John Tantillo's Brand Winner... And Loser: Michael Jackson and Governor Sanford

Brand Winner…

   And Loser

John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week:   

Winner: Michael Jackson   

Loser:   Governor Sanford

Folks, this week our winner and loser tell us a lot about personal branding, especially what it can and cannot do.

The Winner

It might seem strange to call Michael Jackson a winner given his death Thursday, but the reactions in the wake of his death have shown all of us the incredible strength of his brand.

Michael Jackson was and will remain in the first tier of entertainers. His influence was profound and global, and the worldwide reaction to his death proves it. You know a brand is strong when people would rather that none of the scandal had ever happened to it. 

After all, more often than not, when personal brands fail, many people actually seem to welcome the fall.

What’s basically happening here in terms of branding is this: Michael Jackson built such powerful brand equity early on that his brand has seemed to defy the standard rules of personal branding. Those rules demand that the personal brander constantly make course adjustments to stay strong. (See my post on Martha Stewart here.

From a marketing perspective, talent was Michael Jackson’s core product feature. This is what is being honored now. His related product features were the way he dressed, the company he kept and his strange lifestyle.

His upcoming tour was an attempt to restore the core product feature in the public’s mind.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. However, what happened instead has made everyone remember the core product feature —the talent— because, frankly, it was one-in-a-billion.

Michael Jackson shows that sometimes a very powerful brand can coast forever on equity built long ago on a single, powerful, core product feature. (Sinatra and Elvis also come to mind.)  

One word of warning for the rest: this probably doesn’t apply to us mere mortals, who should follow the course adjustment model! Besides, imagine what Michael Jackson could have achieved with the highest level of brand management… 

We’ll never know. The world has lost a great entertainer.

The Loser

If there is one personal brand that doesn’t have much room for error, it is definitely a politician’s personal brand.

For this reason, Governor Sanford is this week’s loser. 

Simply put, a political personal brand does not have the same kind of latitude that a celebrity personal brand has. 


Because a politician’s personal brand represents you, the voter. As a result, morality, values and a thousand other considerations play a much more significant part in the branding equation.

Governor Sanford’s teary press conference makes for great television and would have been a successful PR coup for a non-political personal brand, but he’s the governor of a state, with a clear responsibility to his constituents (i.e., that includes being physically present).

He showed contrition on that podium, but he also showed weakness… And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the revelation of his whereabouts raised too many questions that assault the core features of his brand (i.e., how can a fiscal conservative think it’s all right to bill the taxpayer $12,000 for a jaunt to Argentina?)

Unlike a celebrity brand, the core product features and the related product features of a political brand are much more entangled. Sanford’s core features were his family-first and taxpayer-first values, but the recent debacle hinged on behavior, or, if you will, related product features that contradict the core features.

In fact, these related product features are now so dominant that they have begun to cannibalize the core product features so that the consumer, in this case the voter, simply does not know what the brand is. 

Not having a clear identity for a personal brand spells doom for that brand. There might be a little tolerance in product branding for some confusion, but there is none in personal branding. This is even more important when the personal brand is in the “executive” branch and must be a leader (legislators have a bit more leeway).

Even if Sanford addresses these contradictions, the brand damage has been done, and it is hard to imagine a comeback. 

My guess is that in the end he might have to resign, because the brand that the people elected and the political class supported does not exist anymore, and he has become ineffectual. In the long run, a political career is probably out of the question.

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


Never think that your brand is so strong that course corrections aren’t required. Even if it is that strong, there is no brand that won’t benefit from wise management.


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