When you hear the name ‘Jeanne Beker’, chances are the first thing you think about is ‘fashion’ because, after more than forty years in journalism – where she started as an arts reporter at CBC Radio in 1975, fashion, television and marketing her own products, Jeanne Beker has built one of the most iconic personal Canadian brand names ever.
“I think I’m the oldest woman working in television in this country” she jokes “can you name one other woman on Canadian television who’s as old as I am?!”
But at the age of 66, it’s not the passage of time that’s put Beker at the top of her profession. Clarity of purpose, guts, energy and an intuitive sense of what it takes to create, nurture and evolve a brand has brought success that’s transcended time, tastes and ‘target audiences’ – a term I discovered she despises.
So how did the Jeanne Beker brand begin and where did her brand intuition come from?
“I’m not sure,” she says laughing. “It wasn’t a conscious thing for me, but I remember Moses Znaimer dragged me into his office one day and said ‘I want to know what you stand for. ‘ I was just flabbergasted. I said, ‘what do you mean… I stand for hard work, honesty and earnestness’, and he then said ‘I’m not sure you stand for anything!’ And I went away and thought ‘What the hell did he mean by that?’”
“The more I started to think about it, that was really an exercise in personal branding – unbeknownst to me at the time – and I didn’t even know what a personal brand was. So I thought, well maybe I could stand for being a very real person in a very unreal world. I was acting as people’s tour guide – first in the world of rock ‘n roll and then in the world of fashion which we were exposing for the first time on television. And that kind of became a subconscious mantra for me – ‘I’m going to be the real person in this kind of wonderland’.”
“And I think that’s the way people saw me and still see me. And it’s great because it’s helped ground me and has always been my reality check. The craziness of the scene that I cover – still – and certainly was covering all those years ago, was just other worldly and I never could take that at face value. And subconsciously, I guess that’s how it worked for me.”
As Beker talks about her thought process in those early years, there’s an intensity and surety about who she is that feels as if it’s always been there.
“When you’re really consistent with something for a long period of time and you really keep it out there then it becomes something that is conscious. And it’s that kind of consistency over a long period of time that builds a brand,” Beker says.
Walk into a restaurant or crowded room with Beker and you’ll know very quickly just how popular and instantly recognizable her brand is with both men and women, young and older. How is it that a personal brand can maintain that elusive relevance and focus all the way from radio and videotape to the likes of Twitter and Instagram across generations?
“To keep it relevant, you have to really be in the moment and tell new stories. I was the very first person to ever have a fashion site on the Internet in 1994 when MCI came to me back then and said ‘we want to get women using the Internet and we think that maybe if we put some kind of fashion content up there…’ “
“I didn’t know what they were talking about – I didn’t even really know what the internet was! And the next thing I knew, they sent someone over to my house and hooked me up – and all of the sudden there I was – surfing the net and I started to create content. They said I would be the cyber host of a new site called ‘@Fashion’ – it was wonderful to be the first. I still have printouts of that very first fashion site.“
“All the while I was still doing radio, I was still doing television, I was still writing for magazines, for newspapers, writing books. It was wonderful. You know that whole business of Jack-of-all-trades and master of none totally went out the window for me a long time ago. I think it was really important to try and cultivate as many skills as I possibly could and it was all communication for me.”
Beker keeps in touch with her followers through her prolific use of social media and her phone is never far from her side, giving her a virtual ‘always on’ persona. What does she make of those tens of thousands who follow her, share stories and comment about her everyday?
“You know what I think that means – I think it’s BS and a bunch of hype. And I can’t believe that advertisers and marketing people actually study those numbers carefully. I do believe all my followers are legitimate but so many people are buying followers today. I remember I was in the UK a couple of years ago, doing something in London and one night I looked down at my twitter feed and it went from something like 15,000 followers to 65,000 followers. But instead of saying ‘wow isn’t this great!’ I actually got in touch with Twitter, complained, freaked out.“
“But it’s so important to stay in touch with your audiences – you never want to be just the one who used to do Fashion Television. Yes, I used to do Fashion Television but you also want to be someone who says ‘yes I used to do that, but I’m doing this now.’ You can’t rest on your old laurels or past accolades, you really have to be in the moment and of the time.“
“I feel very indebted to people who follow me or who have been there watching me all those years and listening to what I had to say or reading what I was writing. So now I kind of feel like I owe people that, like I owe them a look into my world.”
When it comes to audiences, what is it about how marketer’s use the phrase ‘target audience’ that Beker now appears to despise?
“I think that is so old fashioned and I can’t believe that anyone still thinks that way and are marketing that way. For me and my work it was never about the demographic – it was about a psychographic. Even the magazines that I edited like FQ and Sir magazine were never directed towards a certain age – I never thought about it. I wanted to put out a publication that my daughters would love, that I would love, that my mother would love.”
“The cross generational thing is just the best – it’s the most feel good thing of all and if you can get a product or if you can tell a story that appeals to that kind of range, then you’re golden. For me that’s really the great joy, that you’re really reaching people of all ages.”
With so much experience and success under her belt, what advice does she give to those are who are just starting their journeys into marketing – or wanting to get into presenting in their chosen media?
“I used to come across all these kids who said ‘I just want to be an actor’ because they saw themselves in that world, or ‘I just want to be a TV presenter’ because that just looked like such a glorious spot to land. But at the end of the day, if you don’t really have anything to say, if you don’t really have any fresh ideas, if you don’t really feel that creativity just bubbling out of you and spilling over, then don’t bother.”
“As with anything you’ve got to want it more than you want anything in the world if you really want to be successful.”
“Yeah there was a time in my life when I really thought that I did want that more than absolutely anything else. There were days when I got into bed at night and thought, ‘phew at least I got through that one’. I worked so hard and when I look back on my career sometimes it kind of makes me cry because I can’t believe how hard I worked. And I don’t think that’s something kids realize today.”
“You know they grew up with this ‘click and land’ society and expect this immediate gratification. You think it, you want it and you want it to happen, and you want it now. And it’s just so not like that. “
“It so, so much about the work, every step of it. So you’ve got to love it with such passion. Just like total, unbridled passion. And you’ve got to be fearless and tenacious which I’ve always said. Don’t be afraid. And never give up. You’ve really got to go with gusto because nothing will happen if you are half-hearted about it or produce anything half assed.”
“I look back and think, ‘how the hell did I do all that?’ But you do it because you just love it. Madly, passionately, truly, deeply.”
Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent