The recent stories and revelations that have surfaced about Ellen and The Ellen DeGeneres Show first appeared to be about a lapse in internal brand management. But it might be a brand failure on a larger scale. Bad press can be damaging to any brand, but in this case, it may be more damaging than most.
In early April, Ellen made an insensitive joke comparing being home during the quarantine to being in jail. That comment elicited an abundance of backlash. This incident was followed shortly by a story in Variety in which her show crew complained about the lack of communication from management regarding their work hour and pay status in the early days of the pandemic. In July, allegations of mistreatment of former staff members surfaced in the press. These complaints included claims of a toxic workplace environment, bullying and racial discrimination. And sexual misconduct by executive producers.
Since then, a pile-on on Twitter and in other spaces has ensued and seems to continue almost daily. Ellen has been portrayed in a less than positive light by former show guests, audience members, and people with whom she’s had random encounters. In some cases, she’s been accused of rudeness. In other stories, staffers shared they were required to leave a room if she walked into it.
To be sure, she has fans and friends who have weighed in with their support. Ellen has created a lot of good will over the years. She’s known for it. One example among many: She partnered with Cheerios to promote “One Million Acts of Good.” One million dollars was subsequently shared amongst a studio audience comprised of individuals who had done memorable deeds for others.
Internal Brand Management Key to Delivering on Brand Promise
Building a great brand in any business category is the responsibility of everyone in an organization. It starts with the CEO and includes every manager and employee down the line. Each individual must understand their role in bringing the brand to life. For that to happen, an organization must build internal brand development processes as well as those that are external in focus. The internal development builds company culture, the external facing improves the customer experience.
Delivering on a brand promise only happens when top executives are committed to brand building on a consistent basis. Brand building is a process, so it needs ongoing attention and cultivation. In this instance, we consider Ellen the CEO. It’s her responsibility to see the brand is brought to life both internally and externally.
Ellen has mastered the external experience customers have with her brand with few exceptions. In this case, that experience would be that of her studio and TV viewing audiences. It might include sponsors. But it appears that internal brand management has been largely ignored if there’s truth and substance to the charges that have been made. Eventually, when the internal brand experience isn’t a good one, it will impact the external brand. Negative press can erode a brand, in this case, viewership and sponsor support.
The CEO is the Chief Executive of Brand Management
For the most part, the charges from employees are directed at show producers, not Ellen. However, if managers, in this case, the executive producers, didn’t understand the importance of their role in living her brand, then Ellen is to blame. On the other hand, if they knew the importance of their role, and failed to execute on their responsibilities, then Ellen is also to blame for not demanding more accountability.
Or, if Ellen was so out of touch that she was unaware of the undercurrent of issues that were brewing in her organization, that’s a huge miss. Ellen is ultimately responsible for her brand. Ignorance does not provide an excuse. To her credit, she has apologized to her staffers for the show not living up to her hopes that it would be a place of happiness and that everyone would be treated with respect. She has committed to correcting the issues.
Expectations Have Changed
The public today has a higher expectation of what corporate responsibility means. Today it includes attitudes and actions related to the environment, society, and employees. Ellen’s previous and current staffers had easier access to the press to complain than would employees at most organizations. But in our Post – #MeToo social media world, it is easy to bring any bad actors to the public eye. The message is clear and the pressure is on: organizations need to create healthy and safe workplace environments for all employees. How did the producers on Ellen’s team, people on the cutting edge of culture, miss that?
Successful and Valuable Brands Have Distinction
With a 17-year run to date, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is the number 3 talk show in syndication, according to USA Today. Over years, Ellen and her team have built strong brands for both the show and for her as an individual.
What makes a brand successful? The most critical attribute common to any successful brand is that is has distinction. Those are the qualities that make a brand unique. It might be the offering, or possibly the packaging or personality. Or it might be the experience the consumer has with the brand that make it distinct and drive its value.
Consider the work of research giant Kantar on the subject of brand value. Kantar and WPP, a multi-national communications and advertising company, recently released their “2020 BrandZ Global 100 Report.” In the comprehensive 400 page report the authors state that Difference is a key driver of a strong and valuable brand.
In fact, “Difference emerged as the most important factor determining which brands increased or decreased in value in the 2020 BrandZ Global Top 100.” Additionally, Kantar says, “Difference is based on perceptions that the brand ‘sets the trends’ and is ‘different from others’ in the category.”
Ellen’s Unique Positioning
How does Difference pertain to Ellen and her show? One could argue that the most defining hallmark of Ellen’s brand distinction is the “nice” factor. For the most part, her on-air persona is projected as friendly, upbeat, warm, and caring and fulfills that claim. That claim has driven her brand identity.
When a brand makes a statement about its distinction, such as “nice” or “kind”, it separates itself from its competitors. That statement defines its unique value proposition that no other brand in the category can claim. That brand promise becomes something that consumers expect every time they experience or interact with the brand. No other talk show host uses those points of distinction, only Ellen.
Additionally, the challenges that Ellen experienced in earlier days of her career as the first gay actor in a prime-time sitcom are well-known. Over the years, people have admired Ellen. She has ‘set the trends’ and is ‘different from others’ as noted by the Kantar report. These characteristics have helped drive value for Ellen’s brand. These early experiences may be at the heart of the words in her show close, “be kind to one another.” They may also have fueled the generosity she has shown over the years to her studio audiences and many charities.
What Happens When a Brand Loses the Distinction that Defined It?
A brand is judged by the evidence that supports the claim of distinction it has made. If a brand does not or cannot show evidence of the distinction, the claim is simply a wish.
Should the allegations that have been asserted by former employees turn out to be true, and other not-so-nice stories continue to be reported, then the brand has a bigger challenge than other organizations dealing with similar workplace issues. If these recent stories are factual, they challenge the core of what is uniquely Ellen and her brand. In fact, they illustrate characteristics that are the antithesis of nice. If “nice” and “kind” turn out not to be real, the brand loses its authenticity. Ellen loses her authenticity.
For any individual or brand to be authentic, words and actions must match stated beliefs and values. When words and deeds are not consistent with each other, then people, whether fans or employees, doubt the message. Eventually, trust will be eroded. Trust is a critical component of any relationship, but particularly, one that leaders have with others. Trust is the foundational building block of any organization’s culture.
Charting the Next Steps Towards Realignment
WarnerMedia has hired a team to investigate the workplace issues. Work on set in Hollywood is known to be grueling. How does this situation compare? The team will assess what complaints are merited and take corrective action. Certainly, new producers can be put in place who have a better grip on the role they need to play as leaders and brand managers within the organization. Ellen’s apology and commitment to fix the problems are a good start. But included must be a strong internal brand management process that will rebuild staff engagement and belief in her brand.
Ellen’s track record over the years would indicate that she can probably find the tools and team to get her brand back on track. But getting the staff and public’s experience of the brand back in alignment with the promise is what must happen. Authenticity matters.
As an agency with a focus on brand building, BrandSavants uses tools that help our clients determine whether their brands are in alignment with their brand promise. We can help address the challenges when they are not, in order to build strong internal brand management processes.
About the Author
As EVP at BrandSavants, Sharon heads up account management as she thrives on connecting with people and building relationships. But she also has an unrelenting interest in all things research which has her always on the look for the critical insight which will make a difference.
At BrandSavants, we transform organizations by elevating the brand conversation. That catapults our clients' thinking which grows brand value and increases worth.