Philip Ellis
The SELFIE Principle

If there is one thing which we know consumers prize in the digital age over anything else, especially when it comes to brands, it’s honesty. How much you let your audience in on who you really are is the new metric of success.

And if authenticity is a zero sum game, then the undisputed winner is Kim Kardashian, argues branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev. “It might well be a relative definition of authenticity, but the truth is we see her all across social media, posting selfies and expressing who she is,” he says. “Today we see a lot of manufactured images that aren’t half as close to her level when it comes to letting us in on who she really is.”

Sehdev is the author of The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (And How To Do It Right). In his research, he has tried to pinpoint exactly how and why Kim Kardashian, the new wave of teen influencers and even Donald Trump have all taken the world by storm. Each and every one of them, he concludes, possesses the set of qualities which he defines as SELFIE: Surprise, Exposure, Leadership, Flaws, Intimacy, and Execution.

“Kim Kardashian has a megamix of vulnerability, narcissism, sheer audaciousness; she has not tapped into culture, she has redefined it in her own image,” says Sehdev. “People ask why is Kim Kardashian famous, they say she has no talent. Well, that is the new definition of talent; whatever she has.”

Whether that’s sustainable is another question entirely. “15 minutes might be the new model of how it’s going to work,” he adds. “We’re seeing a redefinition of what fame is about, fundamentally. We’re seeing that with YouTubers too. How long will YouTubers last? Will they last as long as Marlon Brando?  It’ll be interesting to see what the lifecycle of a YouTuber will be, with that far more intense fan-celebrity relationship. Those people have found YouTubers when they were nobody, they’ve told their friends about them, helped create them; they have an equity stake in them.”

Whether this new model for fame is taking pop culture in the right or wrong direction depends entirely on your perspective, Sehdev says. A certain type of person might vilify or denigrate Kim Kardashian, just as a certain type of person might dismiss millennials as selfish, lazy or entitled.

What’s undeniable, though, is that the new breed of celebrity has changed the landscape in which people create and consume media. “The role of a marketer today is fundamentally changing,” says Sehdev. “If we are to connect with our consumers authentically, we have to start with ourselves. That will be the new rule of marketing going forward.” He offers six ways that brands, agencies and would-be superstars can follow Kim’s lead.

1. Find out what’s unique about you — and amp it up.

Rigid stereotype categories are a mainstay of Hollywood, says Sehdev; if you fit the popular standards of beauty you can be a leading lady, if you don’t then you can play the quirky friend, and so on. Rather than conforming to the existing idea of what constitutes a sex symbol in western popular culture, Kim Kardashian ended up redefining it by celebrating her own different body shape and making the internet-breaking big butt the new ideal.

Sehdev contrasts this approach with that of pop star Zayn Malik, who has been perceived as distancing himself from his British-Pakistani Muslim background by rebranding simply as ‘Zayn’ in order to avoid the all-too-common negative conflations with terrorism. This hasn’t entirely worked for him, Sehdev says, because he looks like a man trying to deceive people for commercial gain, instead of somebody who is proud of his heritage. These kind of old-school tactics create a level of distrust.

2. It’s better to be over-exposed than edited.

“We are used to curated images,” says Sehdev. “We’re used to seeing people wearing all the right clothes, saying all the right things, dating all the right people, and then being caught behind the scenes with their pants down, doing something entirely different.” Audiences are too savvy today for brands to get away with putting on a façade. Millennials in particular are like forensic detectives when it comes to figuring out who you really are, what you’ve said and done in the past, and how that contrasts with your official image.

3. Ideas need to be about you, not the audience.

Brands and agencies have been tasking themselves with being audience-centric and finding out what the consumer wants, but Sehdev argues that simply mirroring your audience’s persona won’t work. “What do you want, what do you believe in, what do you stand for?” He asks. “You put that out into the marketplace, and you have an opinion that is going to establish credibility with certain people, and might well alienate other people.”

4. Hate is a status symbol.

On the topic of alienation, Sehdev believes that if you’re not being hated, you don’t have a strong enough opinion, and you’re not in the game. The most successful ideas are both loved and hated, he argues. “Don’t underestimate the power of a polarising idea; you’re not just creating fans, you’re creating fanatics. A lot of the people and images breaking through today, that’s the reason why.”

5. Flaws make you fascinating.

After talking about the weather, everybody’s favourite pastime is talking about a celebrity who has erred or transgressed somehow. Why do we become even more fascinated by a famous figure when they do something illegal, or show vulnerability? Because they’re showing a glimpse of who they really are underneath.

6. Honesty brings intimacy.

Brand intimacy used to mean one-on-one, and that was what products and services strove for. But now customers can be intimate with multiple brands at the same time, as well as their fellow users. “Part of this shared intimacy is what I call the business version of friends with benefits,” says Sehdev, citing the example of consumers using ride-sharing service UberPOOL as a de facto dating mechanism. “Allowing your audiences to create their own definition of what the product is, that’s how you’ll create a greater level of intimacy.”

    We'd love to hear from you.