June 8, 2013

The Doctor’s three toupees: brand and authenticity

I once joined an agency (which shall go un-named) where I met an eminent reputation-with-person-attached. Let’s call him The Doctor: he had a Ph.D. from an exotic European university, silk suits, an office furnished with antiques and an impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts.

He also owned three toupees.

I noticed this after a while. All were silver-haired and probably expensive, the kind you could only detect as a wig if you were within, say, 50 paces. They were constructed in three lengths, which he wore in a cycle, about a week each: short, medium, long. He would pointedly announce, “I’m going for a haircut,” and parade out to the elevators, coming back later with the short one on his head.

He was oblivious to the snickers, just as he assumed no-one knew about his secretary/mistress. His long-term affair with her was a secret, known perhaps only to people in the office, staff members of other offices around the country, clients, vendors, Michigan Avenue passersby, tribes of nomads … plus B., an account supervisor I lunched with who also occasionally slept with her, sharing salacious stories she told of The Doctor’s, um, inadequacies.

My point (this is a business blog, after all, and old-school ad agency hijinks aside, we do have a point to make) is about branding and authenticity. Say whatever you like – claim your company is tops in customer service, or that you are secretly a CIA agent, or you’re perfect for the job because you get results – your audience is not obliged to believe you. In fact, they will continually test and question you. Every experience that fails to live up to your claim will eat away at the foundation of the brand. If it ain’t genuine, sooner or later it will crash.

The Doctor definitely crashed. Not just from the three toupees, or the bumping noises from the Xerox room he and his secretary repaired to to “make copies.” Those were juicy, but not terminal. The ultimate downfall? He was doing some teaching/consulting for a prestigious university, and participated in a graduation, wearing his colorful doctoral gown, which inspired a skeptical Dean to make inquiries. It turned out he did not, after all have that Ph.D. His academic credentials were a total fraud, and he was asked, quietly, never to return.