Unless you’re living under a rock, you know that Ellen’s career has been crashing and burning for quite some time now.
But we’re not here to rehash the timeline. Plenty of publications have done so already.
In fact, if you’re not up to speed, this Washington Post article pretty much sums it all up.
What we’re trying to do is analyze what in the actual hell happened.
How can such a strong brand with decades of unwavering love and support from all around the world, fall from grace so fast?
Is this just #CancelCulture claiming its latest victim? Or did Ellen and her team commit some critical branding offenses to unleash the neverending downward spiral?
The Ellen Brand
To understand the fall, we must examine the rise.
Ellen is no stranger to being on the receiving end of a nationwide barrage of hate.
After the historic coming-out episode of her sitcom in the late 90s, she lost her entire career. 1997 America was still a long way away from being “woke” enough to accept her for who she was.
As a result, she was shunned, shamed, and bullied by what seemed like everyone and their mother.
But Ellen rose like a phoenix and came back an LGBTQ+ hero.
Almost as if she had vowed to kill America with the kindness it had never shown her, she launched her talk show in 2003, ending each episode by telling her viewers to “be kind to one another”.
It was the ultimate “comeback” story, and boy do we love a good comeback story.
In fact, her return gave America its very own redemption arc. The same people who had caused her demise now had the chance to atone for their bigotry and homophobia.
In some twisted way, this created a strong sense of intimacy and protectiveness between the nation and the heroin they’d wronged. It was almost like a first-class ticket into their hearts. Like a family that had been through its ups and downs and that had come out stronger and closer on the other side.
And sure enough, Ellen reigned supreme as America’s sweetheart for over 17 seasons.
She filled homes with laughter, made people feel like they, too, were best friends with famous people, and she never missed an opportunity to dance with the kids from the latest viral memes.
Her name was everywhere. Every charity cheque, every award show, and yes, even your favorite celebrity’s ass.
The Ellen brand was, by definition, an empire of joy and kindness.
The Importance of Brand Identity
Legendary godfather of branding Marty Neumeier defines the concept of branding as the “gut feeling” your customers have about you.
It’s not about your product, your service, or your company. Nor has it got anything to do with your design or your logo. It’s about your customers’ perception of you.
It’s your reputation. And it’s fragile.
The problem is that the perception of your brand is not in your control. It’s in the hearts and minds of your customers. And each and every customer will have his or her own opinion of what you are, based on their own personal experience with you.
Therefore, as Neumeier so eloquently puts it, a company is never creating just one brand identity.
When there are millions of people on the receiving end of your brand, then there are millions of perceptions being formed, and therefore, millions of “brand identities.” Or in Ellen’s case, hundreds of millions around the world.
The good thing about that is that if enough people have a positive gut feeling about you, you most likely will have a good reputation – a strong brand identity, just as Ellen had for years.
But if the script flips, and the bad gut feelings start outweighing the good – you’re in trouble. Because there’s nothing you can do to flip it back.
You can’t reach into the hearts and minds of your audience and undo the damage.
The trust is broken.
As I said, I’m not here to go over the details of all the accusations.
But the gist of it is that there are two main parts. The rumors about Ellen herself, and the serious misconduct allegations against her high-level employees.
In a nutshell, it’s been said that Ellen chooses random members of staff to treat badly every day, just because.
She also has an affinity for getting people fired for chipped nail polish and reportedly gets her staff to instruct guests and employees not to look her in the eye. Oh and apparently, if she thinks you smell, she’s sending you home to shower.
Weird behavior for any person, to say the least, let alone for the beacon of kindness.
Then there’s the more sinister stuff… The accusations of racism and discrimination against her producers, and the shocking institutional mistreatment of employees with extenuating circumstances.
It’s all very murky. All very uncomfortable. All very not becoming of a recipient of the Medal of Freedom. (lol)
Et Tu, Brute?
So why the visceral backlash? Well, quite simply, betrayal sucks.
Remember those millions of brand identities that are created in the hearts and minds of all of your customers?
Those are millions of little relationships. Millions of trusting, long-lasting relationships between you and your audience that you, as the brand, are responsible for nurturing.
And Ellen betrayed that trust that in each and every one of her viewers. Big time.
She punched us all right in that warm and fuzzy ‘gut feeling’ we had about her.
So not only are we mad at her for lying, but we’re furious with ourselves for believing in her. And we’re even more outraged at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.
What’s George Got to Do With It?
It’s been said that Ellen’s name started its credibility freefall in October 2019, and just hasn’t stopped since.
People are blaming that fateful day when Ellen was photographed being all chummy at a football game with the widely adored, not at all controversial, former President George W Bush.
“People were upset.” She said.
“They thought, ‘Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president? Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.”
Hmm.. not quite sure you can equate being friends with a war criminal to being friends with someone who disagrees with your views on fiscal responsibility, but I may be wrong.
The point is, that photo and her subsequent statement were a far cry from all that should be associated with the Ellen brand. Considering Bush’s war-mongering past and anti-LGBTQ history, the whole ordeal was perplexing at best, and down-right disgusting at worst.
You know that saying, “show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”? Well…yikes…
You can watch the whole cringe-worthy statement below. I don’t know if I personally have the stomach to, especially after what her team decided to title it.
So Was It All Bush’s Fault?
Of course not. I mean it was bad and it certainly did a number on people’s perceptions of her, but Forty Three was not the reason Ellen DeGeneres’ career crumbled.
No. The beginning of the end for Ellen started long before the unfortunate photo opp.
Her brand was doomed to fail from its very inception. It was just a question of when.
Let’s go back to Marty Neumeier because few can articulate complex concepts as well as he.
Neumeier says that when you build a brand that is not aligned with reality, you are destined to be exposed.
“Risky and costly in the long run is promising a brand experience divergent from the actual truth…You’ve told everyone that you’re ‘this’ but really you’re ‘that.’ Eventually, they’ll find out, and then you’re done.”
Hauntingly prophetic, if you ask me. Perhaps if Marty had warned Ellen all those years ago, she might have stuck with the jaded and sarcastic persona she put forward in her standup specials.
Sure, it would have made her less money, but at least it would have been easier to keep up.
Well, it seems pretty obvious at this point but – ‘don’t be a crappy person’ certainly jumps out as an excellent piece of advice.
And if you’re going to be a crappy person, definitely don’t build an entire multi-platform empire around how great of a person you are.
In the absence of genuine moral adherence to the values you claim to have, you need to at least have a team in place to keep you accountable.
You can’t be a crappy person and also hire crappy people. Because a truly solid reputation – a good brand identity – comes from within.
Everything, and I mean everything, from the culture to the values to the people and their practices – everything needs to be aligned with the desired perception that you want your audience to have of you.
All of it needs to be authentic. And no one can afford to get complacent.
Because the second you or your team slips up and gives you free rein to be as crappy as you want, suddenly you’re forcing pregnant ladies to drink alcohol on TV, and the curtain is pulled back on all your other transgressions.
So, no, friends. Ellen wasn’t canceled. She was just finally caught being herself. A little too many times.