It’s one thing to self-destruct and leave your own personal reputation in tatters. But what happens when your personal flame-out destroys the reputation of a company (or two!), a political party, or an entire nation?
One is among the richest men in the world.
One was once the most powerful man in the world.
And if the third manages to trigger nuclear Armageddon, survivors will say he was the man who destroyed the world.
Just a short time ago, each stood unchallenged, imposing their will, and appearing impregnable in their domain.
Now, in this roller coaster year of 2022, each finds himself in epic free fall, a victim of his own miscalculation, overreach, and blind ambition. Each, a reason why the Greeks invented the word “hubris.” Each learning that the ability to reach an apex in one field of endeavor does not necessarily constitute a transferable skill. Each paying the price for not having a bench of strong advisors who speak truth to power.
As each one sinks, they are wreaking carnage on the brands they are most strongly associated with, and those stains could be devastating and linger for decades.
For a guy who ranks among the greatest entrepreneurs in history, Elon Musk has made a very bad business decision – but it may not be the one you think. Leave it to the MBAs to figure out if Musk overpaid for Twitter. Leave it to the management consultant brainiacs at McKinsey or BCG to tell you that his approach to management makes the bull in a china shop seem sensitive, reasoned, and purposeful.
What may prove far more problematic is that Musk – in making his extraordinarily high-profile takeover of Twitter – appears to have elevated his own personal brand to a higher level of importance, visibility, and consequence than his consumer-facing brands. It’s as if Twitter were to now call itself “Twitter, an Elon Musk Company.” Or if his car company was now known as “Tesla, an Elon Musk Company.”
There’s a reason companies think carefully about aligning their brands with individuals. Ask Papa John’s Pizza. Ask Subway about Jared. Ask Adidas about Ye. If you’ve spent millions making sure that consumers associate your brand with a specific individual, your reward is that your brand rises and falls with every action taken by that individual, for better or worse.
And it is hard to see the “for better” part in Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. In his on-again, off-again corporate raid, he appeared to have expended the same degree of measured thought about the purchase as one might make in deciding to get fries with the burger. His draconian management style triggered a brain drain so severe that questions surfaced about whether Twitter could even keep its platform functioning. Musk used his social media platform to launch serious personal attacks on Anthony Fauci, insult Elizabeth Warren, and encourage Ukraine to fold its tent and concede territory to Russia.
Whatever method lay in his madness seems to center on the idea that Twitter should exercise no restraint on First Amendment rights, which, for practical purposes, amounted to opening the floodgates to conspiracy theorists, right wing hate speech, Covid-19 misinformation, and re-opening the platform to a former President who used Twitter like Goebbels used the volksempfänger.
We, as a society, seem to all be comfortable with the idea that there are limits to the First Amendment rights to free speech, which is why we have laws governing libel and slander, and all agree not to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Why is it that social media companies fail to grasp that virtually yelling fire in a virtual world can result in equally catastrophic consequences? It is immensely ironic: in the end, they appear to not believe that the experience they create for users is real and has real world consequences.
Perhaps it is a simple as this: policing content on social media sites requires a great deal of dedicated and trained personnel, which adds a huge cost to operations. It’s so much more profitable to claim that they are not obligated to spend this money, citing the First Amendment as justification.
But at a far more banal level – simple business strategy – Musk’s approach appears grievously flawed. Did Musk ever pause to find out who actually uses Twitter? A 2020 study by Pew Research established that the “most active 10% of users produced 92% of all tweets by U.S. adults, and that of these highly active users, 69% identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents.” Yes, Twitter is used predominantly by Democrats, and Musk thinks the best business plan to turn Twitter into a thriving, profitable enterprise is to alienate the people who use it.
Exercising the power of his personal brand to change Twitter is going to make the Twitter brand worth less. As business strategies go, this is dumber than a box of hammers.
