Commentary: Everyone Loved Bill Cosby. Did His Brand Cover His Crimes?

Photo of Commentary: Everyone Loved Bill Cosby. Did His Brand Cover His Crimes?

Last week a jury convicted actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault for drugging and assaulting a woman 14 years ago. Cosby may spend the rest of his life in jail.

The news isn't a surprise; dozens of women have come forward in recent years, accusing Cosby of similar attacks. Still, for many people, the Cosby conviction was a jarring moment, prompting widespread discussion in the news and on social media.

The Cosby verdict is shocking because it is--even now, after all the allegations--a brand disconnect for many people. The entire story conflicts with popular understanding of the Cosby brand, and so it leaves us unmoored and uncertain.

Brands are the associations people have with a name, symbol, product, or service. When people see the Apple logo, for example, they think of innovation, simplicity, the color white, and Steve Jobs. These are all parts of the Apple brand. Caterpillar evokes toughness, ruggedness, masculinity, and power. Louis Vuitton is French, luxurious, historical, and elegant.

One of the reasons brands are so powerful is that their connections strengthen over time, becoming deeply embedded in our minds. In many cases, our belief in a brand can supersede reality. We are quick to forgive brands we trust.

If Apple produced a complicated, unoriginal computer, our brand association might cause many of us to ignore that reality and praise the product anyway. In the same way, if an employee we liked and trusted began to get sloppy, we'd likely be hesitant to acknowledge it and try to explain away their problems.

Over the course of his career, Bill Cosby built a remarkable brand. He did two things exceptionally well. First, he constantly was in the public eye. While he is best known for The Cosby Show and its portrayal of the Huxstable family, Cosby starred in a series of different shows. He began his comedy career back in the early 1960s and stayed in the public eye for more than 40 years. He starred in commercials, did stand-up routines, and performed in television shows.

Second, Cosby maintained a consistent brand image; he was always the jovial, friendly, somewhat goofy character. In his early days, he voiced Fat Albert, a funny, likeable animated character. He continued to reinforce this friendly, approachable image over the years. He was relatable in a way few celebrities were. People could imagine him coming over for Thanksgiving and playing with the kids.

Cosby didn't push his creative limits. He isn't remembered for starring in horror films or intense pyscho-thrillers because he didn't. Bill Cosby was, well, Bill Cosby. His brand was consistent, as all great brands are.

There was another side of Cosby, though--a dark, sinister, manipulative side. And so when accusations of sexual assault first emerged, people were quick to discard them. "Bill Cosby? Oh, that can't be," many of us thought. "That's not the Bill Cosby I know."

I used to work at Kraft Foods, home of Jell-O. Cosby for many years starred in commercials for Jell-O, in which he joked with children. Jell-O capitalized on Cosby's friendly uncle image. But marketers who worked with him on the commercial shoots often came back with a different story; he was demanding, difficult to work with, and self-absorbed. It was hard for me to believe these stories. After all, it was Bill Cosby.

The reason Cosby's conviction is so notable is that it highlights the disconnect between his brand image and reality. The funny, casual Cosby isn't real. It is an image that he created.

Of course, Cosby isn't the only example of predator using branding as a cover. Indeed, the #MeToo movement has highlighted dozens of men who built strong personal brands that served as a cover for dangerous behavior. Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting young gymnasts, is a vivid example; people believed in the Nassar brand and were slow to understand what was actually happening, even as it occurred sometimes in plain view. Matt Lauer is another example of someone using a well-maintained brand persona to cover his sinister activities. When allegations against him arose, many people were surprised.

The Cosby story shows us why brands are so powerful. It also illustrates their risk. Trusting blindly in a brand is dangerous, as it can sometimes overshadow misbehavior or crimes. We need to be more aware of our own biases toward trusting seemingly amicable and agreeable people--and pay attention to their actions, not their images.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.

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