Moments before Shaquille O’Neal sauntered on stage at CES, the man he has entrusted with his licensing agreements took a few moments to brag about him. O’Neal, who had flown in to reveal the secrets of his personal brand to a rapt audience of marketing executives, sat in the back of the ballroom while the presentation began. Ian Gomar, president of Shaquille O’Neal Consumer Properties, showed the first slide: SHAQUILLE O’NEAL BRAND UPDATE 2015.
The state of the Shaquille O’Neal brand is strong. In 2013 O’Neal’s licensing deals brought in $21 million, thanks to a dizzying array of products that span jewelry shops, department stores, and 7-Elevens. He is the face of Buick, IcyHot, and Gold Bond. And 2015 will be even more ambitious: it is the year Shaq reps a new "sprayable energy drink" that purports to caffeinate you through skin contact. Countless other branding opportunities loom on the horizon. "We’re looking at Shaq snacks," Gomar tells us. "We’re obviously talking to Kraft about Shaq ’n’ Cheese."
"We're obviously talking to Kraft about Shaq & Cheese."
CES is first and foremost a convention about physical things: cars, TVs, laptops, accessories. But while products are made by companies, they get sold by brands — that chatty amalgam of ads, sponsored posts, and promoted tweets that blanket the internet. Brands, inarguably, have never been weirder. My favorite Twitter account in ages, Brands Saying Bae, records Taco Bell, Sonic Drive-In, and others mimicking teen speech on Twitter in the hopes that it will drive us to their garbage food. Few of us would ever willingly spray a nameless caffeinated energy drink all over our bodies. But if the drink has Shaq’s smiling face on it, who knows?
For one day at CES, I wanted to stop thinking about products and consider instead how they’re sold to us. And so I was happy to learn that Brand Innovators, a community of 6,000 marketers and advertising professionals, were gathering this week to discuss the latest tactics for harvesting wallet-share from millennial trendfluencers like me. (Trendfluencers are a real thing now and there’s nothing you can do about it.)
The main thing you learn when you talk to marketers these days is that brands are weird because brands are scared. They’ve never had as much competition for our attention as they do today. A Taco Bell executive at the conference wistfully recalled the days when her team would put together a TV ad, ship it off for broadcast, and call it a day. Now the company’s social media team works around the clock flogging nachos on Twitter using the very best practices the industry has so far devised:
Taco Bae.— Taco Bell (@tacobell) April 8, 2014
But in panel after panel, marketers for companies like Walgreens and Coca-Cola admitted that they often don’t know what’s working on social media. A successful TV ad campaign has a clear effect on sales; the value of a viral "bae" tweet is much more in doubt. So how to move forward with what everyone in this room calls "a content strategy"? Does Shaq need a content strategy, or is his celebrity enough?
"If you get it right, it doesn’t compete with advertising — nuh-uh," says David Shing, AOL’s notorious digital prophet, who goes by Shingy. "It competes with popular culture. That’s the thing we’re trying to win in this war." Shingy delivers the keynote address at Brand Innovators, and the war metaphor is no joke. Distracting you from whatever you’re doing long enough for a company to make its impression on you has never required more brute force. "You need to think about your brand as a hack," Shingy says.
"You need to think about your brand as a hack."
Shingy hacked his personal brand into our collective consciousness last year after a series of press stories about him played up the more comic aspects of his persona: the absurd job title; its ambiguous responsibilities; his oversized glasses and Troll Doll hair; and his penchant for marketing aphorisms that sound like self-parody. The New Yorker paraphrased a recent speech: "Everyone is talking about SoLoMo — social, local, mobile — but they should be talking about HoMo: home/mobile, cell phones used on the couch."
I’m always down to talk about HoMo, but I was more curious what advice Shingy had for Shaq. In his keynote, Shingy has but 20 minutes, as he says, "to ram 1,000 ideas at you." It is not an understatement: Shingy talks incredibly fast, strafing the audience with word bullets on advertising trends, demographic changes, the growth of various social networks, and his favorite quote from Leonardo Da Vinci. ("Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.") (It's not a real Da Vinci quote.) He paces back and forth in drop-crotch pants and a paint-splattered jacket; in most of my photographs, he appears as a blur. I make a futile effort to follow the thread of his logic for a few minutes before giving up, turning on my recorder, and deciding to listen to his presentation later at half speed.
When I do, I discover that Shingy is basically free-associating. A slide deck keeps him roughly tethered to his trend forecasting, but the leaps are hard to follow. Here’s about 10 seconds of his talk: "It’s gonna converge in the home. The connected home’s gonna be this: it’s smart art objects. Beautification is right here, right now. It’s all about celebrating the beautification of objects. So the internet of things? Forget that. It’s the internet of everything. Because what’s gonna happen is the one problem which everyone’s gonna want to talk about here — standards. You’re gonna buy a Toshiba TV, and an LG fridge, and you’re gonna buy some other brands’ things. None of that shit can talk to each other. We need standards."
We need a nap.
Shingy tells the audience that the most important medium of the day — "the one thing that’s hot, hot, hot, if you want to talk about trends, dude" — is the notification tray on his phone. "It’s either a text from my babe, or it’s an update from someone I give a shit about," as Shingy puts it. He concludes by telling the audience to pursue sound, sight, motion, and "feel" in everything they do — both physical feel, like the vibration of a phone, and emotional feel. And then he showed some funny ads.
Brands are weird because brands are scared
When he took the stage, Shaq shared his own formula for brand success: 70 percent of posts should be funny; 20 percent should be inspiring; and 10 percent should sell things directly. It’s a formula that fits his personality, and he seems to pull it off effortlessly. I fully believe Shaq spends 70 percent of his real life enjoying himself and making jokes; he’s the same person online, and he’s paid handsomely for it.
But then again Shaq is a human being, and not everyone in the room this day has that luxury. If you are the disembodied voice of a taco restaurant, or a Walgreens, all you can do is ape human speech and hope for enough Facebook shares to justify your marketing budget. And if everything goes wrong with your brand, consider becoming a digital prophet. I’ve seen the prophet’s work up close. There’s nothing to it.
Update, 3:32 PM: Thanks to Kevin Roose for pointing out that Shingy's favorite Da Vinci quote is not, in fact, a Da Vinci quote.