Editor's Cut: When a bright light extinguishes, we owe it to them to take a moment and reflect.
Just as September began, we lost a trailblazer—not just in comedy, but also in branding. Joan Rivers, probably best known as a sometimes foul-mouthed but always opinionated comedienne, passed away. While entertainment magazines will be telling her tale of going from a struggling comic who finally got her break to the host of the pick-on-you-if-you-mess-up fashion show, Fashion Police, what many won’t recount is Joan Rivers the brand…nay, Joan Rivers the self-made and self-promoted brand.
Rivers shot to public notoriety in 1965 during a guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, eventually becoming a permanent guest host of the iconic late-night staple. Not only did she become the first woman of late night, but she also became a star in a male-dominated comedy world.
As her entertainment star shone at varying degrees over the years, Rivers never allowed her Hollywood status to stop her from making her name a brand. She was an accomplished author, penning dozens of best-sellers. A butt of jokes herself for her endless rounds of plastic surgery and seemingly endless quest for beauty, the comedienne launched her own skin care and beauty line, selling everything from scented lotions to leg vein concealer. She deftly turned her own punch line-worthy quest for perfection into tools to help the average woman feel young and look great.
She also parlayed her later career as a fashion critic into a successful line of jewelry and fashions, which were sold on QVC for more than 20 years. Her line of classic fashions and accessories, according to a report on Forbes.com, sold more than 1.2 million products, including more than 6,000 items like brooches, scarves and dresses. While her range started with reasonably priced separates for women, her jewelry could top the $120 mark. In total, Forbes estimates that her line amassed more than $1 billion in sales.
Joan Rivers was a survivor who knew that her image—good, bad and hysterical—was a brand. And she worked that brand like nobody’s business.
I have my own personal memories of Joan Rivers that start, first, as the mother of a student with whom I went to high school. As her daughter, Melissa, performed in whatever school play was being over-produced by a gang of high schoolers, Rivers was the ultimate fan backstage. Nobody could cheer louder or be more proud of the chorus in The Music Man. I remember her bravery as her new late-night show was launched. I also remember her bravery in the face of losing her husband in a tragic suicide. Most of all, I remember Joan Rivers, the proud mom.
Years later, as an adult, I had the hysterical honor of watching Rivers, the marketer, in action. Every year, CEW (Cosmetic Executive Women) hosts the Beauty Insider Awards. As part of the process, entrants are invited to showcase their entries to CEW members and to media in an effort to their win favor and votes. Products are stacked (two per table), hundreds of judges line up and entrants pitch their products at least 200 hundred times over the course of an evening. Over…and over…and over again.
I shared a table with Joan Rivers’ skin care line, and the grand dame herself was on hand. People lined up and then bottlenecked to see her in action. I suspect many fashionistas were hoping to get her seal of approval in the form of a gentle ribbing from the tastemaker. The only problem is that a bottleneck at her end of the table meant less attention to my end.
About an hour into the event, Rivers started to get a bit tired of the repetitive nature of the pitch and started flubbing some of the ingredients in her own product. So, in jest, she turned and asked me what was in her product, and I told her. After all, I had heard the pitch about 100 times myself, and she was holding up the line. So I just started selling her product for her.
For the next three hours, I was swept into what I can only call the whirlwind of Joan Rivers. It was the Joan and Liz show. At one point, she sat down and just had me selling both products as if they were meant to be used together. I honestly laughed so hard that my sides hurt for days. Just thinking of her today makes me smile uncontrollably. At the end of the evening, after the business and selling were done, she asked me about myself, and I told her that Melissa and I had actually attended the same high school. We exchanged some more pleasantries, she asked for my card, and away she went—big blonde hair, long lashes, red mink stole and all—into the Manhattan night.
When I returned to my office in California several days later, a giant box was waiting for me on my desk. Inside was absolutely every single product in the Joan Rivers skin and makeup line. She had even separated out the lipstick colors that she thought would look best on me. The note inside the box said, “Broads like us stick together,” and to never forget that happy people buy, and happy people laugh, so if you can get people to do both, you’ll make lots of money.
Joan Rivers will be missed for her wit, her sharp tongue, her lack of a filter and her take-no-prisoners love of life. So if there is anything we marketers can take away from her, let it be the understanding that laughter and business don’t need to be mutually exclusive. And even in the worst of moments, never forget that your personal brand is only dictated by your own drive and will.
Until next month,