Episode 51

American Idol

What does it mean to be a brand?

One of the most critical barriers to success is understanding what a brand is and what a brand is NOT.  I get this question all the time. Let me tell you what a brand is NOT: A brand is NOT a name, logo, tag-line, package design or the product itself. I call these elements: Window-dressing your brand. A brand is simply an EMOTIONAL IDENTITY that differentiates products, services and people.

As a former marketing executive at global multi-billion dollar consumer products companies like Nabisco, Kraft Foods, Cadbury and Godiva, I successfully crafted emotional identities for some of the world’s most iconic brands. Over the course of 25 years, a frequent challenge I faced was communicating the role a brand played in consumer’s lives…in other words its Core Value. To solve this problem, I developed a process to label that brand’s Core Value using just ‘One Word’.  This helps consumers understand what they are actually buying. 

During this series, I will select a brand I worked on or studied and share it’s ‘One Word’ Core Value, as well as share valuable topics in the branding arena that will help you Stand-Out Conquer Obstacles and Reach Excellence…in other words, SCORE.

So let’s turn to today’s brand clip…I’ve always wanted to say this and now I get to do it on my own show:


Show Notes (click to expand)

I frequently think about what it would be like to be Ryan Seacrest for just a day. I think he has the coolest job in the world, hosting one of my all-time favorite shows, American Idol!

Idol – as I like to call it – is one of the highest rated and most family-friendly television shows of all time. 

The show’s unparalleled success helped launch reality TV, re-introduced live TV to a new generation, created a whole new launching pad for pop, rock and country singers and generated a level of audience engagement never seen before across multiple demographics. Finally there was a show that moms, dads, grandparents and kids could all watch together, as a vast array of songs were covered and remixed by young singers.

There are plenty of things you can say about American Idol, but ultimately, numbers don’t lie! Although it’s NOT the ratings powerhouse it once was, there’s no denying that this talent competition is, and always will be, a cultural phenomenon.

Despite season 1 giving us one of Idol’s most successful winners, Kelly Clarkson (check out episode #40 for her ‘One Word’), her finale ratings weren’t as blockbuster as the next nine finales to come. Just for some perspective, as a brand marketer, I would have sold my soul to have 22.8 million viewers see a brand I was advertising during Kelly’s finale. However, the season 2 finale would climb to a monumental 38.1 million viewers when Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken! In total, the first 10 seasons of American idol drew a cumulative 316.4 million finale viewers. That’s what I call juggernaut ratings!

From Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, to Adam Lambert, Jordin Sparks, Jennifer Hudson, Phillip Phillips and many more, Idol launched a stream of talented musicians to stardom with multi-million dollar albums and songs that topped the charts. 

In addition to the music industry, the influence of American Idol is prominent across television, theater and the movies. Let’s not forget that Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie White in the musical Dreamgirls. This, after Simon Cowell said to her during Season 3, “You’re out of your depth in this competition.” She finished 7th!  Simon sent Jennifer Hudson a message ahead of the Oscar ceremony, saying: “What you have done is literally extraordinary. I think you’re going to win and you deserve it.” For someone who was dubbed “Mr. Nasty”, that’s eating humble pie folks. Proud of you Simon!

The format of the show, in which contestants auditioned and then made it through various rounds to compete in theme weeks, soon became familiar to viewers. 

The original three judges, with their signature antics – Simon was the mean one with no-holds-barred commentary, Paula was the crazy one and Randy said “DAWG” all the time – became household names and one of the greatest trios in television history.

So what made American Idol a cultural phenomenon?

Putting my branding hat on, it’s because the show offered the quintessential rags-to-riches story we all ASPIRE to. The heartstring-tugging backstories attracted viewers and kept us coming back for more. I always say that if you want to win the hearts and minds of consumers, then the fastest way to do so is to show how past struggles and tragedies are transformed into triumph. This is why giving viewers the ability to vote kept them invested in their chosen singer’s stories and they kept tuning in to see if those dreams were going to come true. I believe this is why, in the beginning, the singers who won went on to have very successful careers, because they had built-in fan bases who were waiting for the artists’ music to hit the market!

Many of the winners previously held service industry jobs or were unemployed, while they ground it out as ASPIRING musicians. They were seeking any and every means to be discovered. Through Idol, they epitomized the ultimate rags-to-riches story by rising from obscurity to achieve local and national acclaim. 

Let me share a few examples:

As a young adult, Kelly Clarkson was broke. Before her Idol audition, she told Guy Raz on an episode of Spotify’s new podcast series, The Rewind, “I had nothing to my name. Literally, I had to make that top to go to this audition. I had like no clothes, no nothing.”
Fantasia Barrino, winner of Season 3, became a mother at the young age of 16 and dropped out of high school to support her daughter.
After high school, Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood gave up on her childhood dream of singing. This Checotah Oklahoma native held various odd jobs, including waiting tables, working at a zoo and helping animals at a vet clinic.
Lee DeWyze, winner of the ninth season of American Idol, was a paint salesman before his success on the show. 
Not only did American Idol single-handedly transform the music and television industries, they also showed us that anyone can ASPIRE to become a star, no matter one’s race, background or sexual orientation. The idol franchise knew exactly how to lock us into the ASPIRATIONAL stories they were trying to tell.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this:

Your product is NOT your brand.
Your brand is your Core Value…AND
You use your product as the vehicle to drive your Core Value.
American Idol uses their television show to drive their Core Value of ASPIRATION.
So if you’re like me and still watching this season of American Idol with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan, remember this as you watch this new crop of singers pin their hopes and dreams on your votes:

ASPIRATION is how American Idol SCORES

I’m Rich Keller, the CATALYST, and see you next time on The CATALYST Effect.

Listen & Subscribe on

Join my

and Never Miss an Episode

Join my

and Never Miss
an Episode

Share this episode



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *