Does Madonna’s brand need to change?

No one can question that Madonna’s brand has been incredibly successful.

According to the Guinness World Records, Madonna holds the title as “Best-Selling Female Recording Artist” with more than 305 million albums worldwide. She is currently outsold only by Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Elvis Presley.

It’s no wonder that writers, fans, and celebrities look at Madonna’s brand for cues on cultivating an image worthy of pop-star success.

Yet, something has shifted.

In 2015, after Madonna posted her worst sales numbers for a new album, one critic brazenly asserted:

Every great artist also needs to know when it’s time to hang up the microphone before a legacy is too heavily tarnished. For Madonna, that time was nearly a decade ago, and the more she ignores this fact, the larger the footnote on her legacy will become.

Is this prognosis overly harsh, based purely off one set of bad numbers? Or, do the numbers reflect a changed perception of Madonna’s brand overall?

That question is actually the subject of a marketing study conducted at University of Southern California, based upon a survey of 1000 young Americans. The study found that Madonna is seen as desperately seeking attention while wishing to speak for millennials (that hard to pin down collection of audiences under the age of 35). The resulting perception is telling, as noted in another article based on the same survey: Madonna is seen as inauthentic. It seems as though she doesn’t simply want to speak for millennials, but that she wishes she were one. Unfortunately for her, it isn’t possible to be a 58 year old millennial, even if she played a major role in setting the groundwork for their generation to flourish.

Inauthentic. Does that sound familiar? It should. Accountability—the ability to deliver on a brand promise—is one of 3 attributes required to maintain and create a perception that keeps customers loyal. It’s even one of the branding lessons we’ve learned from the Material Girl herself: always deliver.

Another writer argues that Madonna, whose image (brand) is about reinvention, is delivering exactly what an audience wants in an era of mediocrity and apathy. Wow, that’s harsh. Are millennials really a mediocre consumer market that doesn’t care? We think not. As we have seen, today’s millennial consumers are much more savvy when it comes to technology and marketing. In fact, what the USC study on Madonna reveals is perhaps what we’ve assumed: 1980s counterculture doesn’t work today.

When the video for Like A Prayer famously angered the Catholic Church, did we believe that Madonna cared whether or not she offended anyone? No, and that shock of her outspoken, individual personality was at least part of her brand. Yet, branding is about perception, and the study is clear: Madonna is 17 times less influential than Taylor Swift. Even among Gen X’ers, she’s losing touch.

Either Madonna hasn’t evolved in the right direction, or she is holding onto an old strategy that no longer works. When consumer perception changes, it’s time to rebrand.

Perception is brand reality. That alone is evidence that the original Material Girl needs new material.

We’ll leave you with Madonna’s own lesson in rebranding:

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”

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