Can brands become too personal?

In the intersection of brand and individual identity, when does a brand become too personal to bear?

5 July 2018

Author: Thom Newton, CEO & Managing Partner

Awful to hear the recent news about Kate Spade – the third high-profile designer in recent years to die by suicide. Her tragic death prompted a question about the creative industry and more specifically the intersection of brand and individual identity: when does a brand get too personal to bear?

Desperate to get to a place where suicide seemed the only option. It has been well documented since her death that Spade suffered from depression. Mental health is a complex enough challenge for many people to cope with under any circumstances, but the pressures for those who have reached a level of prominence and ‘exposure’ through the creation of a product or service, particularly in their own name, can elevate pressures to a different level.

As with the suicides of Spade, Alexander McQueen (2010) and L’Wren Scott (2014), it is apparent that the minds of creative luminaries, while capable of producing moments of unparalleled innovation and inspiration, can also be fragile and vulnerable.

The mental and physical energy that goes into the creation of a successful consumer brand is all-encompassing. When the driving force behind those creations attaches their own name (along with their essence and beliefs) to the brand and then sends it out into the world for comment (critical or otherwise), the boundary between what is (and what should be) personal and what is ‘for the masses’ inevitably becomes blurred.

There are those who seem to cope with the pressures of brand ‘parentage’ or indeed who actively court the indivisibility of this relationship, such as Richard Branson for Virgin or David and Victoria for brand Beckham, but clearly not all do. Some in the most damaging instances – cannot separate the reputation or reception that their brand receives from their own sense of self-worth and personal affirmation.

Of course, we do not know what tormented Spade, but allegedly she didn’t want to acknowledge the gravity of the situation or accept the help available because she was concerned about the negative impact it might have on her brand – her legacy – if it were made public.

Did she really feel that if she revealed her fragility, the darker struggle of her own mental make-up, it would somehow tarnish the brand image? A brand she had sold in 2006 but for which she still felt a huge responsibility. That the world she had created – one of aspirational accessories that make every woman (who owns a Kate Spade) feel uplifted, well-prepared, stylish and in control, would somehow be tarnished?

Interestingly, Spade changed her name in 2016 to Kate Valentine to ‘separate her two worlds’ she said. In an effort to be ‘herself’ did she surrender her identity to the brand she created and try to recreate her own?

In this tragic blurring of corporate responsibility with the responsibility to one’s own health and well-being, are more self-made and named brands in the creative industries in danger of losing their sense of self to their brands?

In the case of Spade, a tangled consciousness that led a troubled woman to be further burdened by a misplaced sense of her own self-worth being wrapped up with that of a product designed to stylishly bear the burden of the baggage we all carry around. Almost the final unbearable irony.