As I’m writing this I’m sat in my hotel suite in New York looking over Union Square and it’s 5am. I can’t sleep. Jetlag. Or excitement of being in one of my favorite cities again. Probably both. It’s almost ten years to the day that I first came to New York, amid some dark times. I was going through a messy divorce, my business was in the process of going bankrupt and I’d just been involved in a huge car crash on the motorway which I was lucky to survive. In the middle of all that, I came over to New York for my birthday and fell in love with the city.
Unsure of what to do next I decided to write a book in order to try and land a job. I knew I wanted to work in social media, but I didn’t have the right qualifications. I knew that I wanted to speak on stage, but I couldn’t think of anything that I’d talk about. I wanted to work in marketing with big brands, but I had no agency experience or any real knowledge of brand management. So I came home from New York, made a plan, and wrote a book called “Sex, Brands and Rock’n’Roll“. It was a fun book to write, but more so to help me process my own thoughts and learn about how to be a brand marketer, than for any commercial intent.
I was also suffering with depression (no surprise really considering all the bad things that were happening around me) and so I thought I needed to give myself a creative outlet in order to stay in one piece and give myself something to focus on.
I knew that if I forced myself to write about marketing and this career that I wanted to have, then I might be able to make sense of things. I had a feeling that writing a professional book about marketing in a language that my mum could understand might be a good idea. I was inspired by the way that Prof. Brian Cox explained the complexities of science to a mass audience (in very simple language), for his TV series on the BBC. Maybe if I did the same, things would work out? Act as if, right? I had no grand plan, or professional qualifications, just a desire to be interesting, useful and relevant.
A few months later, I self published this little beauty and gave a copy to my mum. She approved!
The star of my book was Marilyn Monroe. The book contained of several short stories about marketing, told through the eyes of a celebrity. I also spoke about confidence with Liam Gallagher, managing a PR crisis with Tiger Woods, speaking in meaningful soundbites with JFK, the art of standing out with Lady Gaga and growing a multi-billion dollar brand with Oprah.
This was almost ten years ago. Looking back now on how I juggled my time in between my personal life and my career, any success I have received is (numericallyprobably not a million miles away from Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours!. A beautiful coincidence perhaps given that I first discovered him through his New Yorker column and his brilliant book Outliers when I first came to New York.
So here I am. 10,000 hours later. With a couple of books and hundreds of speaking gigs behind me. On the verge of starting a new global role at IBM, having had a string of dream jobs since I wrote that book. And would you believe, last night I was meeting in a New York bar, talking over old fashioned’s (obviously) with people who managed Marilyn Monroe’s persona brand and her estate. It was a scintillating conversation that felt quite surreal. As a huge fan of Marilyn I was pretty starstruck, even if only by association.
(Note: Marilyn’s image rights were purchased a few years ago for $30M. They currently bring in around $5M per year in licensing revenue but Authentic Brands who now manage her rights, expect that her “best career is ahead of her” as they seek to capitalise on her image via technology, Snap filters etc… It’s an “interesting” vision.)
After the chat I headed back up to my room and reminisced. I’ll never forget that first time I wrote about Marilyn, hoping that her story would inspire me to get a job and others to become better marketers.
Funny how things work out. Some of my friends say it’s because of “the law of attraction” and that “thoughts become things”. Others say it’s simply positive thinking combined with action that gets stuff done, and the ability to “act as if…”. Whatever it is, good things happen when you put your mind to it. Certainly worked for me. Focusing on marketing got my head out of a dark place and I’ll be forever grateful for the career it has given me.
So let me share with you a short story about what we were talking about. Because ten years after I wrote Sex, Brands and Rock’n’Roll, the book which landed me my first corporate gig working at Phones 4U (they wanted someone who could describe social media in simple language to executives). Since 2007, branding as a discipline has taken a bit of a beating and marketing has developed a bad rep. Much of it deserved, since unscrupulous marketers love to ruin fine platforms with their ads and clickbait, but branding as a concept, I am convinced, is as strong as ever.
Over those old fashioned’s, we were talking about the value of a brand. And this modern idea that “consumers don’t want a relationship with a brand anymore”. It’s a line I’ve used a few times myself, and one I stopped using when I found myself in Las Vegas earlier this year, faced with a man who was about to commit suicide but who had stumbled into Christian Dior where I was having a meeting with their brand ambassador. That story made its way into my new book “Ten Words”, but when I saw the power of a brand story change a person’s perspective on life right in front of my very eyes, I knew that it was not branding as a concept which was struggling in 2017, but the art of brand storytelling to people who are naturally cynical and suspicious of anyone who wants to sell them stuff. I was curious to understand which brand stories Marilyn’s people liked the best.
So here we are, in Hyatt Union Square, a fabulous bar where the rare bourbons are treated like museum exhibits, and we’re discussing the value of a brand. I shared with my new friends my love of bourbon and Marilyn, and told them I devoted a chapter to her in my new book. I loved that she was an incredibly smart lady who was comfortable being typecast as the “dumb blonde”, because she knew that’s what her audience wanted most of the time.
But in her personal time, she collected rare books from Pickwick’s in LA and The Strand on Broadway, the famous New York bookstore backing on to our hotel. Marilyn was incredibly well read and left a library full of rare prints and first editions when she died. They shared with me a story that Chanel has taken a lot of credit for, the one where Marilyn only wore Chanel No. 5 to bed. It’s a story which has served Chanel’s brand very well, but one which originated from an ice cream parlour a few blocks away.
Serendipity 3 is owned by a wonderfully eccentric chap called Stephen Bruce. Over the years he has served everyone from Jackie O (he refused to sell her the recipe for his frozen hot chocolate), to Warhol, the Kardashian’s and Clintons. But his favourite customer was Marilyn. She came in once for her favourite sundae and refused to give him her coat. Mr. Bruce asked respectfully a couple of times but Marilyn refused. When pressed about what wonderful gown she was concealing underneath, Stephen asked what she had on underneath.
“Just Chanel No. 5, darling”.
And so the brand story evolved. For both Seredipity 3 and for Chanel. According to Serendipity and the authentic brand owners who manage Marilyn’s rights, her brand touches still touches people in a profound way. They were too gracious to give me specific details, but they knew of several people who had themselves gone to Seredipity 3 in order to capture a bit of Marilyn’s sparkle, especially at dark times in their lives. For some, this little ice cream shop, combined with the memory of Marilyn is salvation.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Marilyn’s brand has received a resurgence due to the body positive messages she evangelised years before it was politically correct to do so. Her partnership with Nike in the 1990’s lead to a short campaign for Nike Women which created one of my favourite brand ads of all time. It’s a timeless ad which has been doing the rounds on social media again recently, in light of helping to inspire young girls to feel happy and confident with their shape. Of all the brand campaigns that had been run in association with Marilyn’s estate, this was one of the ones they seemed most proud of. It’s a gorgeous ad which was never run globally but one which has touched a lot of people since it was first run as a print ad.
I often wonder these days what challenges and attitudes I will face from my twin girls when they grow up. How will they feel about their bodies and will they be looking to celebrities for comfort or inspiration when they grow up?
Anyway, small anecdotes, and ones which probably speak more about the value of Marilyn and her values than the quality of the marketing teams at Nike and Chanel, but that being said, people clearly do want relationships with brands, they just don’t want to call it that.
So it’s down to us. Marketers need to strive to tell better stories, as fast and as compellingly as possible. Not just stories that help us to sell more stuff or to build “loyalty”, but stories which touch us personally and give some form of meaning to what we do.