Dancing with the Stars

Branding 101 on “Planet Mirror Ball”

By John Butler
In December 8, 2011

I hate reality television.

The reason I watch television is to stimulate my brain or be entertained. Or to spend an hour or so with people who are more interesting than I am (or at least get shot at more often). I have sincere and redoubtable apathy for the Kardashians, the Housewives of any geography or social set or anyone open to the possibility of mixing their gene pool with Bret Michaels’.

If these people had any actual talent or charismatic appeal they would be on good old-fashioned non-reality TV, am I right? It seems as though the proliferation of channels combined with the need to fill the associated hours of programming, and low bar for what passes as entertainment anymore has set in motion a maelstrom of lowest-common-denominator personalities that are seemingly everywhere all at once.

On the other hand, I love ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the premise is simple enough. A group of 12 dancing-amateur-“stars” are each paired with a professional dancer and compete for judges scoring (1-10 from a three-judge panel) during each episode and then receive phone/text/website votes from the fans of the show. Through some algorithmic combination of the judges scores and fan votes (which mysteriously are never revealed) the lowest scoring contestant is eliminated during each of the first nine weeks — leaving three competitors to face off in the Week 10 Finals.

Dancing With the Star Judges

The Judges: Carrie Ann Inaba/Len Goodman/Bruno Tonioli

Though a somewhat recent convert (only the past couple of seasons) I am fully on the bandwagon and never miss an episode. However, it’s fair to say that my interest lies more in the brand management and social psychology aspects of the show than the actual hoofing. As much as I am attracted to the idea of eventually being able to contribute to meaningful dinner party discussions about the artistic merits of the Cha-Cha-Cha versus the Paso Doble, what’s really great is that this program is essentially a microcosm of the basic principles of branding and marketing that resets twice a year.

You can argue that many of the participants are not, in fact. actual “stars” (points in case: Steve Wozniak? Mike Catherwood? Bristol Palin? Jake Pavelka?) but what you can’t argue is that it is the ultimate market-driven joyride where you can closely examine a product’s entire life cycle from introduction through elimination, er, discontinuation. At the beginning of the season, we’re shown 12 distinct “brands” and over the course of the next 10 weeks serve as the world’s largest focus group for which one ultimately grabs the most market share.

And to continue the analogy to brand management, the professional dancer with whom each “brand” is paired serves as their “marketing communications agency” to help choreograph their product rollout and shape their image and performance. So, while it shares a common ancestry and shallow superficiality with the reality TV that I hate, DWTS rises above due to the fact that we can learn a lot about the general Zeitgeist of our country by closely monitoring the proceedings.

Further, the process and execution functions along the same “Steps to a Sale” as any Consumer product category — and here’s how that process worked for this past season:

Step 1: Awareness (brand credibility)

Elisabetta Canalis Dancing With the Stars

Elisabetta Canalis: Looks like a Ferrari, dances like a Fiat.

Brand — Product Description — Agency
Ron Artest — NBA Player — Peta Murgatroyd
Elisabetta Canalis — Model/Actress — Valentin Chmerkovskiy
Kristin Cavallari — Reality star — Mark Ballas
Chynna Phillips — Singer — Tony Dovolani
Carson Kressley — Fashionista/TV Host — Anna Trebunskaya
Chaz Bono — Activist/Author — Lacey Schwimmer
David Arquette — Actor/Producer — Kym Johnson
Nancy Grace — TV Host/Former Prosecutor — Tristan MacManus
Hope Solo — US Women’s Soccer Goalie — Maksim Chmerkovskiy
Ricki Lake — TV Host/Actress — Derek Hough
Rob Kardashian — Reality TV Star — Cheryl Burke
JR Martinez — US Army Veteran/Actor — Karina Smirnoff

Step 2: Understanding (what the brand stands for)

Chaz Bono Dancing With the Stars

Lacey Schwimmer/Chaz Bono: Trans-dancered.

