Duck Dynasty and A&E’s rebranding failure

A&E unveiled its new tagline, "be original," last fall and used "Duck Dynasty" stars to help convey that brand. Has it backfired?
A&E unveiled its new tagline, “be original,” last fall and used “Duck Dynasty” stars to help convey that brand. Has it backfired?

Back in October, when A&E unveiled a new tagline as part of its rebranding campaign, the cable network was riding a wave of popularity, thanks to hit shows like Duck Dynasty. The “be original” tagline seemed to work well with A&E’s lineup of quirky programming.

As A&E marketing exec Guy Slattery told The Hollywood Reporter at the time:

We felt like we could really own “originals” the way USA has managed to own “characters” and TNT owns “drama.”

Well. What a difference a couple of months makes, eh?

As has been widely reported over the past week, Duck Dynasty‘s bull goose, Phil Robertson, in an interview with GQ Magazine, shared some of his thoughts about gays and African Americans in the pre-civil rights south, among other things. His comments sparked strong reactions among gay rights and civil rights groups, and (of course) on the Internet. A&E suspended Robertson, a move that caused a powerful counter-backlash from Duck Dynasty fans, conservative Christians and alleged First Amendment advocates who took to Twitter to #StandWithPhil.

It now appears that A&E wasn’t too serious about the suspension. The Duck Dynasty patriarch will return to the show in January (source). So, maybe the GQ interview was all a publicity ploy cooked up by A&E’s publicists? (Although this report — and this one — would suggest otherwise. It appears that Phil Robertson went rogue on A&E.)

But my subject here today isn’t about Duck Dynasty or Phil Robertson and his comments. It’s about A&E’s brand identity.

I wonder if this entire controversy will strengthen A&E’s “be original” brand or weaken it?

Let’s examine this issue in branding terms:

Phil Robertson is a de facto brand ambassador for the network. As a star of A&E’s franchise program, he is among the most widely recognized personas of the A&E brand (along with the rest of the Robertson clan), and A&E features the family heavily in its branding and marketing. These days, it’s difficult to separate the A&E brand from the program.

But do the stars of Duck Dynasty represent the brand A&E desires? They’re not mainstream America — not by a long shot. They’re rednecks, bearded, white, conservative — the stereotypical Red State “God and guns” demographic. But their show has managed to appeal to a broad audience, if the ratings are to be believed.

But does all this equate to original?

The visual cues may indicate that. But with any brand, the messaging is also important.

And whether A&E likes it or not, the words of Phil Robertson, as a brand ambassador for A&E, reflect on the network.

Phil spoke his mind. I’ll grant him that. But what he said was not very original. In fact, and unfortunately, his views have been around for a long, long time. For too long.

If A&E really wants to “be original,” it should pluck Duck Dynasty from its lineup. But that won’t happen. That golden goose is probably more valuable than ever.

If there’s a branding lesson to be learned from any of this, it is this: Make sure your brand ambassadors are on message. In other words, get your ducks in a row.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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