One-line takeaway: Companies that begin by appealing to consumers as a normal, approachable or alternative option in the marketplace have to adapt their image once they become the dominant player.
In a world of prima donnas and pop divas, Taylor Swift has mastered the art of the girl-next-door image. From her seemingly drippingly-honest lyrics to her “I don’t take myself seriously” videos, she has positioned herself as being an everyday person. And the results are amazing: even though she’s only 24, she’s one of the biggest music stars out there. And there’s more than just music at play here. She’s also pulling in the millions and recently made the cover of Bloomberg Business Week (and no, that’s not a music publication). The magazine proclaims that “Taylor Swift is The Music Industry.”
So stardom… millions… and the cover of a major magazine.
Here’s a question: when does a star stop being normal?
It’s easy to argue that Taylor Swift was never really that normal (how can you be, when your career starts at age 14)? But it’s not hard to take the position that staying normal—if she ever was—is doing to he tough. Normal people don’t have the world at their fingertips.
Just like pop stars, companies like to try and be normal too. It usually works for a time, but at one point, it gets harder to keep it up. At one time, Apple was an underdog. They were the normal person next to the big corporate Microsoft person. Nowadays, it’s harder for them to pretend they’re normal, or the underdog. Google was once normal. They eschewed corporate mission boilerplate for “Don’t be evil”. But just try and reach a real-live person at Google for something other than Adwords, and you’ll see that unlike normal people, they’re pretty unreachable. And Facebook? Heck, they were just a normal college kid with a “friends only” product before the reams of legal privacy text started flowing.
Companies have to transition at one point once they’re reached a certain scale. Normal is good to start and can build credibility with the public. But once it starts competing with reality, it works against you. What was once credible becomes a bit of a joke. So that transition has to be managed.
There are different ways of going from normal to not-so normal. You can shed one persona completely and adopt another in one fell swoop, like Michael Jackson going from innocent child star to tough guy with “Bad”. Or you can embrace the stardom and be bigger than life while somehow staying true to your roots and keeping a finger on the pulse of normal, like James Brown, or the Beach Boys.
For companies, the challenge is to stay true to the product or service you were selling. You can change your image, but don’t change your quality or philosophy. If you became successful because of a certain approach to product or service development, keep that approach even as you change your skin. And whatever you do, don’t fake it. You can keep positioning yourself as normal for a while, stretching that envelope, but don’t break it. Once you break it, you lose your credibility, you lose your fans and you just might lose your business.