Repositioning a brand’s image isn’t easy, especially when its legacy is as volatile as the Miss Universe Organization’s has been over the past seven decades. Known for its beauty pageants, the brand is now looking to position itself as more than just the evening gowns and bathing suits that have characterized the organization, and instead focus on its year-round philanthropy and diverse community of delegates. It’s doing so by leaning into fandom, building its social communities and even experimenting in the metaverse.
How Miss Universe is overcoming controversial image through fandom and social media
These efforts are being led by the organization’s new CEO Amy Emmerich, who joined the company in February as its first chief executive in 20 years. Emmerich, who previously served as global president and chief content officer at Refinery29, has a history of projects with bold political commentary. Past projects include documentaries like “How the Abortion Ban Would Change Women’s Lives” and “How This Former Child Bride Spoke Out in Pakistan,” which seem to stand in stark contrast to the world peace hawking notion that many presume about the work of Miss Universe and its beauty queens.
To start, Emmerich is flipping the wording of Miss Universe's tagline, “confidently beautiful,” in order to reflect the evolution of societal expectations of women since its inception in 1952.
“I arrived and a lot of men said, ‘Oh, you're gonna flip [Miss Universe] into an empowerment platform,’” Emmerich said. “And I was like, ‘What? I'm not, no. Have you looked under the hood of this thing? It is already there.’ It's all about how you tell the story of what it is.”
One of the ways the Miss Universe Organization plans to start expanding its cultural reach is to harness the power of fandom. The organization already has a substantial social footprint, about 23.3 million followers across all platforms. But Emmerich views the potential of the pageant’s following as previously untapped, explaining that “from experience, it takes a long time to build a footprint…And here was [Miss Universe] with this massive and truly hungry community. And the business hadn’t been really resourced or focused on that.”
But in many cases, mere numbers aren’t enough. Margot Mifflin, author of “Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood,” said proving the worth of beauty pageants in the current age “is going to be really difficult because people don't need the platform of the pageant to present themselves and their beauty because of social media.”
“There's so many mediums for women to build audiences directly for whatever they're trying to achieve,” said Mifflin. “And the appeal of it, the glamour of it, is sort of antiquated at this point, especially with the gowns and the swimsuits,” although she pointed to Miss Universe’s advantage over competitor pageants as a global stage for showcasing diversity and expanding reach internationally.
That’s why Emmerich has sweeping plans for a universe of entertainment content outside of the yearly pageant broadcast—unscripted series, documentaries and scripted films—to sweeten the deal for competing on the show. Paula Shugart, the president of Miss Universe Organization for nearly 25 years, has already kicked off development for a series that she described as a combination of Netflix’s “Cheer,” “Formula 1” and Anthony Bourdain. She imagines the series would introduce and follow each of the 90 competitors for the Miss Universe crown and their journey leading up to the official broadcast.
“That's what we've been talking about: once people can relate and can feel vested, then that'll change the scope of the three hour [Miss Universe competition],” Shugart said.
Other ideas include a documentary about the pageant’s history, the difficult responsibility of performing the role of Miss Universe, and even a rom-com about a former winner who apparently met her partner on TikTok a month before winning the crown.
The annual Miss Universe broadcast will air in the U.S. on Fox, and in Spanish on Telemundo, but a date for the next crowning has not yet been announced. In 2021, Miss Universe was watched by 2.7 million people on Fox, down from 3.8 million in 2019, the last time the pageant aired on the network due to pandemic cancellations. The broadcast also pulled 1.5 million viewers on Telemundo. As with most live TV events, viewership numbers continue to deteriorate, but the broadcast's biggest obstacle lies in its image.
Emmerich referred to the ways in which the press and some of the organization’s past ownership—presumably Donald Trump’s particularly scandalous reign from 1996 to 2015—have perpetuated the pageant’s controversial image; however, she doesn’t believe it’s too late. Even Miss Universe’s new tagline is a small start to what she said a female gaze can do to shape a future more in line with the organization’s evolving values: “Once upon a time, [the pageant] was about what we used to think is beauty. But truly, we all know now beauty comes in every shape and size, and what matters is how you carry yourself; it's the confidence.”
“Global brands face this challenge all the time,” said Timothy Calkins, brand consultant and professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “I believe it is true that there are lots of places in the world where this competition is resonant. The problem is, on cultural matters like this, the U.S. market has enormous sway. And that is true in terms of sponsorships, in terms of media coverage.”
While Calkins presented the caveat that many global brands are capable of success without an American audience, he believes it’s a necessity for Miss Universe to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a super entertainer. Ad Age spoke with multiple media agencies, who all expressed the sentiment that beauty pageants are “very much off the map at this point” for U.S. advertisers, with one buyer saying they "don’t think we have any clients who ask about them specifically."
To raise partner appeal, the Miss Universe leaders are also dreaming up fan conventions, leadership summits, tourism packages and product licensing deals—from beauty products tailored to each international market to developing sustainably-made sashes. Miss Universe recently launched a collection of NFTs, and Emmerich teased a potential “Miss Metaverse” spinoff, as the Web3 space takes shape. To sum it up, they want to shift focus to the women and their positive impact around the globe, rather than the optics of a beauty competition, but without losing its entertainment potential for viral fandom.
“There's this competition, the pageant every year, but as we talk about 365 days a year, there's so much more than that,” Emmerich said. She explained that a start to shifting the narrative of the organization outside of that one, three-hour broadcast, was to track the data of each delegate’s impact on their communities year-round and relay that back to audiences and brand partners.
“This is a country that loves data, and how do we use that to tell the story right now?” asked Emmerich, noting that proof of impact is critical to changing the narrative, especially as Shugart adds that negative coverage from “media is probably our number one problem—people love a scandal.”
One way the organization will do this is through supporting each of their title holders in philanthropic and business ventures. Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, the current reigning Miss Universe, is the first Indian delegate to win in 21 years and sought to launch a menstrual equity program in her country, where she has said conversation around menstruation is particularly poor. With the support of the Miss Universe Organization, the program has become a global, multi-year initiative to not only spread awareness, but raise funds and, ultimately, provide women with greater self sufficiency.
“The higher your brand awareness, the more challenging it is to change the meaning of the brand,” Calkins said. “For the Miss Universe competition, it is an enormous problem. The brand is very well known and it has a long history, but the problem is that there are some really negative associations with the brand. And to be relevant in the world today, there is a huge need to change what that brand stands for, and what it means.”
For example, competitor pageants have removed categories like the swimsuit from their pageants. But Miss Universe endeavors to, alongside its brand repositioning, preserve the celebration of classical pageantry.
“After surveying the delegates, we found that the term ‘pageantry’ was largely desired as the fun part of the competition,” said Emmerich. “The delegates work very hard on these categories and enjoy walking the stage and owning their power and confidence—we cannot simply erase those events because the media doesn't understand it. The loyal community and our delegates love the glamour and pageantry, so we are aiming to simply evolve it.”
“Somebody asked me once years ago, ‘How do you feel that you're putting women in a position of being judged? I said, ‘The only time they feel judged is by people like you, not me,’” Shugart said. “When you become Miss Universe, the course of your life changes forever. Those are the stakes…I feel like we are pretty badass, so don’t judge me and I won’t judge you. But I will let the army of the 10,000 women that come through our system every year that go on to do great things—I'll let them speak for me.”