Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance has provoked quite a response, as I’m sure she intended. The most interesting strain of reaction, as a branding guy, is from those who suggest she is ‘trying too hard’ and portray this phase as more about posturing than genuine expression. To me (and to her future), that is a far more damaging criticism than ‘Ewwwwwwww,’ which is understandable but ultimately a matter of taste.
Full disclosure – at this point in my life, it’s much easier to find Nick Jr. on the remote than MTV. And I know little of Miley Cyrus beyond the rough contours of her biography and the rather pleasant ‘Party in the USA.’ Funny that we thought that was her anthem for growing up from child star to pop star!
The challenge for her is that entertainers become icons through authenticity. From his teen idol days through the swaggering Rat Pack era until settling in as the formidable ‘Chairman of the Board,’ Frank Sinatra owned his image and his music (even though he wrote none of it). The listener can hear him as confident romancer (‘Come Fly With Me’), as wounded loser (‘Angel Eyes’), as reflective but defiant survivor (‘My Way’) – across the gamut of life stages and emotions, he was who he was, and that can’t help but come through.
You can say the same thing about others – Madonna’s evolution from outer borough tough girl to enterprising chanteuse to sophisticated club queen is archetypal. Bruce Springsteen is who he has always been, just with more gray. The kings of hip-hop speak confidently of a life most have personally known. The effects of talent-plus-authenticity can be transcendent and enduring.
So when it comes to Miley Cyrus, her task is to convince the market that the state of her art genuinely reflects where she is at this point in her life. No amount of shock value can substitute for the reality of one’s expression. Contrived acts grow tired quickly and are easy to spot.
We see this in the brand world too – with Millennials leading the way, the marketplace responds uniquely to brands that know who they are and are comfortable with it; today’s consumer can smell a fraud a mile away (and are actively on the lookout). So what can brand managers learn from Miley, other than perhaps how to twerk? Be yourself.