Editor’s note: Billy Warden is a communications strategist at Capstrat in Raleigh, a screenwriter and a television producer.It was another star-filled night on the Academy Awards red carpet when Jennifer Lopez va-va-voomed her way over to thank Joan Rivers for publicly praising her voluptuous curves.

Joan’s red carpet “pre-show” awards on cable’s E! Entertainment had become a pop culture staple, and the cooing of stars like J. Lo seemed like the final seal of success.

I watched the exchange with delight. As an executive producer and writer, I’d worked with the network as its reach exploded from around 40 million homes to more than 80 million.

That success came from building a strong brand that attracted viewers and advertisers. And much of the brand building was attributable to Joan. Now that’s changed. Joan and her daughter Melissa Rivers jumped ship this summer to the TV Guide Channel reportedly for a three-year deal worth up to $8 million.

But the brand lessons from the early days of E! still hold true and, in fact, apply to any kind of business. So, I give you now the laws of brand building as demonstrated by the Queen of the Red Carpet —

Go to extremes

E! wasn’t playing it safe when tossed a caustic comic into the exclusive pond of celebrity schmoozing. Stars were used to “You look mah-velous” not “You look like Dr. Kevorkian’s next patient!” But in making an extreme move with Joan, E! aced the first rule of branding – it differentiated its product from the competition.
It’s remarkable how many companies fail to differentiate. Instead they play it safe. They worry about making too strong a statement.

They fail to stand out.

If Joan Rivers doesn’t persuade you, consider another dish – Hardee’s, a North Carolina-bred fast-food chain that not long ago seemed on the fast-track to the bottom of the deep fryer. But then Hardee’s went extreme. First came the gargantuan Six Dollar Burger, followed by the one-third pound Angus burgers, followed by heftier sales.

The Hardee’s brand, which had no identity, suddenly emerged flexing its muscles, determined to be the most macho of burger joints. Now, when carnivores think, “Where’s the beef?,” many think Hardee’s.

Or consider Apple Computers, which, back in the ’80s, decided to brand itself as nothing less than a revolutionary force. To get the point across, it borrowed the repressive atmosphere of George Orwell’s “1984” and threw in a kind of Amazon warrior taking down big brother, all in a spot directed by future “Gladiator”-guy Ridley Scott. Apple made its statement in a SuperBowl ad that still gets airtime. Now that’s extreme — and unforgettable.

Any size brand can differentiate. It’s about bold choices, not big bucks. When Capstrat, the agency I work with in Raleigh, wanted to build awareness of the NC Treasurer’s escheats program, we developed an over-the-top nerd character with a metal detector who frantically searches for “lost treasure.” On the set of the TV spot, we told the actor, “Play it like Jim Carrey trying to out-Barney Barney Fife.” He did and the campaign – designed to drive traffic to NC Cash.com – went on to exceed expectations by spastic leaps and bounds.

Real wants, speedy delivery

Before you stake out extreme ground, it’s important to make sure that you understand what people really want out of your product and that you only make promises you can deliver on.

Joan’s red carpet escapades appealed to America’s aspirational interest in the rich and famous as well as the flip-side desire to cut the beautiful people down to size.

When a brand miscalculates on either count – the want it is supposed to satisfy or its ability to deliver satisfaction – it runs into trouble.

Both Coke and Pepsi have sometimes pushed their brand images beyond the limits of their products – to the point of seeming meaningless. I’d like to think I’m cool enough to be part of this “Pepsi generation,” but is this caramel-colored concoction really my ticket?

Pepsi seemed to recognize the stretch and this summer refined its brand identity by going back to the basics of want and delivery. The want that soda satisfies, it turns out, isn’t to time-travel through glitzy dance numbers with Britney Spears. No, it’s the basic desire to taste something sweet and bubbly while chasing down fast food. And on that simple but important point, the company’s recent campaign convincingly claims, Pepsi delivers.

Controversy and change are your friends

Detractors, competitors and the unstoppable erosion of time always chip away at a brand. But each can also work for you.
E! had its share of critics. “Saturday Night Live” took to parodying our shows, at one point portraying Joan as a smart-aleck skeleton.

But Joan was unflappable. “Everything I say, I say out of love,” she’d quip. The producers held fast to the notion that there’s no such thing as bad PR. An irate caller to E! proved the point when she shrieked, “I can’t stand that Joan Rivers! She was out of line for the entire show, and I watched all four hours!”

The brand-keepers at Abercrombie & Fitch may have had a similar experience as controversy roiled around their in-store magazine — you know, the clothing catalogue that featured young hard-bodies mostly wearing no clothing.

As a differentiating device, the “magalogue” was extreme and effective. The outcry from “decency” groups, which went on for years, only served to make the retailer ubiquitous. Then, having achieved differentiation, A&F wisely dropped the Playboy-ish approach. Literally stripped bare, the brand had nowhere left to go. Now it’s time to dress it up with some mystique.

In E!’s case, critics and competitors couldn’t stop the Joan juggernaut, but a better deal eventually did. E! now has major shoes to fill (Manolo-Blahniks, no doubt), but also a chance to re-introduce itself to TV watchers.

Re-introductions are a golden opportunity to keep a brand fresh and relevant. Imagine if, during the gas crisis of the ’70s, American car-makers had introduced a more efficient automobile. The Detroit brands might not have had to soldier through the marketing equivalent of World War III with Honda and Toyota.

In moving ahead, E! should follow the playbook discussed here: assess the want its programming serves in a marketplace that’s changed since Joan’s debut, determine the goods it can actually deliver, then milk the differentiating qualities for all they’re worth.

Joan, meanwhile, will do wonderfully. Once, when the lights suddenly went down in our studio, she shook her head and sighed, “I should’ve never p—– off Johnny Carson.” It was a keen bit of self-deprecation, but also a tad disingenuous. Getting people’s goat is one of the many things Joan does very well — and very profitably. And that last part is certainly worth emulating.

Billy Warden is a communications strategist at Capstrat
(www.capstrat.com ) in Raleigh, NC, a screenwriter and a television producer.