Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Cult of Branding:
In Which the $252 Million Eddie Haskell
Goes Full-Tilt Leona Helmsley  

"Why do people sing Take Me Out to The Ballgame
 when they're already there?" -- Alex Rodriguez

[Podcast version link]

We are chatting about A-Rod this entry because he's the poster boy for a lesson in The Cult of Branding, one of the more silly, and sometimes actually destructive, cults around.

I'm not one of those folk who revels in every Alex Rodríguez gaffe, error, strikeout. I don't boo him any more than any other Yankee. But dude is just so Eddie Haskell, so smarmy, so inauthentic, that even though he's probably the most significantly productive player in the game right now, I can't overcome his Haskellosity.

And just when I think he's reached the logical smarm barrier that can no longer be exceeded without causing a tear in the space-time continuum that will cause a singularity to swallow up the home planet and make The Tar That Ate Yar a celebrity spokes-thing for American Express, he goes and smashes through it.

Selena Roberts of the New York Times wrote an investigative article that A-Rod was the subject of that appeared this week, the essence of which is:

  • Rodríguez is likely to make around $300,000,000 on his next contract (his last having grossed him around $252,000,000).
  • Rodríguez invests a lot of his massive take in apartment buildings that cater mostly to low-income people, though a company called Newport Property Ventures.
  • Rodríguez is the Chief Executive of Newport, but delegates the operational responsibility to an in-law.
  • That Newport owns six apartment complexes in A-Rod's home-town area, Tampa.
  • That many inhabitants of one complain of terrible, sometimes dangerous, maintenance laxity, though there are lighter complaints about another complex.
  • That management practices are financially brutal -- for example, the complexes share a contractual gotcha that if a renter is one day late with the rent payment, there's a $100 fine, the standard rent being around $600/month.

Further, the article lays out details around his charitable foundation, a type of operation that while many ballplayers set them up out of the goodness of their hearts or commitment to specific causes or to their communities, has become a pro-forma act of branding that's almost mandatory for athletes with long-term contracts. Roberts explained:

The homey surface of the AROD Family Foundation’s Web site, which promotes a slogan of helping “families in distress,” belies its cap on generosity.

Rodriguez has earned nearly $200 million over the past decade, but, according to 990 tax records dating to 1998, he is a cheap tipper to his foundation.

In eight years of available documents, donations averaged $30,000 a year and gifts distributed to the community averaged $13,000 a year. In 2002, A-Rod did not contribute more than $5,500. In 2006, the foundation did not give away more than $5,090 despite a fund-raiser that collected $368,000.

So while he does donate to the foundation that bears his brand, relative to his baseball paycheck (not including any income he might have from endorsements or business investments), his charity is the equivalent of an average U.S. family giving $70/year. Not peanuts, but well below $2,125, the average charitablegiving for the average taxpaying family that itemizes deductions.

And of course there's the kicker if Roberts' numbers tell the full story, that while the AROD Family Foundation collects money from the Haskellator hisself and through fund-raising efforts, at least in one year, it gave away under 2% of what it raised.

Like all thrusts that degenerate into cults, branding has some solid, authentic, rational core that was initiated in response to a crisis. The apparent root of the Branding concept, at least as far as branding of people is concerned, is a thought-provoking essay thought-provoking Tom Peters wrote for thought-provoking Fast Company in 1997. In the face of a vaporizing corporate equilibrium between the talent and the organization, the longer-term mutuality ("We'll keep you here for a while and invest in you and you, in turn, will invest in us"), already dumped in the blue-collar job world, caught up to the white-collar world. Employers, lured by at-will employment silliness and offshore sweatshop labor had started to purge white-collar employees. Peters was inviting them to, as an alternative to sitting and moaning their lost mutual investment model, become free agents who evolved and trained themselves and, to replace the previous rough symmetry of commitment,  maintain a symmetry of at-will non-commitment.

It was a respectable response. In the absence of a healthy, symmetrical mutuality, the least offensive counter-move was an unhealthy, symmetrical lack of commitment. But hiring organizations were set up to acquire talent in different ways, and a decade later they still haven't adapted. At all. In the slightest.

Because in an age of personal branding based on talent or work results, people who are good at the branding part but not the substance of work results are able to acquire opportunities for success more than people good at the work results part but not at the personal branding. Instead of being a key part of the talent's tactics, it's become the key part of the hiring organization's filter. Those effective Lake Wobegon Norwegian Gentleman Farmers (think Fred McGriff or Jake Peavy), soft-spoken but dull and effective are continuing to be overlooked relative to flashy extroverts with less work effectiveness (think Curt Schilling or Steve Garvey).

It's not that personal branding is not an effective tactic for those of us extroverted and shameless enough to be decent at it; it's that it tends to reward extroversion more than work ability (which frankly, in some cases, are somewhat linked). Like Personal Enron, it's now about the gas you deliver, it's about the gas you blow about yourself.

But as implemented in today's social world, branding is not about content, it's about the packaging of content. A faulty product can sometimes affect the brand, but for a lot of manufacturers and service providers and professionals, the brand is the product, and the actual deliverable a mere piece of overhead that potentially gets in the way. It doesn't make people and companies and government un-accountable, it merely creates a system that undermines accountability, which over time provides incremental rewards to those who don't deliver without consequence.

I don't know if all of the details in Roberts' article are true as generally as the specifics she cites. I've been a renter and a landlord in my life, and I know there are usually two sides to any of these kinds of relationships. And he may not know just how funky the operations of his apartments are because he' delegated it to "experts". But I have to think, because the $252 Million Eddie Haskell is so frelling Haskellicious, that it nails the core truth.

Like too many C-level execs I observe and have worked with, he wants to be a Chief Executive in title and deference (Brand), but he delegates the actual work of management and at the same time makes no effort to master the details of the business she or he is Executizin' (deliverable).

In most cases, a player would probably get away with this without reportage or repercussions. A-Rod, because he's so Haskellistic and gives so many of us the Willies, gets no free pass. It doesn't matter that he's the best all-around non-pitcher in the majors (deliverable). He has lashed himself to Branding, Branding, that like most, doesn't match the actual deliverable (his play) and instead is meant to act as a surrogate that will survive his playing career's inevitable decline (someday), and allow him to maintain his celebrity after, like his idol Cal Ripken Jr. (who, coming along before Branding became a Cult, is abso-tively, poso-lutely The Real Deal, and probably would have been even in the face of advisors who wanted to package him like Enron or toxic Mattel toys made in Red China, or Coby home electronics) because Ripken has close to 0% Haskell in him.

And lashed to his Brand, like Ahab to the whale, instead of to his work product, he may go on to plow through Barry Bonds' all-time home run record, risk his life to pull children away from onrushing city buses, get his own celebrity chef show on cable-tv's Haskell Planet. But he will always be generally perceived as his brand, the $252 Million Eddie Haskell, A-Fraud, Leona Helmsley, with his low-income apartments and his stingy charity.

Is it fair? Perhaps not. Branding isn't about fairness or accountability. It's all about the wrapper.

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