What Happens When a Person  Becomes a Brand?

What Happens When a Person Becomes a Brand?

Tragedy compels Kate Spade New York to approach business with a human touch.

Martha Stewart, Prince, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Kate Spade. All examples of people who have had their names become brands.

The most ownable brand name is your own. When you name a brand after yourself, it has some great benefits, but also troublesome challenges. Just look up the story of Mike Rowe’s web design firm, MikeRoweSoft. It’s a rather amusing case study about the legal dispute between a high school student and a software giant. (In the end, Microsoft gave the kid an Xbox in exchange for his domain name.)

One simple benefit: When someone talks to the person with their name on the door, they are talking to the brand. It also clearly attaches you, the person, to the quality of the offering.

In time, the brand becomes much larger than the person, as is the case with Kate Spade. Her name was sold a few times, ending up in the hands of Coach. Still, we mourn for the person, the designer—who put her vibrant style, her love of color, and independent spirit into her work and her brand of fashion.

A few months have passed since Spade’s suicide. Of course, those who are most deeply stricken are her family; but from a business point of view, the brand managers at Kate Spade New York deserve a little sympathy, because they have a tremendous challenge. While Spade didn’t own the brand anymore, it has both her name and personality attached.

This requires us to wade into the deep end of the pool of meaning; in this case, it’s a murky body of water where predators lurk. So how does a brand deal with the death of its namesake and the conflict in meaning?

Showing you care is the first place to start.

What do you care about above and beyond profits or margins? We’re not talking about the time or money that you give nonprofits, or shipping a pair of shoes back to the people in countries that manufacture them. This is about showing you care in situations where it is hard to stand against the prevailing winds.

No brand manager wants the next person walking into a Kate Spade store to think “suicide” when they touch a Kate Spade bag. Yet the underlying issue—mental health and depression—are social ills in desperate need of attention. This huge brand just inherited an issue they now should address.

What would a campaign from Kate Spade addressing depression and mental health do for the brand? A danger is that it could be seen as opportunistic, exploiting her suicide to generate sales. If they donated all the profits to organizations advocating for mental health, would it still just seem like bad taste? This is the difficulty when adding meaning to your brand. Kate Spade as a brand cares about something larger than itself, even if it feels like they’ll face a storm of criticism.

The next time a shopper picks up a Kate Spade bag, it’s possible they will have a moment remembering Kate Spade the person, her blessings, and her challenges in life. Perhaps, if there’s a bag dedicated to her memory, she may give a long-term voice to those facing these illnesses. Perhaps, between the news cycles, more will be done to help turn the stigma into a deep empathy.

Brands are members of our society; we’ve invented them to contribute meaning and trust. Brands like Kate Spade help knit people together with a common interest in simplicity, quality, and thoughtful design. If your perspective on the company dedicating a bag design makes you see them as opportunistic, perhaps you should see this as their obligation. Maybe they can connect her legacy to this important cause.

Kate Spade, your ability to convey joy and whimsy will be missed, even by many who have never purchased your brand. We loved your entrepreneurial spirit and the walls you broke down for women in business. This writer hopes your name will break down one more barrier: the stigma of mental health and depression.

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored the book The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.

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