X Factor is proof that brands also need great products to stay the course

December 2011

(Or if not ‘products’, then services or whatever else it is they’re there to deliver in the first place.)

It’s often said that branding is, ultimately, about differentiation. X Factor has built its brand over many years and has differentiated its offer not only against previous and other contemporary talent shows, but also more generally against other Saturday night light entertainment programmes. It’s drilled out a position of truly the best and most addictive kind of entertainment, with an ever-building story of previously undiscovered talent which could rise from total obscurity at an audition on a grey day in Birmingham, through to worldwide pop acclaim. Well okay not many have achieved the latter, but Leona Lewis certainly did.

But this year it all went a bit pear-shaped, and the news that 4 million less viewers tuned in to the final show compared to last year would have made depressing reading for Mr Cowell, his TV production company (SYCO), and of course ITV. And for ITV the news will have been particularly depressing, as lower viewing figures mean lower levels for advertising when they set their rate card out for next year. In this respect, M&S might now be feeling they got a raw deal and it will be interesting to see if they come back to the show in the same way next year (I suspect not).

So what went wrong? Well if you watched the recent shows as I did (and I humbly confess to being a long-time fan of the programme), then you’ll already know the answer: the act that won it wasn’t even best of a bad bunch; it was arguably worst of a (generally) bad bunch. This latest ‘girl band brand’ didn’t even have provenance or any sort of clear identity, but instead were failed solo artists from the earlier rounds and thrown together by the judges in an attempt to create something the show didn’t, naturally, already have. Therefore they were manufactured and artificial, and in my book that fundamentally goes against a key value the X Factor brand has developed:

And I’m sorry, but girl bands – and boy bands for that matter – should be full of good looking people. This one clearly isn’t, and any attempt to suggest that their differentiation is partly about being strong on the ugly stakes, simply doesn’t wash with me. (And that’s also one of the reasons why they’ll be off the media’s radar in less than six months.)

So how did they win? Well my theory, which could of course be wrong, is that it had a lot to do with the lack of any artist with any quality which would appeal to the over 20s, and therefore the ITV call centre phone lines would have been lighting up to votes from the “mum, can I vote for little mix” young teenagers and the twelve and unders. In addition though, the winners’ mentor, Tulisa Contostavlos, did an excellent job on marketing her protégées to viewers. In fact she did that week in, week out. I also know a bit about leadership, and suspect she showed a fair bit of that particular quality to the four girls along the way as well.

For the record, and we’re going a bit off-piste here in a brand and marketing sense, but it seemed to me that there was, actually, a truly talented artist who should have won but got voted off a week or so before the end: the young black girl from Manchester, Misha B. So what went wrong for her? Early on in the live shows she got accused of bullying other contestants and that, in today’s society and rightly so, is a no-no in any thinking person’s book. But who brought that to the attention of the viewing millions and in no uncertain manner? Our mentor of the winning act…

So back to the very point of this month’s somewhat rambling rant. Brands can flourish and have longevity for a whole lot of reasons, with clear, relevant and appealing differentiation being central to it. However, they also need to deliver good products, services or whatever else it is they’re there to do, because, otherwise, they become somewhat pointless. And that’s what’s happened to X Factor, as it has other brands in the past.

End of the road for it? Perhaps not just yet, but for next year expect changes to the judging and voting system which will allow artists with real talent, and appealing to the broad range of age groups which watch the show, to still be in with a shout on the final Sunday. Because if this doesn’t happen, then key advertisers like M&S will spend their money elsewhere and X Factor will no longer be the money-spinner it has been.

And for all us in branding and marketing, some valuable lessons we can apply in our working lives and should never lose sight of.

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