Brand — Brand Message
Ron Artest — Petulance undercut by new name “Metta World Peace.”
Elisabetta Canalis — Hot, Italian, former Clooney arm candy.
Kristin Cavallari — Poster child for MTV’s low ratings; occasional Jay Cutler fiancé.
Chynna Phillips — Member of Wilson Phillips who seemed to have the best haircut.
Carson Kressley — Unquashable enthusiasm for his complete lack of dancing game.
Chaz Bono — Youngest, formerly-female cast member of the “Sonny & Cher Show.”
David Arquette — Unaccountably married to Courtney Cox.
Nancy Grace — Self-righteous indignation toward high-profile criminals.
Hope Solo — Enormous gloves but sort of attractive in a soccer-y kind of way.
Ricki Lake — Didn’t she used to have a show?
Rob Kardashian — Collateral popularity attributed to inexplicable appeal of his sister’s hindquarters.
JR Martinez — Everything that’s great about America; could be the next Oprah.

Step 3: Interest (seek more information)

Nancy Grace Dancing With the Stars

Nancy Grace: Not so much so.

Brand — Call to Action
Ron Artest — Act fast, he won’t be here next week.
Elisabetta Canalis — Who cares if I can’t dance, I look great in this dress!
Kristin Cavallari — Vote for me because no one’s 100% sure who I am!
Chynna Phillips — “Hold On” until I completely forget my routine in Week #3.
Carson Kressley — You love everything about me except my dancing!
Chaz Bono — You’ve embraced my transgender-ness; but Cher will kill everyone if I get hurt.
David Arquette — Maybe Courtney Cox didn’t just marry me to be the smartest person in the family!
Nancy Grace — The irony of my last name is becoming more evident every second!
Hope Solo — Yes, we all know I should be a better dancer than this, so vote that way!
Ricki Lake — I sang and danced in “Hairspray,” so that ought to count for something.
Rob Kardashian — That’s not bad plastic surgery; Bruce Jenner really can’t believe I can dance!
JR Martinez — If you don’t vote for me, the terrorists win.

Step 4: Inspiration (brand preference)

Ron Artest Dancing With the Stars

Ron Artest/“Metta World Peace”

Brand — Purchase Decision Driver
Ron Artest — Even shirtless, he’s a lifetime 41% from the field.
Elisabetta Canalis — Sometimes, even the flashiest packaging can’t make up for a bad product.
Kristin Cavallari — Skinny and blonde can’t compensate for a complete lack of charisma.
Chynna Phillips — Could have been Jennifer Grey; instead she was Ione Skye.
Carson Kressley — In spite of his spot-on “Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow,” couldn’t make the sale.
Chaz Bono — The only person happier that he was eliminated than we were, was him.
David Arquette — Like Courtney: We all liked him more than we thought we would, just not enough.
Nancy Grace — Bad dancing + strangely malevolent grin + wardrobe malfunction = adios.
Hope Solo — We can’t vote against you, you just can’t win. Kind of like the World Cup vs. Japan.
Ricki Lake — The judges’ favorite for all 10 weeks, must have been the Derek Hough Agency.
Rob Kardashian — Eerily analogous to the show he’s on, inexplicably dances into the Finals.
JR Martinez — Inspirational, charismatic, self-effacing, loveable. Oh by the way, great dancer.

Step 5: Purchase

In the end, the combination of brand appeal and market forces carried JR Martinez to victory. He’s the classic synergy among a solid product concept introduced by a consistent and efficient marketing campaign, supported by engaging mass and social media combined with intrusive positioning at the point of sale. In the end, it was one of the few examples of a can’t-miss brand launch that actually achieved market acceptance in proportion to its value.

And, while I can’t guarantee that every season of “Dancing with the Stars” will work that way, it’s still nice to see that in this age of superficiality and hyper-communication a great idea can prevail.

JR Martinez Dancing With the Stars

JR Martinez/Karina Smirnoff: Market share leader.

John Butler

I am a lifelong Clevelander and have spent nearly 30 years in the marketing communications industry. It is my belief that you need to have a diverse range of interests in order to bring perspective to a client’s marketing needs. So my blogs will generally be about social media, dogs, music, media planning, historical fiction, content marketing, professional sports, brand positioning, restaurants I like, quantitative research analytics, science fiction movies, target audience segmentation, running/cycling or the impact of digital media on advertising messaging. You get the idea.