Should Conan change his tune?

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A good brand takes a long time to build, and it requires ongoing management to keep messaging and behavior consistent with the hard-won image – this is just as true for people as it is for companies. Managed right, a positive brand is one of the most powerful tools out there, giving confidence for new ventures, facing public opinion and helping to  garner attention for things that may otherwise go unnoticed.

But brands aren’t static.  When change occurs – whether global or local – the image must adapt or risk tainting the brand’s reputation for good.

I’m looking at you, Conan O’Brien.

Since his departure from NBC, Conan has kept “Team Coco” fans anxiously awaiting his next move. Although his ability to begin a new show was curbed when he signed an exit deal with NBC barring him from appearing on television until September, last week he announced the dates of a spring live tour, aptly named “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.”

Conan has always played the underdog, both in the late night television arena and as part of his brand image. No doubt Conan is witty, cunning and the best person to make fun of himself. With his trademark red hair, range of impressions (often enacted with an alarmingly high-pitched voice) and unpredictable behavior, he’s the epitome of self-deprecating. But at what point does playing the victim of the late  night wars begin to hurt his brand image?

Conan’s been smart about not appearing ungrateful for the opportunities he’s been given. While NBC was still negotiating terms for The Tonight Show, Conan made a single statement to the media. All other commentary about his move was made in humor, with any intense conflict handled behind the scenes.  He made it a point to appear focused on the greater good; even the spring tour touts his generous nature, noting that all profits from the tour will go to his 40+ employees who had relocated to Los Angeles to work on The Tonight Show. He also leveraged his brand power, which is still influential enough to draw attention to even the smallest details—namely, his recently established Twitter account. Conan’s decision to follow a 19-year-old bride-to-be in Michigan has changed her life completely, as he predicted it would. Sarah Killen and her fiancé said they had saved only $30 for their wedding as of a few weeks ago. After Conan became her fourth follower on Twitter, she is now getting offers for free dresses, cakes, honeymoons and was even asked to appear on “Larry King Live.” How’s that for brand power?

Munificent, yes. Yet still, when will the public begin to tire of his bemoaning  “woe is me, someone give me a TV deal?” With national unemployment at 9.7%, this record is playing a familiar tune, and is beginning to loop. Conan was always the funny guy who made people laugh, despite the rough economy. He was our break from reality. Now that the stage has changed, will he change his image to avoid injuring his once rock solid brand?

One thing is clear: despite his departure from late night, Conan’s popularity has not taken a tumble yet. Only time will tell if he’ll be true to his image or reinvent himself (as so many in Hollywood do). Nonetheless, his upcoming tour will keep him in the limelight until he’s ready to make his next move, which many are predicting will be a triumphant return to the late night lineup once and for all.  Question is: will it be the same old act, or will we get a stronger, better,  evolved Conan?

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