By Barbara Gray, CFA, Mar 17, 2012 – Last night after we got our baby to sleep, I curled up on the couch with my husband to indulge in one of our favourite reality TV shows: Celebrity Apprentice. Back in the days when I was working as an Analyst, I was a huge fan of The Apprentice and Donald Trump and I have to admit I aspired to live the “money, money” lifestyle and ride around in private jets and limos. But over the past two years, I have had somewhat of an awakening of conscience and I have realized that the world I had been living in is starting to come crashing down…
So back to the show… It is interesting as this season I have become increasingly disillusioned with Trump and I have been questioning his command and control style and his overriding “it’s just business” mentality. But it wasn’t until we watched last night’s episode that I realized how out of touch corporate America is becoming. The basic premise of Celebrity Apprentice is that you have two teams made up of celebrities who compete with each other every week to raise money for their charity. The assignment this time was to create a presentation for Buick’s new Verano car and the leader of the winning team would win $20,000 plus an additional $30,000 donated by Buick for their charity.
I started to get a bit suspicious when Trump started to question Michael Andretti for not stepping up to the plate as a team leader. My skepticism grew during the first commercial break which seem to be sponsored by guess which company? Yep, Buick – a definite product tie-in… But it got even worse as not only did the men’s team (which in my opinion, did a much better job with their presentation) lose but Trump ended up firing both the team leader (Adam Carollo) and in a very contrived-looking way, Michael Andretti, who did absolutely nothing wrong.
My gut is telling me that Trump must have pitched Buick on the promise of an endorsement from racing legend Michael Andretti. What is interesting as my husband and I just returned from the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas where Chevy (a sister to Buick in the GM family) and GE (parent to NBC which broadcasts Celebrity Apprentice) were both Sponsors. And the message we heard over and over again was how the old push style method of advertising no longer works and how companies have to be transparent and authentic and engage in a real discussion with their customers. I find the total lack of transparency and inauthentic behaviour by both Trump and Buick appalling and it is insulting to their viewers/customers for them to think they could have gotten away with trying to manipulate Andretti. I guess nobody at corporate GM or GE headquarters was sitting in on any of the SXSWi presentations with us.
But thanks to social media, these shells are being exposed. My sense is that this debacle will create negative social capital for both Trump and Buick. Although it will take a while for the numbers to play out, I believe Celebrity Apprentice has really lost trust with celebrities, advertisers, and its viewers which will impact the future value of its franchise. And Buick not only got a negative ROI from this venture, but I believe it tarnished the brand equity of its new Verano vehicle. As Greg Johnson, Global Creative Director at HP, remarked during the “Brands as Patterns” presentation, “a brand creates equity through what it does, not what it says”.