Two days ago Gwenyth Paltrow amd Chris Martin announced the end of their 11 year marriage. The announcement termed this transition in their lives as a process of “Conscious Uncoupling,” and the collective interweb has been roaring ever since.
I know very little about the science and art of product branding. What I do know is that when it’s done right, branding is much like that special smell at the entrance of every Nordstrom’s – something a consumer isn’t supposed to experience consciously but just recognize. The only time we really notice it is when it hits a wrong note, or plain old takes a swan dive that leaves us realizing we’re being “handled.” People love good branding. People resent the hell out of being handled.
Gwenyth and I reached a fork in the road of my understanding quite a while ago. It happened not when she decided to become a lifestyle guru, not when she published an exhaustive list of her various daily mom tasks that product – placed in the thousands of dollars. No, it happened at a subtler point then that, when she published a cookie recipe from the then-wife of Billy Joel and referred to him as “William.” WILLIAM JOEL had come over from the evening and shared his lovely cookies. William Joel? The guy who sang “Pressure?” and “Allentown?” It was incredibly ostentatious, an apex of ridiculousness, and I wasn’t signing on for the slide down.
To me it seems that Gwenyth’s GOOP mission is to promote an image in which all of life’s various wrinkles, informalities, impurities and imperfections had been ironed out and scrubbed away leaving nothing but a flawlessly laundered organic linen sheet where her humanity might once have been. It is an image of a pure, clear and conscious lifestyle that I have no doubt she firmly believes in. The problem is that no one really wants a friend (or lifestyle guru) who makes you self-conscious of, well, everything in your life that hasn’t been powerwashed, boiled and steam dried. To read any excerpt from GOOP was enough to make me suddenly feel like I’d sprouted a second chin, developed heart disease, and casually been poisoning my daughter with ipad screens and inorganic sheets.
Conscious Uncoupling is what arose from an intersection between Gwenyth’s humanity and her image. The public’s reaction to Conscious Uncoupling is a burning example of what happens when your brand hits crisis and shifts into handling.
There are a thousand more relatable ways to announce their separation, but I am hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t have shot a hole in to a very well cultivated brand. Admitting pain, anger, humiliation on her part leads to mental images of Gwenyth curled up with a pint of ice cream and a bottle of bourbon giving it all a big old ugly cry. There is no room for that in the GOOP Yoga Fueled breathe-it-out way we’ve been served to date.
Further complicating the issue is the value of Gwenyth’s acting career. Meg Ryan never recovered after admitting an infidelity with Russell Crowe. Sadie Frost is still rather buttonholed by Jude Law’s dalliance with the nanny (and later sienna Miller). And these two example illustrate the point without even having to mention Brangelina and the ongoing existence of Team Aniston. So you have what’s effectively two very lucrative brands- both GOOP and Gwenyth- headed towards some rocky shoals, even if no one really did anything wrong.
Seen from that perspective the Conscious Uncoupling terminology makes a lot of sense if you’re merely trying to preserve a brand and not evolve it. It sticks close to the core GOOP message about health, simplicity, and mindfulness while also making it plain that there will be no PR disasters rearing their head ahead of the premiere of the next Iron Man flick. This doesn’t make it any less over the top though.
I admit, I openly and gleefully riffed on it. I’m woman enough to admit to an attack of schadenfruede when it happens, especially when it becomes comedy gold in the process.
I started this post by saying I didn’t understand branding as either an art or science. I do understand that humans at base don’t want to know it when they’re being handled, which means it’s best to stick to the genuine when you can find it. My biggest beef with Conscious Uncoupling is that Gwenyth and team wasted an opportunity to get human again at a point where it’s plainly overdue. Who wouldn’t want to read about Gwenyth’s decision to stack every piece of fried food on the block on top of a big pan of mac and cheese and hide in the house until it was eaten? Who wouldn’t go down that road with her and come out the other side of it slightly more interested flax oil, knowing the same someone recommending it had the courage to stand up and say, “My life hurts right now.” Perhaps we will get there at some point. Right now what we’re left with is the impression that the whole thing has been wrapped in a gleaming white light and stashed someplace we are not supposed to look.
Update: After a few days of letting the public clamor, Gwenyth released another GOOP-rooted statement. “P.S. CM and I in deep gratitude for the support of so many.” Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair, doing what both Richard Lawson and Vanity Fair usually do when confronted with all things Gwenyth, had this to say. And the shade grows ever longer as the shadows stretch to meet the setting sun.