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What Paris Hilton can teach you about branding
Kermit Pattison,
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December 12, 2007

Alex Bogusky often touts a maxim: "Our basic philosophy is we're going to take a brand and make it famous." Bogusky is chief creative officer of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a Miami- and Boulder, Colorado-based ad agency that has made a name for itself with its unique, irreverent style.

Its portfolio includes TV spots like Volkswagen's "unpimp your ride" campaign as well as more unorthodox Internet campaigns like the Burger King faux tabloid drama about "The King" and his affair with model Brooke Burke (right-click to save file).

The magazine Creativity once called CP+B "the most polarizing ad agency on the planet." It has drawn big clients like Nike and Domino's but has also been savaged for its digital resurrection of the late popcorn icon Orville Redenbacher and for a commercial that featured a suicidal man who decided not to jump off a building after learning there are three Volkswagens priced under $17,000. The automaker later pulled the ad.

How do you take a brand and make it famous?

You start to think about the brand as a person and do some things to personify it a little bit. You can do things with a brand that are very playful and can exist in pop culture the same way that celebrities do. We wanted the Burger King to actually do things a real king would do. He dated Brooke Burke for a while. We actually had paparazzi photos of the two of them riding horses at the beach and at Lakers games. That stuff got leaked out and wound up in People magazine and InStyle.

Has there been a time when you watched a celebrity drama play out in the tabloids and then translated it into a commercial project?

Paris Hilton is some sort of branding genius. She inspires me because of her constant reinvention and her ability to stay center stage without offering too much. People would be shocked to know how intelligent she is and how calculated everything she does is. Not only shocked--it would ruin her brand. If you believed it was all premeditated it wouldn't work.

Do you know her personally?

No. I've never talked to her about these things. They did an episode of her show in our agency a couple of years ago. I was too terrified to even approach her.

Celebrities gain fame by being controversial or provocative. Is that good for selling a product?

Celebrities are like that--they're polarizing. If you're not polarizing then you probably don't stand for anything and you don't have a very powerful brand.

Those "unpimp your ride" Volkswagen ads you did last year with Helga, the white leather-clad dominatrix frau, generated quite a bit of controversy. (Watch the spots here and others here and here).

I think it's a healthy sign. It tends to start off negative but end positive. Think about what pop culture is--it's kind of the leading edge of our culture and where we talk about where we're going next. If you're going to have something that really resonates in that conversation, it has to be on that leading edge [where] we haven't decided yet.

How does personifying a brand help the creative process?

It allows you to think about the story of the brand and the narrative of the brand in more of a longterm way. How does the conversation evolve? To me, Madonna is a genius in branding. There was very little difference between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in that first year they broke on the scene. They both were like city girls with some of their underwear on the outside.

Cyndi Lauper musically was great and really talented, but as those reinventions occurred she didn't keep pace with Madonna. Madonna was always able to evolve to keep people interested. Brands need to be that way too. They can't lose the essence of what they represent but they've got to continue to surprise and delight you.

Is failure to entertain the kiss of death?

I tend to not think about it as entertainment. You can't just entertain and slap a logo on it. The work you do has to be about what the brand is about. You have to be interesting and you have to be surprising--that tends to be entertaining.

Where do your best ideas come from?

I wish I knew. We tend not to trust too much in the "aha!" moments. Trust in the process and just keep churning it. It's not very glamorous like it might be in a movie about advertising. It's much more like mining. You've got lots of people doing their work, others culling through that work tying to find the gems. There's a lot of just dirt and a few gems.

Which gives a better read on the culture you're trying to reach, The New York Times or the Onion?

The Onion is just stunning sometimes. You can think something is perfectly normal and they can point out just how absurd it is. We did a running campaign for a company called Pearl Izumi. It was all about how runners are wilder, and "we're not joggers."

One of the headlines from an ad was, "Have you ever noticed that it's always runners who find dead bodies?" A week later, someone sent me this Onion headline about runners being upset that they're always the ones finding dead bodies.

In politics, we sometimes elect political candidates based on likeability more than capability. Will consumers choose a lesser product just because they prefer the personality of the brand?

Recently with Volkswagen we changed the name from the Golf back to the Rabbit and saw a really big increase in sales. We did some nice advertising, but I think the name change was probably a bigger deal than the advertising. You can have a relationship with a rabbit--it feels more like your buddy.

Is there a dark side to this focus on pop culture?

I was watching or reading something the other day about how we like faces to represent ideas. I don't remember which Roman emperor it was, but he realized that when the empire got so big he couldn't reach all corners they minted the coins with his face on it. That face became a very powerful symbol because we tend to be somewhat tribal still.

With the advent of so much media, so many celebrities, and so many celebrity websites and magazines, those faces wind up meaning a lot. The problem is those aren't necessarily the people who should have all that meaning and responsibility...It gets dangerous, not so much right now, but as you continue to extrapolating it out--what does this become? Fame is what runs things. It is sort of concerning.

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