Originally published on Forbes.com
“We need to stop buying into the myth about gender equality. It isn’t a reality yet,” wrote Beyoncé in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink. “We have to teach our girls that they can reach as high as humanly possible… We must demand that we receive 100 percent of the opportunities.”
At Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, Beyoncé took the stage barely covered in lingerie, dripping wet and enveloped in smoke. Her recently slimmed body was on full display, the product of the oxymoronic “vegan-fast” (if it’s a fast, does it matter that it’s vegan?). She spread her legs and chair-danced, revealing glittery nipple pasties, while husband Jay Z, fully clothed in a tuxedo, stroked her rear and smiled smugly. Once the queen of class, Beyoncé has bowed to the stalest of pop female conventions: the stripper act sells.
Is Beyoncé an advocate for female empowerment or is she Jay Z’s sex kitten? At first glance it might look like Beyoncé is simply taking the Miley Cyrus route toward getting attention at an awards show. But it’s more complicated than that. In the songs and videos of her most recent album, Beyoncé, it appears that she wants us to see more sides of her than ever before. We see her as a feminist railing against the violence women commit to themselves to look good in “Pretty Hurts” and celebrating how Jay Z “Monica Lewinsky-ed” on her gown in “Partition.” She kisses and snuggles with her daughter in “Blue” and pleasures herself in “Rocket.” She channels Janet Jackson in “Blow,” shows off her swagger in “Flawless,” and exposes her insecurities in “Jealous.” Beyoncé reveals herself to be complex and human, offering us more ways to connect with her than ever before.
In marketing terminology, Beyoncé is increasing the multivocality of her brand. According to Susan Fournier, professor of marketing at Boston University, multivocality means that a brand speaks with multiple voices to multiple constituents.
The move appears to have paid off. Beyoncé sold 1.5 million copies before the Grammy performance, according to Nielsen Soundscan, and was the eighth best selling album of 2013, even though it came out only two weeks before the end of the year. As a brand strategy, showing her fuller self broadens the meanings of the Beyoncé brand and opens the possibility for more of us to connect with her.
But expanding her brand in this way can be risky. People expect brands to stand for something. If Mercedes Benz or Apple were suddenly no longer about innovation and status, the public would be confused. The same holds for Beyoncé. In the short term, people are curious. In the long term, they may disengage.
This is arguably what happened to Porsche when they entered the SUV and sedan markets. Loyal Porsche customers felt emasculated by the shift from a brand that stands for sports, speed and performance toward a suburban “mom car” with associations of safety, family and comfort. This is why Porsche has recently stepped up its participation in races, test tracks and road show events to redirect attention on the sports performance capacity of their cars.
According to Kristin J. Lieb, professor of marketing communication at Emerson College and author of Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry, Beyoncé may be jeopardizing her brand by confusing her audiences. “Because the album seems so autobiographical, and speaks with so many voices, it sometimes plays like an identity crisis. Is she Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Nicki Minaj?” she told me. “She’s been perceived to be a queen, a diva, and sort of inaccessible. For her to go through her career in this inaccessible position and then turn around and make herself accessible but so complicated that people who thought they knew her now question whether they really did—that’s the problematic part.”
“Brands are about trust and familiarity,” Fournier told me. “You know what it is, that’s the essence of having strong brand. If you change that, what do you have left?” Beyoncé used to be a premium brand. Now she’s in Miley Cyrus headline-grabbing territory. The resulting reactions? “Move over, Miley: Your foam finger has been upstaged!” By courting controversy, Beyoncé has moves out of the branding game and into the game of spectacle and shock.
Besides threatening her brand, Beyoncé may be doing her gender a disservice by focusing too much on sex as her main source of power. “She’s had this highly differentiated position as a classily-executed female empowerment brand,” Lieb told me. “So to bring that into the hot body show that all the other pop stars have to play in the hope of becoming her one day seems it’s going the opposite direction of what you would expect.” Given her status and the quality of her voice, Beyoncé could have used her power to show that a woman doesn’t need to be a stripper to succeed. But apparently gender equality is also a myth in popular music.