But the stench of his personal brand may be a far bigger problem for Tesla, a powerhouse brand that is now the BMW of the climate-change literati, the place where global warming is taken down by Ferrari-cool. Well, let’s ask the same question: who buys Teslas? The Manual reports that Tesla buyers are not necessarily Democrats (ownership skews only slightly in that direction), but they are definitively upscale and educated – “one-third of all Tesla drivers have either a master’s degree or a Ph.D. (compared to 13% of the general population).” It’s a good bet that such a well-educated and well-heeled clientele would be disturbed to be associated with an individual who is turning a major media platform into a cesspool for hate-speech and conspiracy theorists.
But that’s what happens when the all-new “Elon Musk” brand – which, post-Twitter, wreaks of political extremism, right-wing politics, and incompetent arrogance – is linked with the “Tesla” brand. Suddenly it won’t be so cool to own a Tesla. Suddenly, everyone in the market for an electric vehicle begins to check out what the mainstream brands are doing. Maybe a Nissan Leaf is a nicer fit for the drive to the pilates studio – it runs on electricity and does not wreak the musky odor of right-wing extremism.
This is not, of course, the first time a super-rich person decided to buy a major media outlet, and it won’t be the last. In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased the highly influential Washington Post. The difference is that Bezos did not install himself as editor, CEO, business strategist, and public spokesperson. Bezos made the purchase with the goal of perpetuating an admired brand, not changing it.
When considering the relationship between a single charismatic entrepreneur and the huge company he founded, the more instructive parallel to Musk and Tesla would be Steve Jobs and Apple. Jobs was keenly – profoundly – aware that his own personal actions, style, and decisions could have a huge impact on Apple’s business success. He made deeply purposeful choices about his public comments, associations, political allegiances, his music, and even – perhaps especially -- his clothing. He was keenly aware of the power of his personal brand, and he never wanted it to be disconsonant with the consumer brand with which he was so thoroughly identified.
In contrast, the current Elon Musk brand comes off as a rogue, cavalier dilettante who acts purely on impulse, reveals worrisome political leanings, and proceeds with reckless abandon and arrogant disregard for the people and practices that built Twitter into a highly valued media platform.
Good for you if you made money on Twitter. But it might be a good time to reassess your holdings in Tesla.
Of course, Musk is small potatoes when contrasted to Donald Trump… but some of the same branding principles apply.
Donald Trump very clearly set out with the full intent of subsuming the Republican Party brand beneath his own personal brand. Donald Trump used a Trojan horse – his alleged business acumen – to position himself as a superior candidate on a critical element of the traditional Republican brand… savvy economic leadership. But from the moment he leveraged his claimed financial genius to gain traction in Republican Party politics, he began changing the party’s brand toward messages he could claim as his own. No other Republican dared to be as overtly racist, xenophobic, or untruthful as Trump… but he proved that racism, xenophobia, and deceit were the engines powering the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party, and he harnessed that base to stage his first coup: gaining control of a major political party.
Over time, Trump gradually accomplished a subtle but profound branding achievement: he created a powerful sub-brand name within the Republican Party that is wholly and completely identified with him… the “MAGA Republican.” Trump has effectively splintered the Republican Party into two segments. You might say that the Democrats also have two segments, but “centrists” and “progressives” are descriptors, not brands. It is easy to imagine that if Donald Trump does not win the Republican Party nomination, he will formally announce the founding of the “MAGA” Party and become a third-party candidate under that banner.
Like Musk, Donald Trump’s personal branding (both “Trump”
and “MAGA”) now operate as separate brands that are overpowering the
consumer-facing “Republican” brand.
The consequence for the Republican Party is profound. As Donald Trump creates horrendous headlines (“terminating the Constitution,” hosting dinners with antisemites and white nationalists, a bottomless hole of legal defeats, and hand-picking disastrous Senate candidates), the party must essentially choose: will it remain one party which Trump exerts unrivaled influence through his personal command of the approximately 35% who comprise the MAGA wing, or must it ultimately splinter into two parties?
