We live in a shameless time, says celebrity branding authority and PromaxBDA Europe Conference keynote Jeetendr Sehdev, and it’s time we embraced it as a selling point. “Focus on what you believe and what you want to create, regardless of the blowback,” he writes in his forthcoming book, The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right). “The old approaches no longer work, so you’ve got to blaze your own trail.”
A professor of marketing at University of Southern California, Sehdev has pioneered a scientific, research-based methodology to quantify celebrity influence. Over the years, his approach has turned up some headline-grabbing results about the world’s most powerful personal brands and how we perceive them. Last year, he released a two-year study showing that celebrity feminists such as Taylor Swift and Adele may actually be making people care less about women’s rights. In 2015, Sehdev revealed that female YouTube stars scored seven times higher than mainstream female celebrities in a study assessing their level of clout and audience admiration, and in 2013 his research crystallized the notion that Jay Z’s album-giveaway partnership with Samsung had damaged the rapper and business mogul’s trustworthiness in the eyes of millennials.
The connecting thread between these findings is authenticity, and the increasing importance of maintaining it in successful celebrity branding. You might also call it, as the book suggests, the Kim Kardashian Principle (KKP), which Sehdev describes as “breaking through by becoming your own champion.” The KKP, he writes, “demands that you be so true to who you are and what you believe—at all times—that you can’t help but convey your DNA to everyone you touch.”
Daily Brief caught up with Sehdev the day after his return from the Vatican, where he had been invited to meet with Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo for his work in fighting modern-day slavery.
DAILY BRIEF: Celebrity Branding Authority is not a position that many people can put on their resume. How did you find yourself pursuing this unique and fascinating career?
SEHDEV: I’m fascinated by the illusion of fame and Hollywood, pulling back the curtain and provoking thought. I created the area of celebrity branding by combining my love for branding with my obsession with celebrity. Besides, I had worked in banking, consulting and marketing, graduated from Oxford and Harvard, and travelled around the world… there wasn’t much left to do.
DB: You make frequent appearances on outlets such as CNN, Access Hollywood, USA Today and many others. Was there a clear moment when your status shifted toward becoming something of a go-to expert for the mainstream press?
SEHDEV: I’m not sure there was any one particular moment but I’m most known for revealing the new breed of celebrities and the greater influence of YouTube stars like PewDiePie versus traditional celebrities like Taylor Swift. It wasn’t the first time my work had gone viral but this time the entire entertainment industry shifted before my eyes based on what I said. It was kind of insane.
DB: You will be speaking at PromaxBDA’s Europe Conference in Amsterdam and you yourself are a British national living in Los Angeles. Are there any differences you see between the culture of celebrity in the U.S. and the culture of celebrity in Europe?
SEHDEV: Every culture has its own sensibility and that’s reflected in the types of celebrities it heralds. But I think its safe to say that differences between celebrity culture across the world are quickly disappearing in part thanks to the power of social media. Fame is the holy grail amongst millennials and today everybody wants to be a star.
DB: Around this year’s coming Oscars ceremony, you’ve been very open about Hollywood’s diversity problem, whether it’s nominating Mel Gibson or, as you said in USA Today, “pacifying black film critics” in response to #OscarsSoWhite. As I see it, diversification in Hollywood isn’t just the right thing to do – it would also be more profitable to be more inclusive.
SEHDEV: Yes. Audiences are tearing down the stereotypes that Hollywood has promoted for so long. You don’t have to be blonde-haired or blue-eyed to be a sex symbol. Black actors can play more than just the funny or stupid characters. Latinas are not just prostitutes or toilet cleaners… you get the point. Hollywood hasn’t moved with the times, and the changing face of a new generation. We’ve seen how the Academy has been named and shamed, and audiences will continue to speak up until real change has not only been implemented but also embraced.
DB: The celebrity featured in the title of your forthcoming book, The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right), could just as easily be swapped out with a certain other American reality TV star who now happens to be the U.S. president. How much was your writing influenced by Trump and the 2016 election?
SEHDEV: Yes, I was impacted by the 2016 presidential election. What’s apparent is we live in a different world where different sorts of images, enterprises and ideas are breaking through. The Kim Kardashian Principle reveals the new rules of marketing to break through during these turbulent times. But politics is only one of many themes that I explore in my book. I also explore ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and freedom of expression.
DB: How much do you think the game-changing rise of Kim Kardashian helped lay the groundwork for the rise of Trump?
SEHDEV: Donald Trump used The Kim Kardashian Principle to win the election. I have no doubt he’s a big fan of Kim and will be reading the book.
DB: Trump (and maybe Kardashian, too, at times) seems to have proven the old adage that bad press is better than no press at all, at least when it comes to maintaining a strong celebrity brand. But is that just a thing people say or is it true – is bad press REALLY better than no press at all?
SEHDEV: The reason why Donald Trump won the election wasn’t because he was always in the press, it was because he struck a nerve with the people of America. That’s a bitter pill for many to swallow. Audiences today are inundated with marketing messages and fake news stories. They’ve long perfected the art of tuning out messages they don’t want to hear—good or bad.
DB: Your book addresses that issue by positing authenticity/shamelessness as a tool for enhancing the reader’s personal or business brand. Do you think we’re all being too careful or politically correct in our day-to-day interactions?
SEHDEV: I believe in freedom of expression and I believe in equal rights for all but many people feel unable to express their true opinions out of fear of being vilified or demonized or degraded. But not expressing who you are is going to work against you. The Kim Kardashian Principle encourages you to be authentic, to be brave and to have an opinion. Today, the power lies with audiences. Reveal who you really are – flaws and all –and let audiences decide whether they buy into an idea or not. Authenticity amongst audiences is at a premium but how can you be authentic with your audience if you can’t be authentic with yourself?
Jeetendr Sehdev delivers his PromaxBDA Europe Conference keynote address March 13 at 9:30 AM. His new book, The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right), comes out March 21 and is available for pre-sale.