Talk show host, writer, comedian, award show emcee, humanitarian, gay advocate, and founder of a popular lifestyle company — Ellen DeGeneres has indisputably created a winning brand. Indeed, Ellen’s image as a down-to-earth, quirky, and kind person has been skillfully crafted to the point of Disney-like fantasy. Her brand has proven lucrative, too: According to Forbes, Ellen brought home a total of $80.5 million in 2019.
However, despite the years of work that have gone into this brand, it’s starting to shatter in spectacular fashion. Ellen is facing her biggest branding challenge to date. Reports of a toxic work culture, discrimination, and sexual harassment are tarnishing her (and her talk show’s) reputation. The “queen of nice” image has been shown to be just that — an image.
In a recent interview with Hedda Muskat, former producer of The Ellen Show, Hedda shared that while Ellen is very relatable on-air, she has no interest in relating to her staff. She has “no emotional connection with staff — there was no eye contact, staff walked on eggshells, and her expression was often ‘sneer-like, and very dismissive” Hedda recalls. “Favoritism was evident, plus we were terrified every day of being fired — particularly on Fridays,” added Hedda.
Over the years, Ellen has donated $125M to charity, and is particularly passionate about animal rights organizations. But “her generosity and kindness did not extend to the staff,” Hedda says. Hedda related this story: “While watching the audience on the dressing room monitor, surrounded by her make-up people and handlers, they would make fun of people and point to the screen about someone’s awkward flaws during audience load in. Look at what this one is wearing…”
An inauthentic personal brand
The real damage to Ellen’s brand doesn’t just stem from her bad behavior; it stems from her fans feeling duped. Ellen’s personal brand was, in two words, “be kind.” Yet she was anything but.
This is part of what motivated her staff to speak out in the first place. Hedda explains: “When the media contacted me about coming forward, I couldn’t sit back and watch her lie about not knowing anything, when she was also the problem.” Hedda added that she is sick and tired of the fake narrative and façade, and feels that those spending their hard earned money on her “Be Kind” brand should know the truth.
Hedda also notes that Ellen is far more than a demanding boss. “I’ve worked for many demanding bosses and at the end of it all, I become a better writer and producer.” For example, she reported to Simon Cowell as head of talent for “America’s Got Talent” season one. “Simon was professional, direct, demanding, and welcomed questions — which made me so much better at my job. With Ellen, it was different. When your boss dummies you down to nothing, that’s where the atmosphere becomes a poisonous one,” claims Hedda.
Ellen built an entire career and brand on a false narrative. The cost of that is quickly becoming clear: In addition to all the negative publicity The Ellen Show’s ratings have slipped 9%. And what comes next? Product sales — from masks and coffee mugs to t-shirts and subscription boxes — will likely fall considerably, since “Be Kind” is inextricably intertwined with Ellen’s brand. Further, the controversy could be a deal-breaker for brand partnerships with Walmart, Amazon, Wayfair, and other marquee-name retailers. Brands partner with other brands based on positive reputations — notaccusations of bullying and racism. In short, there is a direct correlation between brand turmoil such as this and a company’s financial future. It can even lead to brand boycotts, as we’ve recently seen with Ivanka Trump.
When brands face reputational damage, their brand-management skills become more important than ever. And Ellen is no exception. Ellen will no doubt have to reinvent herself. The question is: Will Ellen’s fans continue to support an individual and a brand that have caused so many people pain? To address this problem, I have five immediate suggestions for Ellen and her brand:
1) Own it. Get back on social media, acknowledge the problem, and tell the world that you will change. Don’t act like the victim. (Note: Ellen seemingly has taken a hiatus on her social media channels since July 30). You can’t sit idle and hope the problem fades away. Be honest in admitting errors and don’t play the blame game by shifting ownership to the producers. It’s all about rebuilding trust.
2) Get personal. The letter to your staff was not sufficient. You mentioned that “if not for COVID, I’d have done this in person.” But why not call staff (former and current) individually and apologize? Or, you can get even closer to in-person apologies via video chat. The staff needs more than written words. It is important to get out there now (too much time is elapsing). And say thank you (a lot) to make them feel they are valued at their job.
3) Outline concrete ways that things will change, both to staff and the public who have supported your show for17 years. While Ellen has admitted that she’s “committed to ensuring this does not happen again,” she’s been vague. Move swiftly with a defined course. Clearly outline what will change and share short and long-term goals.
4) Define your purpose, vision, and core values of the workplace culture. Ellen needs to set the tone and be in alignment with the executive management team. Transparency and open communications is top priority. Consider creating a Culture Book to build a shared vision with your staff. Allowing them to participate and letting their voices be heard is a must. Zappos’ Culture Book serves as a great example.
5) Change your mantra from “Be Kind” to “Be Real.”
I wholeheartedly believe that Ellen can recover, but she has a lot of work ahead of her. Others agree — like Allison Kluger, a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and former producer for The View. (I often refer to Allison as my personal branding soulmate on the West Coast.)
Allison writes: “It’s about assessing the hurt, who feels hurt, who has been hurt, who feels let down, who feels like they have been let down specifically by her, etc. And her acknowledging that hurt and apologizing. ‘No comment’ and ‘It’s not my fault’ never work. Since there is a groundswell in the deterioration of her brand and reputation, she needs to take control of the narrative. Ellen should lead with her heart and talk about what she has done to make the world a better place. She should reach out to celebrities, charities, and people who have felt her kindness and generosity, and ask them to step forward and tell their stories. Then she needs to craft a new narrative that reflects Daniel Diermeier’s ‘Trust Radar’ — focus on Empathy, Transparency, Expertise, and Commitment.”
In closing: Let this be a reminder to put our best selves forward on and off stage. Stay on brand, maintain a consistent voice, and deliver on your promise. It’s that simple.