The American Idol Guide to Brand Building

idol-logoOk, I’m going to make a confession. I’m coming out of the closet and admitting that I watch American Idol.
There, I said it. But it’s not what you think.
Although I always pride myself as someone who generally operates outside of the mainstream, I find myself intrigued by this American Idol phenomenon. It’s not because I love the music or the contestants or that I get caught up in the voting frenzy. I don’t wear t-shirts with “I heart whoever” or make signs on poster board with glitter markers saying “Whoever rocks my world.” I actually can’t stand most of the music and contestants. But what does intrigue me is looking at American Idol as a study in mass market brand building. Although Fox tries to make its viewership think otherwise, this show really isn’t about listening to singers perform, enjoying the music or finding the best of the best. It’s about the guided and careful crafting of a mass market commodity. It’s about the structured building of a product and an incredible buzz machine. It’s about the selling of lots of stuff to the masses.

From the beginning of the season where hundreds of thousands of singing and screeching characters prance through, do their thing and either get booted out or “Go to Hollywood,” the brand building has already begun. The producers choose who to feature more heavily in clips, quietly influencing the soon to be voting public on who they feel has the most potential as a marketable product. The contenders are chosen for their poignant stories of a desire to overcome poverty, crime, disease, homelessness, blindness, loss of a loved one or shyness. They are chosen for their good voices or their quirky interpretations of standard songs. They are chosen because they are eye candy or they are the ugly duckling with a great voice, but with a hip haircut and a trip to the mall, they might actually look pretty good. The producers are looking for a brand story, a decent product and a good package.

I watch Simon Cowell as he observes the singers before him. He’s not just listening, but he’s looking. He’s checking out their demeanor, their style, their song choice, their hairdo, their clothes, their facial expression, their personal story and he’s measuring the potential marketability and pliability of this commodity that stands before him. You hear comments like “you are so commercial” or “you are this kind of ‘artist’” or “I love your look.” You see week after week, contestants trying so hard to be what the judges are telling them they should be. An artist can’t be crafted. It’s quite sad really. The art isn’t in the music; the art is in the building a money making machine, this American Idol brand – the show itself, the record deals, the tours, the gear, the ringtones, the commercials, the sponsorships. It’s like watching a Walmart product being molded and manufactured and promoted before your eyes. It is guided crowd sourcing.

American Idol is a reflection of what I see happening more and more in business and online. Crowd sourced opinions and masses being guided unknowingly by those who have marketed themselves as authority figures are becoming the norm. Real talent, skill, creativity, experience and innovation don’t seem to be noticed, valued or rewarded as much anymore. Mass appeal seems to be winning over originality, and fame and/or fortune seem to be the primary goals. Is that really what Americans idolize? If so, maybe I need to move somewhere else.

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4 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. John Cavanaugh

    wrote on March 10, 2010 at 11:08 am


    You understand this phenomenon far better than I do. I don’t watch it. Don’t care.

    But as sociological commentary, I think you’re right on. It’s crowdsourcing, yes. But it adds an element of public humiliation (or praise) that taints whatever value the crowdsouced content might have in the first place. As you point out, the crowd is heavily influenced. So any true crowd opinions are too skewed to be worth anything.

    Thanks for your thoughts. And please don’t move. Just get a sitter one night and go to a small club to hear some “real” talent worth of idol status.

  2. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 10, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Thanks John, Maybe a night out on the town will do the trick to renew my faith!

  3. Tad Dobbs

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 8:20 am

    This is an excellent perspective on American Idol, though I still can’t watch it for the same reason I don’t shop at Walmart. I’m not their target.

    One thing to note is that I think the target for American Idol is the same demographic that listens to top 40 preferring things that are familiar and comfortable versus innovative and different. It’s not my taste, but I understand the appeal in the mass market. Ultimately, crowd-sourced “talent” ends up making the true talent that much more valuable. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience.

    And I agree with John, take a trip to a club to cleanse your palette.

  4. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 8:30 am

    You are right. Crowd sourcing works when your goal is to create a generic Walmart level product. And I’d bet that Walmart is where the American Idols sell the most CDs. I guess I just don’t come from that Walmart state of mind, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around crowd sourcing. But I guess if you want to appeal to that crowd, then let them decide what they want you to feed them (in a somewhat controlled way of course!)
    Thanks for stopping by…and stay tuned, I’m just about to post a juicy piece on the subject of crowd sourcing creative work – right up your alley!

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