City & Gild: Has Gary Barlow shattered a dream brand?

Andrew Mulholland
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When I was a child and believed in Father Christmas, I bought into the whole “Ho ho ho” thing hook, line and sinker – to the point where I would lie awake on Christmas Eve, terrified that a complete stranger was going to come down the chimney and pad about the house. (To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was more worried about this, or the possibility he might not like the mince-pies and cooking sherry, then deposit my presents in the bin.)

The day Ms Treader, my English teacher, crushed the dream by telling the whole class he didn’t exist – a little harsh, given we were only five – was a bitter occasion I still vividly recall.

I felt the same sense of crushing disappointment when I read about Gary Barlow’s tax shenanigans on the weekend. No, really. Gary and I share a special bond (he’s unaware of this of course), to the point where I started to comb my hair like him, and even grew a beard, until my six-year-old daughter told me it was too scratchy.

Gary, the man who weathered the storm since the rocky days after Take That, the champion of countless charities, who laid on a birthday party for the Queen and offered sage advice for aspiring X Factor hopefuls in a way that Simon Cowell never could. A man of principle. A man of the people.

Or apparently not. At least not when it comes to paying the taxman his due.

Last night I tried to rationalise this emotion. I mean, he isn’t the first, or last, celebrity to try and avoid paying taxes, or fall from grace. But the truth is, I don’t feel the same way about the others. I couldn’t have cared less about Jimmy Carr’s similar transgression. Jeremy Clarkson’s nursery rhyme rancour also didn’t touch the sides. So how come I felt so personally let down by Gary?

The answer is that neither of these two ever set themselves up to be role models. Their brands don’t rely on offering advice to young hopefuls, organising birthday parties for royalty, or generally being a National Treasure.

I believed in Gary Barlow, in the same way as I believed in Father Christmas. And that’s the danger of positioning your brand (even by default) in a space that is, essentially, unrealistic. The number of companies who come to us demanding to become “The most loved brand in the world” is simply staggering. By all means have a vision beyond your category, but solving world hunger is sadly just as unrealistic as being a National Treasure. And the moment you let us down, we will find it very hard to believe in you again.

Andrew Mulholland is the managing director of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,