A Proust Questionnaire for Personality Brands: Harvey Milk

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Harvey Milk / City Hall

In a famous episode of HBO’s hit series Entourage, the main character Vincent Chase goes from talent agency to talent agency, with each firm promising to make him a “brand.” Unbeknownst to each agency Chase visits, every pitch is presented as an original, brilliant, never-been-done-before idea.

After hearing the same song and dance over and over again, it’s clear to the character and viewers that there’s nothing different or special about most approaches to celebrity branding. An overcrowded, largely undifferentiated celebrity fragrance market is evidence of that.

Most celebrities aren’t brands. Legendary icons are.

Working with the trustees of the Michael Jackson estate, one might be startled to hear him referred to in the present tense. It’s a subtly powerful stratagem that the custodians of his legacy use to contextualize the pop superstar as a contemporary, ongoing influencer. Rather than “Michael Jackson was a great dancer and choreographer,” it might be “Michael Jackson’s dancing is regarded as the benchmark for great choreography.” Repeating this shrewd practice is the kind of discipline employed by strong brands and part of what helps shape an icon’s long-term legacy.

As agents for some of the most legendary icons in history, Omnicom’s Beanstalk agency created its own, informal, ‘Proust Questionnaire for Personality Brands.’ They began by asking how they think and speak about their notable clientele. In honor of Gay Pride Month, they’re starting with Harvey Milk—arguably the most important gay icon in U.S. history.

Martin Cribbs / BeanstalkFor more insights, we spoke with Martin Cribbs (right), who heads Beanstalk’s Icon Representation business.

Q: What do you do in relation to Harvey Milk?
A: My role at Beanstalk is to manage all advertising and promotional licensing for the estates of legendary icons, including Harvey Milk.

Q: Why/how did you chose to work with Harvey Milk?
A: We wanted to work with Harvey Milk’s family because he is the most important gay icon—we would argue in history. We say that unequivocally for a few reasons. First, he was a product of the 20th century. Because his message of openness, pride and the demand for equal treatment has been able to be carried to the four corners of the earth—in books, online, in films, etc.—his influence on world culture is pervasive.Harvey Milk USA stamp

Second, Milk insisted on visibility—being seen, heard, and known. That was revolutionary at the time. He called on all gay people to come out of the closet to force the hands of change.

Finally, Milk was politically adroit. For example, during the ‘Coors Beer Boycott’ in the 1970s, Milk joined hands with blue-collar labor unions, spearheading the boycott of Coors in gay bars in San Francisco and other parts of the country—a stinging bite to their profitability. It worked.

Q: What was Milk’s greatest virtue?
A: Shamelessness: he refused to be shamed into the closet.

Q: What is the primary message you want to impart to history about Harvey Milk?
A: He made gay rights human rights and in so doing, changed countless lives.

Q: What does Harvey Milk’s legacy do, right now, present tense?
A: The Harvey Milk Foundation’s mission is to see that all people that have been marginalized—LGBT, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled—can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.

Q: What or who are barriers to Milk’s sustained legacy?
A: Lovelessness and ignorance.

Q: What do you like about Milk’s continuing presence in culture?
A: That his murder has not been in vain; his legacy, through the work of his Foundation, propogates inclusiveness. That is nowhere more evident than the US Navy’s 2016 decision to name a ship the USNS Harvey Milk.

Q: The dictionary defines myths as “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.” Who or what contributes to Harvey Milk’s ongoing, positive myth-making and how does that get told?
A: Stuart Milk, Harvey’s nephew, has been an incredible, tireless advocate. His work and the work of the Harvey Milk Foundation ensure that Milk’s story gets told and his values get shared and celebrated.

Click here to see more about Beanstalk.

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