Brand Winners... And Losers: Phelps and Kellogg's

Brand Winners…

   And Losers

The Marketing Doctor says:

Winner: Michael Phelps

Loser: Kellogg’s


Folks, before I begin I want to make one thing clear… I think both Michael Phelps and Kellogg’s are two great brands, so this post is not about the strengths/weaknesses of personalities businesses or brand icons —it’s about mistakes and missed opportunities in marketing strategies, right here and right now.

I want to use this week’s Michael Phelps’ “crisis” (see my post on it here) to underscore just how much the marketing landscape has changed, and how too many players don’t really understand this change and are making poor choices as a result.  

Today, only dynamic and customized approaches to brand creation and, yes, to brand crises, will work.  In other words, Kellogg’s had many more options to deal with this crisis than the one it executed or seems to have explored.  A s a result, this venerable company is this week’s brand loser; and the man they fired is this week’s winner (because he’s on the brink of discovering and trailblazing an even greater brand).

The Winner:

Michael Phelps has the rare opportunity sometimes given to great personal brands to go against conventional wisdom and reinvent himself for the successful long-haul, in the midst of what seems to be disaster.

Everyone is screaming how stupid Phelps was to risk all of his endorsements (estimated at 100 million dollars) with some “bad” behavior —I say this could be what’s known as a felix culpa, or a happy accident. 

I’m also reminded of General Sherman (Southern readers, please forgive me), who said in the face of criticism: vox populi, vox humbug (translated roughly as “the voice of the people is bunk”).  Sometimes the media firestorm and public “outrage” is just too general to count in real marketing terms where specific Target Market awareness, identification and delivery are the key.

Folks, bottom line, sometimes all the hype just doesn’t matter, and it shouldn’t be our guide for how to deal with specific marketing questions.

How does this work with Phelps? 

Like this.  Michael Phelps was and is bound to “slip up” (as some would have it) or simply be human (as the Marketing Doctor would say).  He is young, struggles with focus outside of the swimming pool thanks to ADD, and is a lot like other people his age —apart from his extraordinary commitment and ability in the water.

The problem is that in the fever of the historic eight gold medals, the scramble for marketing deals left, right and center buried the real Michael Phelps beneath a heap of unsustainable expectations and with obligations to Target Markets that were not natural fits for this brand.

Sure, he should be a role model.  Sure, he should show that despite the odds, great achievements are possible.  But these days, we are more honest about our role models and more forgiving of their lapses.  We might expect Michael Phelps to be superhuman in the pool, but we’re reasonable about what happens outside the pool.  Being caught with a bong doesn’t mean this young man is not a great hero or role model.  Good people sometimes do bad things.  Period.

What has happened this week (and what I hope Phelps will build on) is the re-discovery and re-framing of his brand to match this reality.  Real marketing dictates that a personal brand be inherently honest. 

That means Phelps should focus his sponsorship on brands that fit with his own brand and aim at Target Markets that will forgive his lapses in judgment and might even welcome them (i.e., the coveted 18 to 35 demographic).  Avoid the Mommy and Daddy Target Market.  Take a pass on their indignation and on being dependent on their forgiveness.  Fuggedaboutit.

Also, emphasize the honesty and integrity of a personal brand that doesn’t endorse Frosted Flakes and reevaluate other sponsorship deals that don’t meet the grade. 

Frosted Flakes is a great cereal. (I still love eating it for breakfast on those rare occasions when I don’t care about my primary care doc’s wrath.)  But let’s be honest —it’s loaded with sugar.  It might be the breakfast of future diabetics, but it’s certainly not the breakfast for most champions. 

What was Michael Phelps doing endorsing this cereal in the first place?  (You could probably make an argument that the occasional toke on the bong is less dangerous than a lifetime sugar bath in a country fighting an obesity epidemic… After all, sugar is our drug of choice —but I digress).  

In fact, it would have been a great move had he dropped Kellogg’s before they dropped him —that would have really announced the reinvigorated Phelps brand.  But as I say, he should cut loose the sponsors that don’t fit starting now.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that Michael Phelps should go “bad boy” and start trashing hotel rooms… but he should continue to get the real Phelps out there and find companies and products that recognize the valuable bridge to a valuable Target Market they will have in him.

And, as I said, every once and while, a personal brand —you and I most definitely included— gets the opportunity to grow.  I hope Michael uses this one.

The Loser:

Kellogg’s.  My points above cover why I think Kellogg’s lost this round, so I’ll keep it short. 

Put in simplest terms: Kellogg’s took the conventional route and ignored the fact that had they played this “crisis” right, they could have actually made real inroads into developing and reinforcing Target Markets like young adults, who might embrace Phelps even more now. 

The knee-jerk reaction to distance themselves from Phelps is also wrong because it makes the Kellogg’s brand seem harsh and judgmental (see my bit on good-people-doing-bad-things above). 

Taking it a step further, from Kellogg’s perspective (not Phelps’, who I’ve already said should be happy he’s free of Kellogg’s), Phelps’ sincere Jimmy Stewart apology and persona would probably play well with parents across the land and, if harnessed, might have led to a whole campaign about “real” role models that could have breathed fresh life into the Kellogg’s brand.  Kellogg’s would have been seen as a partner with a real role model and with real values, generating a lot of good will with consumers as a result.

Again, even though I don’t think it would have been the best move for the Phelps brand, real marketing would have seen Kellogg’s using the crisis as a “teaching” moment for the youngsters about the hazards of illegal drugs.

Basically, Kellogg’s move was old marketing; and these days old marketing, whether it’s the one-trick-pony of an advertisement or superficial sponsorship decisions, will do nothing but lose. 

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


Don’t let your branding decisions —whether for yourself or your business— be dictated by the crowd. Find your Target Market and serve it.


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  • 2/9/2009 2:36 AM Evan Shepherd wrote:
    I'm pretty sure that Tony Tiger has
    hit the old bong a time or three.
    All this nonsense after Obama told us,
    flat out,"yea,I inhaled,frequently".
    I hope all reefer heads boycott Kelloggs from now on.
    Billions in lost sales.
    Dumb move,Battle Creek suits.
    (no more Frosted Flakes for me.)
    The real irony is that what snack is perfect for the munchies,
    Frosted Flakes!!!
    Reply to this
  • 2/12/2009 6:28 PM Kikyo wrote:
    Very interesting post- it's true that personal brand is an extension of oneself, so Phelps' choice to go with Kellogs wasn't a great fit in the first place. You're right in calling Kelloggs the looser, though. Since dumping Phelps, Kellogg's reputation dropped from 9 to 16 on Vanno's Company Reputation Index, proving that distancing oneself from a heroic athlete over something that (to most americans) seems trite, was a bad strategy and missed opportunity.
    Reply to this

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