For all the discontent we’ve heard about Trump and all the reports of Republicans preparing to run for the Presidency, no announcements have been made. All those wannabees know that it will be very hard to win the nomination in a race in which Donald Trump owns the “MAGA” brand of Republicans. But the even tougher challenge is this: all those same wannabees know they can’t win the general election if they have alienated Trump’s “MAGA” Republicans during the primary process.
The Republican conundrum: the Party can’t win with Trump, and they can’t win without him.
Even more problematic: the Republican Party has lost control of the Republican brand. They couldn’t change its meaning if they wanted to. Today, the words “Republican Party” have been drained of whatever meaning they once held. The party of “law and order” attempted to overthrow the government of the United States, believes a mob attack that resulted in death and carnage in the Capitol Building was “legitimate political discourse,” and steals top-secret government documents. The Party that is “Pro-Life” refuses to limit access to military assault rifles that slaughter innocent civilians and elementary school children. The Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush is now forced to grovel before trashy conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Party of strong fiscal policy did not even attempt to write a party platform for their 2020 Convention, not did they offer an official policy position for their 2022 campaign season… each an open admission that the Party stands for whatever Donald Trump said five minutes before.
Republicans no longer bother to articulate what they favor, preferring to allow meaning to be inferred from what they oppose: immigration, LGBTQ rights, equal access to the ballot box, a woman’s right to make her own health choices, the idea that Black Lives Matter, and the validity of our elections.
Republican branding, in the age of Donald Trump, is the practice of articulating all the things they hate.
Musk is taking his wrecking ball to a couple of consumer brands, and Trump is wrecking a major political party brand… but give the prize to Vladimir Putin. He is ruining the brand of an entire country… likely for generations.
The injustice, savagery, and cruelty of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine leaves us all in numbed shock. Putin has made civilian casualties an essential element of his military tactics, with the unambiguous goal of crushing Ukraine’s will to continue. Putin’s targeting of civilian residences, hospitals, and schools is, for all intent and purposes, a good working definition of terrorism.
Why the United States has not formally declared Russia to be the fifth nation categorized as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is baffling. What Russia is doing in Ukraine resides in the same moral universe that caused the United States to publicly condemn North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Iran.
There will be those who assert that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is comparable to the misguided military blunders that the United States committed in sovereign nations Vietnam and Iraq. The difference is that the electorate of the United States soundly punished the leaders of these misguided expeditions. Lyndon Johnson became one of the few Presidents to not seek re-election, and George W. Bush, pilloried for his decisions in Iraq, saw his party lose the White House in 2008.
The reputation of the United States was damaged by Vietnam and Iraq, but the overall brand of the United States was not defined by these events.
Russians, however, appear to be utterly incapable of altering the course of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Yes, small caravans bolted to the borders when Putin’s conscription began. Yes, some brave reporters, outspoken civic leaders, and gutsy protestors have spoken truth about the war, but nothing is changing. Most Russians are not willing to take the personal risk to join in protest. To fail to protest such evil is to enable and embrace it. It becomes a part of the essential identity. It becomes the brand.
Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia. Russians would no doubt prefer to think of their brand in association with historical achievements in literature, music, dance and science. But the longer this war of atrocities lasts, the more it will become central to the identity of the Russian people, the latest installment of a brand historically linked to brutal authoritarian regimes.
Glasnost and perestroika? Two quaint words that will stand as the exceptions that prove the rule. The citizens of Russia had a brief shining moment to embrace a new Russia of free people, to routinize democratic practices and begin the long process of redefining the brand. Instead, they allowed Vladimir Putin to seal their identity for decades as a country ruled by barbarians, enabled by a citizenry whose core identity is acquiescence, abdication, and moral vacancy.
Go for it, Elon, Donald, and Vlad. You have put your personal brands so far above the brands of the organizations you lead that they will not be able to purge the stench for decades. The die is cast: the identities will be etched in stone… Elon Musk’s Twitter and Tesla, Donald Trump’s Republican Party, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Brands that once held an inherent meaning, now all perversely redefined for the glory of mediocre megalomaniacs.
That is what happens when an individual destroys a brand… and when an organization allows the individual to do it.
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