Celebrity CEO: How Content Marketing Has Shifted in 2018
On this year’s edition of South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made a surprise Q&A appearance that was only announced at midnight, exactly 12 hours before the scheduled session was supposed to start. Tickets for the session were completely sold out by 9 the following morning and right before the session was started, a momentary chant of “Elon, Elon, Elon” was heard from the audience. This is the kind of adoration usually only reserved for the biggest of pop stars or film actors and yet, despite only having been in the spotlight for more or less a decade, Musk has made a global following of such loyalty and size that the cult of Elon Musk is a real thing. So real in fact, that when the man personally announced a limited edition baseball cap at a ridiculous price of $20 each, all 50,000 of the goods were sold out in a month. This recent phenomenon highlights just how different content marketing is in 2018, where the content itself is sharing the spotlight with whoever’s peddling them.
This is of course not exactly new, the late Steve Jobs arguably started the trend with Apple’s loyalist fanbase, but Jobs also sold product for mass market consumption. Musk’s Tesla on the other hand delivers a total of 100,000 cars in 2017, an infinitesimal amount compared to the estimated amount of 90 million iPhone users in the United States alone, and that’s just for a single line of product. No other CEO commands this kind of public attention. Not Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, not Netflix’s Reed Hastings, and not even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. The closest thing we have might be Alibaba’s Jack Ma, whose interesting antics gives Musk’s AI ramblings and ambitious Mars project a run for his money and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose success with Windows is matched only by his philanthropic contributions. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jack Ma, the one thing they all have in common, besides being obscenely successful, is an outsized personality.
The Rise of CEO as celebrity
It used to be that the common practice is for notable companies to hire already famous celebrities to become a spokesman or a face for the brand, like Matthew McConaughey’s bizarre Lincoln commercials, or the classic case of Michael Jordan’s relationship with Nike. Then there’s the less common but still numerous instances of celebrities leveraging their power to become CEOs of their own, like Oprah Winfrey who now has a television network of her own and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, Goop. While not all of these people necessarily have the level of charisma and personality you’d see with Musk and co, their work and accomplishments in their respective fields makes it easier for them to command the public’s attention. This phenomenon of CEO as celebrity is the complete opposite of that. Sure, Alibaba’s gargantuan success would of course invite scrutiny and spotlight to the person driving the helm but compared to other technology giants in the region, such as Tencent’s Ma Huateng or Softbank’s Masayoshi Son, it is plainly obvious just how much Ma’s meme-worthy antics gave him and Alibaba more time and space in the headlines. As already illustrated with the various examples above, this practice of having CEO as a celebrity brings with it quite a number of advantages, such as:
- More time in the spotlight
Even if it’s because of activities that aren’t related to your company, having CEO as a public figure is highly beneficial as it keeps your company in the headlines by association. As we’re living in a content-saturated world, any slice of the pie you could claim as your own is inherently priceless with news cycles getting shorter and shorter.
- Hype-based marketing
Like Elon Musk’s baseball cap example above, having a loyal following for your CEO means that you have a certain number of guaranteed sale for any of your products. The release of Kanye West’s 2016 album Life of Pablo was accompanied by 3 days pop-up stores in 21 cities across the world with fashion items related to the album from Kanye’s Yeezy fashion brand. Despite some draconian rules and prices that aren’t exactly reasonable, fans still queued up for hours before they open.
- Inspiring loyalty
Despite claims about poor working conditions, late delivery of cars and deaths relating to Tesla’s self-driving capability, the Autopilot feature, the company is still going very strong, with shares priced at the high $200 mark despite failing to a 12-months low of $250. This is partly thanks to the cult of Elon and there’s a piece out there about a Tesla car owner where said fan intents to amend their will so that in the case they became a fatal victim of Tesla’s Autopilot, Tesla will not be sued. That’s the kind of blind loyalty that Elon Musk inspires.
Of course, having a CEO that doubles as a public figure isn’t without its dangers. The fall from grace of Uber’s Travis Kalanick should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when your CEO has too strong of a personality. As the public face of your company, any personal scandal that engulfs your CEO is undoubtedly going to hurt your company as well, even by association. The then-CEO of HP, Mark Hurd, was forced to resign over sexual harassment claims made by one of their contractor, sending the company into a tailspin that lasted a couple of years. When it comes to CEO public figures though, there’s no missing the elephant in the room, Donald Trump. Despite his businesses filing for bankruptcy numerous times, lawsuits against the now-defunct Trump University and being one of the people to question Barack Obama’s birth, the Trump Organization is still going relatively strong and with Trump now sitting atop one of the most powerful government in the world. No matter what your opinions are on the man himself, the Trump name itself holds a certain power, with properties around the world that has actually no relation with the Trump Organization paying money to be able to use the name in their properties.
One of the mantra involving content marketing that most in the industry like to preach is create quality content. That is true, but it’s not the whole truth. While cult of personalities is a term normally used to describe excessively authoritative figures such as North Korea’s ruling dynasty and the circle of propaganda they’ve created, it could also describe the one surrounding Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and by association, their respective companies. Quality content isn’t enough anymore, people are more likely to attach themselves to actual people instead of incorporeal companies, which is why having a CEO as a public figure could work in your company’s favor.