How being picture perfect is bad news for brands and celebs alike.

By Tasman Richardson

I’ve often heard people say, “Is it any wonder we feel insecure when celebrities who are already gorgeous still feel the need to digitally enhance their public image? I’m talking about removing every line on their faces, Photoshopping their bodies, etc.; and let’s not forget that’s after being done up by professional makeup and hair stylists. Well, celebrities, unlike us mere mortals, exist in a sort of limbo since they are rarely seen in the flesh. Imagine living your life entirely through remote representations, cardboard cut-outs, billboards, television ads, magazines. You’d be on display all the time. Not only that, but most of those displays would be larger than life magnifications of your face, which is something normally used to connect one-on-one, a tool meant to express feeling and reaction intimately and proportionately.

At that scale, both in terms of physical size and geographic coverage, the face is transformed into a symbol; it’s more of a logo than a human portrait. To give that logo personal context is another challenge. A big face can’t hang out with you and bond over coffee (although I have a few pals who say they’d be willing to try for that Gosling guy), so the only way to get to know these larger than life personalities is through publicity and big screen roles. All of this abstract remote information gets pooled together and forms an identity for us to latch onto. Naturally, steering a ship that big requires careful planning, so public identities need to be crafted and developed with clear direction so that there’s as little backtracking and revision as possible a.k.a. damage control. Sometimes this plan goes awry of course… ahem, Lindsey Lohan.

So, taking all that into consideration, it makes perfect sense that brand identities and celebrity public identities would have a lot in common. That’s why it’s even more impressive when celebs like Cate Blanchett volunteer to show themselves as-is and un-doctored, which she did in a recent issue of Intelligent Life magazine. It allows us to connect to the familiar textures and weathering that we see in our own mirrors; and, because of that common ground, it lifts the curtain a little, uncovering the machinery that is constantly working to preserve the illusion and maintain the gap between us and them. Brands that offer that kind of revealing view will always win with consumers so long as the intimacy is genuine. If Blanchett had followed her au natural magazine cover with an obvious sales tie-in (cosmetics, health food, etc.), the public reaction would have been worse than rejection. It would be a memorable violation of trust, a long-lasting post-it note of skepticism that would stick itself onto the collective consciousness.

One pattern for success can be seen through the Tom Hanks/Will Smith example: start small and work your way up. Both started in television sitcoms, which mean they were in our houses weekly for years. Then they worked up to the big screen, with more comedy, some action and some thrills, winning us over by starting out as ordinary (empathize) and later taking us to extraordinary (fantasize). Both Hanks and Smith have had serious dramatic roles that were totally loved by the public. And now their brands never seem to diminish even when they do take a misstep. (I’m looking at you Larry Crowne and that goes double for you I Am Legend.)

This kind of behaviour works because as they climbed the ladder of stardom, they took the time to connect with people… and then rose above the ordinary while taking us along for the ride. Successful brands that share this story could include Apple, Google, President’s Choice, and so on. We’ve seen this pattern reversed too. Take for example the brands and personalities that start so bold and serious, there’s nowhere left to go but down. Stars like Tom Cruise come off as flawless leading men but this uber aloofness invites close scrutiny by a public that feasts on failure. Think IBM, Sony, (and just about any bank you can name).

So, while the majority of brands would like to be seen as picture perfect, it seems people are more likely to relate to companies that openly expose their humble roots. By connecting with consumers early, brands can enjoy growth without alienation.

Is there a celebrity you root for? A rag to riches brand you follow or a company you love to hate? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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