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Commentary by Randall Rothenberg

THE DILEMMA OF 'STAR BRANDING'

And How This Year's Oscars Demonstrate the Problem

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Advertising opportunities aside, this year’s Academy Awards wouldn’t seem to hold great meaning for the producers of consumer products and services. But the nominations are an ominous portent of the immensely difficult path forward for the companies that crave our consumption.
Photo: AP
It's hard to imagine that Reese Witherspoon can or will ever become a bankable name, to the same degree that Katharine Hepburn or Julia Roberts did.
For the Oscars are showing that it is becoming increasingly, immensely difficult to create new, sustainable stars.

No quite Cary Grant
Take a glance at the nominees for best actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Terrence Howard, Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix and David Straithairn. However prodigious their talents, few would argue that a Cary Grant -- or even a mid-career Harrison Ford -- will ever emerge from this bunch, able to “open” a film by virtue of marquee attraction alone.

So too with the best actress nominees. Although, among them, Judi Dench, Felicity Huffman, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon have shown the enviable ability to charm, amuse and emote, it’s hard to imagine that any one of them can or will ever become a bankable name, to the same degree that Katharine Hepburn (or, in the last decade, Julia Roberts) did.

There is not a Colgate in this bunch. We are entering an era in which the best we can hope for is a Tom’s of Maine.

Out of touch with popular taste?
This year’s Oscar process (which also disgorged a slew of “Best Picture” nominees that, collectively, seem to have been seen by fewer people than any in history) is being dismissed as an anomaly -- the selections of an Academy out of touch with popular taste. One can argue, though, that it is popular taste that has been put on trial and found AWOL. Mass hits are now the exception, not the rule. Stardom is now a transitory, not an enduring, phenomenon. And brands are growing smaller in scale and transferability.

What underlies the dilemma of “star branding?” It is the direct relationship between the costs of crafting and producing creative content and the fickleness of consumers: As the former goes dramatically down, the latter goes strikingly up. The more people are awash in images, information and ideas, the less apt they are to stay focused for any length of time on one person, place or thing. And in what’s been dubbed “the attention economy,” sustained consumer focus is the foundation of brand endurance.

Distribution hegemony
Powerful new brands still can be created, of course. But in a world where your average 14-year-old can manipulate video, images, sound and text with the mastery of an old Hollywood studio technician, and where each computer with broadband access is becoming, in effect, its own personalized multimedia network, it’s becoming harder than ever to assume, as we did for 100 years, that distribution hegemony alone leads to brand strength.

Google, eBay, MySpace and Swiffer, among other new power brands, show that even older rules apply: To establish a brand, you need to be able to attract a crowd, and to attract a crowd, you have to fill an unmet need -- respectively, in their cases, for unlimited information, infinite product choice, unrestricted community and really fast cleaning. And -- vitally important -- you have to innovate continually, to anticipate the fresh demands that will creep up and around those consumer needs.

It’s the latter activity that gives the most hope, especially for the owners of established brands, whether in media space or in “meat space.” You have the platform. You have the audience. To keep them from drifting away from your star to that new character actor around the corner, though, you must stay ahead of their wants, and take the risk of fulfilling them -- over and over again.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen-Hamilton.

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