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Brand Charisma: How Barbie, Beyoncé, Swift and Trump Fill the Void Left by Religion

McCann Worldgroup's global head of human sciences and global head of influencer talk 'impact leaders' and the implication for brands

By Rodney Collins and Crystal Malachias

From Barbie to Beyoncé, Swift to Trump, publics around the world have been showing up for charismatic culture leaders on an impressive, even seismic, scale. As marketers, social scientists and leadership consultants, we have been tracking these ‘impact leaders’. Their collective impact has been holistic, across all domains of contemporary life. From just an economic perspective, the combined economic impact of Beyonce, Swift, and Barbenheimer in late 2023 was estimated at $8.5billion.

From an anthropological perspective, their rise to the apex of modern life is remarkably familiar and harkens to the constituent elements of charismatic religious figures. Indeed, these impact leaders arguably fill a void that religion has traditionally played. Religion’s role in society has long provided individuals with a sense of purpose, meaning, and belonging. However, in recent decades, there has been a decline in religious affiliation in many parts of the world. This has created a type of void in people's lives, which has been filled, in part, by the spiritual life of brands.

Meet the Charismatic Leader as Brand

Simultaneously, charismatic leaders such as Swift and Trump have become increasingly important. They offer people a sense of identity, community, belonging, and relatability. They provide a sense of meaning and purpose. And, in a society that values brands, people strive to acquire and use products and services that are seen to be endorsed by these individuals. Furthermore, the spectacle of their activities engenders the type of collective effervescence that has long been the cornerstone of religious and spiritual life. They also have the power to shape people's values and beliefs. This dynamic is what we call “Brand Charisma”.

The most notable contemporary examples of individuals as charismatic brands include Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump. These individuals are all associated with different value sets, and they appeal to different but not unrelated audiences. Beyoncé as a brand offers empowerment, independence, and self-love especially for women, POC, and the LGBTQIA+ communities, who admire her strength and determination. Taylor Swift connects with an outsized faction of young people who she connects with through her image of authenticity, relatability, vulnerability, and random acts of kindness. Donald Trump traffics in values of strength, power, and decisiveness and inspires people with his willingness to speak his mind. Despite all three of these individuals being agents in mainstream culture, they each lean into a story of rebellion against the status quo and of overcoming the odds.

Immersive Effervescence: How Influence Eats Media

Each of these individuals fuels a media ecosystem where live events are central and where people experience “collective effervescence” - an experience of connection that is transcendent. In a recent publication, Michael Serazio discusses how the impact leader is influential partially due to their charisma, but also owing to attributes of the authenticity that they project. Through immersive experiences, these individuals are generating powerful affinities due to the connections that they generate and the intensity of those experiences. Consequently, fans, followers, and subscribers are offered an opportunity for transgression of the hum-drum everyday dynamics of contemporary life (e.g., Swiftie Dads).

This experience of ‘collective effervescence’ is especially important in a contemporary context of global loneliness pandemic – 70 per cent of people globally (of all ages) say that it’s harder to make friends today than it used to be, with nearly half of Gen Z saying that they don’t believe that they have any close friends. What’s more is that through a combination of diverse symbolic assets, the experience of connection between the crowd and the charismatic impact leader extends beyond the concert arena, from TikTok (e.g. Swifttok) to fashion (Beyoncé’s silver cowboy hats) to the Super Bowl and sports networks. These impact leaders are agnostic of the channels in which their experience circulates (even if they are found to challenge certain platforms and channels). The extensiveness of their aura of charisma ensures that they are featured on every channel - whether the media is official or not, predictive, or reactive - thereby engendering a type of ‘immersive effervescence’ that sustains a never-ending ‘user journey’.

For these impact leaders, unlike previous generations, influence eats media for breakfast. While for previous generations, the media was understood as the message, in today’s world of Brand Charisma impact leaders, influence hides and occludes the media that is at play. When people are exchanging friendship bracelets or wearing red baseball hats, the influence of these impact leaders becomes transversal and media agnostic. While each of these Brand Charisma impact leaders have a specialism in specific formats and channels, their impact is felt across the media landscape (e.g., Swift’s attendance at Chiefs games or Beyonce’s attendance at the US Open). In a world where anyone can make content, their influence can proliferate in clips, snaps, toks, and reels without limit. And they can do all of this as irrefutable leaders (Taylor Swift follows no one on Instagram, Beyoncé follows only Jay Z, and Trump follows just 47 others in symbolic gesture towards his aim to become America’s 47th president) with legions of voluntary brand ambassadors.

What can brands and leaders learn from Brand Charisma Impact Leaders?

The rise of Brand Charisma is a reflection of the swiftly changing social and market landscape. All brands should endeavor to borrow from the toolkit of these impact leaders.

  • They offer an opportunity for connection and building communities that are immersive and expansive.

  • They generate conditions that defy as well as reinforce social norms.

  • They offer an escape from the daily grind, and revitalize audiences with immersive transversal experiences.

  • They can inspire and motivate people to achieve their goals and to make a difference in the world.

  • And they are powerful engines of economic activity fuelled by immersive effervescence.

  • In each instance, these Brand Charisma impact leaders are experts at channeling their social voice in formats that resonate unbounded.

We know that they offer a calculated mix of vision, assurance, entertainment, and friendship.

However, it is important to be aware of the potential risks for brands who might invest in Brand Charisma impact leaders. When these impact leaders shift their actions abruptly or become unreliable in their messaging whether in promoting divisiveness or putting others at risk (e.g., as an employer), their social equity erodes swiftly. Charisma alone will not endure in building more impactful brands without being tethered to the values, experiences, and communities of everyday people, living their lives, in the mitigated state of chaos that modern culture offers.

Rodney Collins PhD. is Global Head of Human Sciences and Crystal Malachias is Global Head of Influencer at McCann Worldgroup


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