Having a strong personal brand is a lot like being a beautiful supermodel. If you’re gorgeous, people will often forgive you for things that would scuttle the average joe. Sometimes beautiful women aren’t quite sure why they were invited into a prestigious room. And everyone wants a supermodel to talk with them.
The flipside is that the beholder will always expect the supermodel to portray their character consistently. They become a “known entity,” so to speak. It can be a wonderful existence being beautiful but being labelled with a personal brand can be both a blessing and a curse. Clarkson could spend the rest of his life trying to be something different, perhaps garner that invitation to walk fashion week, but given the reputation he has built it seems unlikely he will ever shake off the burden of his current brand.
Beauty and brand. It all comes down to how you leverage it.
In case you don’t know who he is, Clarkson is a larger-than-life personality with sharp wit and a controversial yet captivating style of presenting. He has a unique ability to connect with audiences through his humour and outspoken nature.
Clarkson had been a part of the BBC car review show Top Gear for over a decade, during which he became one of the most recognisable and influential figures on television. His expertise, opinions and entertaining approach to car reviews earned him a dedicated fan base and a solid foundation on which he built a huge personal brand that was independent of any specific show.
And that’s why it didn’t matter very much if Clarkson fronted a car show called The Grand Tour rather than Top Gear. Clarkson makes any show work, just as a supermodel can transform any piece of clothing she wears into “fashion.”
Let’s quickly recap what happened over the last few years to Clarkson and his brand.
In March 2015, an “incident” occurred during the filming of Top Gear whereby Clarkson had a dust-up with one of the show’s producers, Oisin Tymon. This situation quickly led to Clarkson’s suspension from the BBC, an official investigation, and eventually the termination of Clarkson’s contract.
A month later, the BBC picked itself up and released a revised version of the Top Gear show without Clarkson, fronted instead by presenter Chris Evans. Unfortunately for Evans, the turmoil with Clarkson was still too fresh and the audience didn’t take kindly to the new host.
The BBC’s central problem was that it didn’t own Clarkson’s brand, which apparently had overtaken that of the show in reputational value. While it did own the rights to the name “Top Gear”, associated trade marks and copyright, the BBC couldn’t claim ownership of Clarkson’s character on that show. He played himself – no TV writer could invent someone like Clarkson.
Meanwhile, as the BBC scratched around for a new direction, Clarkson and his fellow hosts Richard Hammond and James May were in discussion with Amazon Prime Video to create a rival car show for an estimated £160 million package of 36 episodes across three years. That deal worked out to be nearly £4.5 million per episode or about 10x more than the cost of a Top Gear episode.
The value of Clarkson’s personal brand was reportedly measured in the deal by an annual salary of about £10 million, which made him Britain’s highest-paid TV star at the time at a whopping income of £833,000 per episode.
In November 2016, the first season of The Grand Tour aired and was renewed four more times. After running for a few years, it was finally cancelled in 2022 due to another Clarkson outburst. While that second cancellation might have been the end of anyone else’s TV career, it didn’t diminish Clarkson’s brand reputation one bit.
In fact, Amazon Prime doubled down on the Clarkson brand by sending cameras out to his farm to capture his shenanigans. The resulting show, Clarkson’s Farm, is now so successful that the BBC, in a delicious irony, is looking to copy the show’s concept for its own audience!
Clarkson’s brand is successful because it extends far beyond TV hosting. He is also a prolific writer, journalist and columnist, having authored numerous books and articles. His outspoken nature and engaging writing style have allowed him to connect with audiences through various mediums, further enhancing his personal brand and expanding his reach.
Maybe it’s worth describing Clarkson as a “super-presenter,” in the same way Heidi Klum is a supermodel. After all, the difference between a model and a supermodel is whether the beautiful woman can accelerate to enough escape velocity in the fashion industry to become her own brand. A supermodel controls her own frame. She is her own business.
Everything Clarkson does attracts equivalent attention as if he were Heidi Klum. That’s the power of brand. The lesson for any company that may be watching Clarkson’s career trajectory is to become so “sexy” that everyone wants to be your friend, no matter what you do.
Of course, there’s probably a practical limit to how far a personal brand can push up against the boundaries of public opinion. The thing is, that limit is surprisingly long, as any beautiful woman can tell you.
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