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Published 07 June 2012 04:08, Updated 07 June 2012 05:21
Booted ... The Wiggles enjoyed unparalleled goodwill until they dumped stand-in yellow Wiggle Sam Moran in very public and controversial way.
You are an entertainment hit. You thrill children the world over with your happy songs, friendly faces and catchy tunes. You make millions but the paying parents don’t mind. After all, you’re clearly having fun – and the kids love you – so who is going to begrudge your entry into the BRWTop 50 Entertainers list?
But then it goes wrong and the halo drops. You fire one of your team of four without notice – on his daughter’s birthday – and show little sympathy for his plight.
“What about Sam? What do you mean?” Blue Wiggle and unofficial leader Anthony Field responded in January, when asked in a TV interview about the man they fired a day earlier. “What Sam does now is Sam’s ... his contract has come to an end.”
Although Sam Moran was not a director or shareholder of the group that pulled in $21.4 million last year, he was lead singer – for five years he was THE yellow Wiggle – and was equal in the eyes of fans to his blue, red and purple skivvy-wearing teammates.
The failure by Field and colleagues to recognise this public perception was at odds with the expected Wiggly friendliness.
“I haven’t spoken to him, I don’t know. I’ve been on holiday,” Field continued, digging a deeper hole. “Maybe you’ll have to talk to Sam to find out what he thinks.”
In fairness, Field wasn’t guilty of calling Moran a “hired hand” as has been reported. It was a term Channel Nine interviewer Richard Wilkins used but to which Field agreed.
The group’s difficulties have just been compounded by the recent resignation of three members, Murray Cook, Jeff Fatt and Greg Page – the original Yellow Wiggle for whom Sam Moran had been thrown out.
Fatt and Cook remain directors and shareholders. Page sold out of the group when he resigned due to illness in 2006. He returned to the group after a divorce and an unsuccessful venture into property development but the group denies his return was prompted by a need for money. Fellow original member Field remains in the group with three new employees.
The departees say the bitterness about Moran’s sacking had nothing to do with their decisions but the travails highlight the risks of transformation that many small businesses face.
It is rare for any business to be in the hands of its founders 21 years after its start. Transformation has to take place at some point and the past few months have shown how this can be mismanaged.
“It may have been in the best interest of the brand to remove Moran. But not the way they went about it,” branding agency Blunt’s managing director, Brent Nolan says.
Brand – the personality of a product or service any company provides – gives consumers a personal connection to that product. Brand matters. It takes a long time to create but can be damaged easily. Destroy the Coca-Cola brand and all that’s left is brown, sugary water. It’s no surprise the company goes to great lengths to protect it.
So what is the longer-term damage to The Wiggles brand from the group’s recent public behaviour? Is the brand damaged? How will that affect sales? Experts agree it has taken a hit.
“The Wiggles are about being nice to each other, being super-friendly and welcoming,” the executive director of branding agency Interbrand, Nick Davis, says. “Recent activity has gone against that. If their values are about being kind, jolly and happy, it makes it a bit more acute, the sense of people being misled by the brand.”
Brand is part of the value of any company – and it can be calculated by extrapolating the proportion of the company’s value driven by intangible assets. In its global survey of top brands last year, Interbrand valued Coke’s brand at $71.86 billion, nearing half of the company’s year-end capitalisation of about $160 billion.
A brand doesn’t have the same importance with all companies as it does for Coke but it is crucial that everything the company does reflects the brand it projects.
“With any brand, behaviour is what speaks to the audience,” the managing director of Sydney-based agency Mainspring, Gavin Jowitt, says. “If you take Telstra, they can spend $200 million a year telling you how great they are but the moment you pick up the phone and have to deal with their customer service, that’s where your perception is formed.”
The biggest problem for The Wiggles is the crossover between the guys who run the business and the guys who are the entertainers. They are one and the same.
“The brand should always be talking about what it does best, which is the products or services it provides,” Davis says.
“The problem you have is these are the guys who are running the business, being the performers and everything else; their conversations will merge brand and business. They have stepped into business personas. Money has come up. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for them to do that.”
Entertainment is a relatively small industry and one in which personalities and business mix. Moran, for example, met his actress wife Lyn when she was playing Dorothy the Dinosaur. But some separations have to be made. Jowitt compares The Wiggles with Disney. Disney is a much bigger entertainment corporation but has no such crossover between brand and business.
No one, he laughs, ever gets angry with Mickey Mouse when they have a beef with Disney Co., nor do they link the entertainment product with the corporate side.
“No one complains about Disney making the money Disney makes,” Jowitt says. “No one says, ‘Here comes another Aladdin story, it’s such a money maker’. “No, they say, ‘What a wonderful movie’. But the guys at Disney are all about the bottom line. They’re not thinking, ‘Let’s turn out another piece of wonderful entertainment’.”
Perhaps because they are a small business, The Wiggles have a distinct view of themselves.
“We really don’t think of ourselves as a ‘brand’ or a ‘business’ – we are first and foremost a band,” manager (and Anthony’s brother) Paul Field says in answers emailed to BRW.
But they are a substantial business. In 2004, they pulled in $45 million, overtaking actress Nicole Kidman as Australia’s highest-earning entertainers and their earnings subsequently rose as high as $50 million. They stayed on top of the BRW Top 50 Entertainers list until 2008, when singer Kylie Minogue and resurgent rockers AC/DC knocked them off their perch.
The Wiggles have felt the weight of the popular backlash. “There’s no doubt we could have handled the communication and management of the transition better,” Paul Field says.
But the question now centres on the longer-term affect on the group of the yellow Wiggle affair. The business can ill afford it. Parent group The Wiggles Holdings Pty Ltd posted a net loss of $2.5 million last year on revenue of $21.4 million after a loss the previous year of $323,000, its financial statements show. The group halved the length of lucrative US tours last year to tour more in Australia during its 20th anniversary celebrations. Bad publicity is the last thing it needs.
Although children will be immune to the public relations disaster, their parents are not.
“With the demise of Sam, I think that changed the feel of it ... they have a business and I suppose you have to look after the business but I lost a bit of interest after [that] controversy,’’ Canberra mother-of-a-Wiggles-fan Tania Hayward told The Canberra Times last month.
Branding experts say the damage isn’t fatal. One positive for the group is that their target market changes every few years as children grow up and new fans are born.
“They may get a bit of bad PR this year but the reality is new parents are going online this year,” Jowitt says. “The kids aren’t interested in the PR. There may be a bit of confusion about ‘How come the yellow Wiggle’s face has changed?’ but again, the kids will get over that quickly and move on. This is really what The Wiggles have to do. They have to disconnect from the individual performers. It has to be about these characters.”
The changes, which also see Fatt, Cook and Page replaced by Lachlan Gillespie, Simon Pryce and Emma Watkins, may be necessary to ensure the longer-term survival of the group.
“Maybe The Wiggles have come to a point ... where the brand needs refreshing,” Nolan says. “They’re looking like a bunch of old guys on stage. It’s not a good look.”