going to get into trouble.  It’s inevitable. 

And, by the way, his real Target Market, his peers, probably don’t even think the bong incident is a big deal; it makes him look cooler and more real in their eyes.

Unfortunately, Phelps and his PR team have already issued an apology that sounds as stiff and unreal as possible.  He accuses himself of acting “youthful”… Well, he is youthful, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Honesty is the most important aspect of any personal brand.

Honesty isn’t just literal; it’s about projecting an image that is true and makes sense to people.

It’s crazy for Phelps to try to conform to a brand image that doesn’t fit.  And now he’s going to be under even more scrutiny because of this photo.  Even more such “embarrassments” are sure to follow. (I wouldn’t be surprised if a few cell phone videos start circulating of this and other nights that may be even more compromising.)

Phelps should take this opportunity to discover and chart out the dimensions of his real brand.  He shouldn’t be selling corn flakes and toys if selling corn flakes and toys means he can’t be his real brand.  Fuggedaboutit.

He should be selling products like iPods, cameras and cars, for an older Target Market —anything not targeted at the pre-teen set to avoid shocking their parents with his behavior.  Maybe he can even make the Buick cool. 

Turning Olympic Gold into long-term gold is always a challenge (see my post on that here), but in Phelps’ case I think he can pull it off if he is able to mix his likeability, his achievements and discipline with just a touch of the normal whoops-I-can-screw-up reality. 

So don’t even think about taking to the anti-drug circuit for a series of lectures on how drugs are bad for you.  That’s over-kill and as phony as can be.  Instead, reinforce that he is basically a good guy who has overcome many challenges (and still struggles with a few) and is still young.  He can even speak more openly about the challenges of living with ADD (which can help educate and also help explain his occasional gaffes).

Michael, promote your real brand, which is excellence in the swimming pool, but real life on dry land.

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.


A publicity crisis can be an opportunity to re-discover and re-define your personal brand.


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