Zombie Boy

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Five Lessons in Branding from 'Zombie Boy'

19 Mar
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Last week I got a large tattoo: a half sleeve on my right arm. Having recently learned about Rick Genest, a.k.a. Zombie Boy, it seemed only natural to bring him up after chatting for a few minutes with my tattoo artist about Hieronymus Bosch — perhaps the first artist to make himself famous for devoting his art to freakish visions.

Zombie Boy has recently become famous — courtesy of Lady Gaga‘s fashion director, who saw a business opportunity in Genest’s unique choice to tattoo much of his body to look like a rotting corpse. It all seems like a branding coup, if nothing else, but my tattoo artist had a few words of caution. By the time my half sleeve had stopped peeling, five lessons in branding came into focus. More than a martyr to cultural decadence, Zombie Boy is a nice illustration (ahem) of the opportunities and pitfalls facing those of us with big ambitions for their personal and professional brands.

1. Don’t alienate your base. My tattoo artist rolled his eyes as soon as I mentioned Genest. Whenever he shows up at tattoo industry events, he said, “people are like ‘Get away from me’” — not because they’re revolted by his decaying visage, but because he’s hijacked their values in the service of a cheap trick. That may or may not be true — what matter is that Genest could have an enthusiastic base behind him. Instead, he has a handful of celebrity backers. That’s a precarious position to be in, whether yours is a fashion brand or not. If you really decide that you need to move in a direction your base won’t like, fine — but make sure you’re well along developing a new base before you take the leap and burn those bridges. Though, culturally, we’re trying as hard as we can to increase the overlap between building a brand and going on a personal development odyssey, it doesn’t serve your brand to experience isolation, destitution, and bad will, no matter how edifying those things are to your soul.

2. Decide how long of a moment you want to seize. In her profile of Genest for The Atlantic, Angela Riechers dances around an important point:

"Many interviewers have delicately broached the question: Have you thought about what you’ll look like if you gained a lot of weight? (imagine a fat skeleton!) What about when you’re an old man? He consistently replies with a shrug, along the lines of “I have no time to even begin to think that far down the road.” His carpe diem attitude is perhaps the only philosophy that fits such an unalterable choice made early in life, one that closes the door to all but a few career options. "

This would be true if being Zombie Boy was a viable career. Unfortunately, with more celebrities than ever and no end in sight, being professionally famous requires some understanding that sooner rather than later your audience will move on — not because you got old or fat, but because the moment you so dramatically seized has simply come and gone. You become trivia. It’s a fate that has actually been presaged by some of our most memorable but essentially defunct brands. Yes, there’s the occasional nostalgic revival, but unless you’re in the same business as Van Halen, your resurrected brand won’t likely reap a lot of success. The trick to brand durability is not to reinvent what you are but what you do. For brands, it’s not too much to say you are what you do. There might be a lot of short-term gain in doing fashion campaigns and music videos as Zombie Boy. But you’ll have to parlay that into something else, and soon. If you ‘have no time to think that far,’ you’re setting yourself up for a crash landing — unless, of course, you have some other project or skill set that you’re happy to return to after wringing as much juice as you can get out of your fifteen minutes.

3. Don’t be afraid to recognize mortality. Ultimately, Genest isn’t famous because he’s gross, just as zombies aren’t a lucrative growth industry (behold: Boy Scouts vs. Zombies) because they’re gross. Zombies and Zombie Boy are reminders of death — a subject we don’t like to dwell on in an era when health and security are public obsessions and when we’re drifting away from traditional sources of ultimate meaning that define us by our mortality. Some of the most arresting commercials on television are the ones that show a person’s or a family’s life transpire over the course of a few seconds’ worth of vignettes. That might be a creepy condensation of human time, but it’s also true — life goes by fast, and it ends in death for all of us. Brands that recognize this, however implicitly, are stronger than those that don’t. Controversial example? Apple‘s brand promise is a suspending experience, lifted outside of time. Facebook’s brand promise is an experience that literally is a timeline. Facebook’s is more human. It reminds us what it is to be mortal.

4. The personal really is the professional. In the abstract, this isn’t a particularly earth-shattering insight anymore. But in light of the above, it takes a new relevance. Successful brands carry the personalities of the people who define them, yes, but it bears special mention that they do so over the life of the brand. That’s why Virgin mobile is selling… Richard Branson — not, mind you, today’s Richard Branson in a vacuum, but Richard Branson over his entire lifetime, as a kid, as a teen, all the way up to the Branson of the not-so-distant-future, winking at you and floating comfortably above his seat in his jetliner in outer space. The market value of recognizing mortality despite seizing fleeting moments puts a cultural premium on entrepreneurship big and small.

5. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to make huge gambles on irrevocable decisions. Nasty full-body tattoos are a clumsy but powerful way to dramatize the upsides and downsides of making irreversible choices that unite branding and business into a single act. It’s pretty easy to see how entrepreneurs have the opportunity to behave that way. But they don’t have the corner on the approach. Picking up where others have left off is a huge part of recognizing death and seizing the moment in a way that resonates with your base and with your individual self. Often times, that’s a part of professional life that entrepreneurs don’t get to experience as deeply as others. When too many of us untiringly pursue self-enclosed and single-minded ends, we can wind up acting less like humans than… well… zombies.

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamespoulos/2012/03/17/five-lessons-in-branding-from-zombie-boy/#comment-55

2 comments

  • Comment Link everett 31 July 2012 everett

    i find it hard to read this.. i gotta read each sentence over and over again to understand what was said

  • Comment Link Sandra 20 March 2012 Sandra

    sweet 333

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