There are a lot of brands one could name when thinking about "branding genius." Coca-Cola, Apple, McDonald's, Disney, the NFL.
Few, however, would name Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's Colbert Report. But they should.
The Emmy- and Peabody-winning satirist, author of I Am America (And So Can You!), has a cult following for a reason. His blend of over-the-top caricature and pastiche is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. His biggest stunts -- shaving his head while broadcasting from Iraq; running for president in 2007 in his home state of South Carolina ("First to Secede. First to Succeed!"); his mock tribute to George Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner -- are what reaches the wider audience.
But what really makes Colbert popular, and wherein lies his branding genius, is that he is a master practitioner of TV 2.0: broadcasting that engages his own audience as participants in his stunts.
For example, using his show, Colbert motivated his "Colbert Nation" to swarm online polls and vote to rename a bridge in Hungary as The Stephen Colbert Bridge, or to name part of a NASA space module "Colbert." (It was the toilet. Both were successful.)
He called on viewers to toy with Wikipedia, and launched a Star Wars green screen challenge in which his audience uploaded videos into which they had edited themselves, eventually enlisting George Lucas himself.
These stunts engage Colbert's audience and makes them feel like they are a genuine part of the show. Each victory is lauded by Colbert on air, which embraces his audience. In the end, the audience feels as if it is a genuine part of the Colbert brand, which of course it is.
Colbert latest audience-engaging brand-expanding stunt? To sponsor the U.S. speed skating team. No joke. Colbert is pushing fans to donate online so that the United States speed skating team ends up wearing Colbert-branded uniforms during competition.
Mad genius. But genius nonetheless.