The Long-Term Brand Strategy Behind Duck Dynasty Firing

I’d never heard of the A&E show, Duck Dynasty, before this week. Before it cropped up in my Twitter feed that Phil Robertson, one of the show’s stars, was fired for being a homophobe, racist, and general loose cannon with journalists. My Twitter following seemed shocked and appalled that someone would be that much of a direct bigot. Facebook, on the other hand…

The Duck Dynasty family.
The <em>Duck Dynasty<em> family

“Save Phil” campaigns popped up everywhere on Facebook. Many people cried freedom of speech. Since A&E is a business, not the US Government, Phil is not protected by the First Amendment. If I said similar horrible things, my employer would fire me too. (Especially that most employers have a non-discrimination policy and think of the LGBT people and people of color who work with Duck Dynasty.)

So what about this firing of Phil? I’ve heard some Duck Dynasty fans say the show will suffer, fans will withdraw, and the show will fail without Phil. My argument is that Phil’s firing is a long-term business, marketing, and branding strategy for A&E.

Reality TV in itself is a problematic format. It’s fine when A&E’s cameras are rolling on Duck Dynasty and their editors can cut and delete Phil’s thoughts on vaginae and men’s anuses. A&E shapes the message of the show. The producers and crew led the Robertson family on the storypath. A&E, not the Robertson family, owns all the rights to Duck Dynasty.

The problem is that Duck Dynasty has grown large enough that the press have started to care. That for whatever reason — lack of business resources, rapid show growth, or just sheer stubbornness on speaking his mind — Phil became a journalist’s dream and a brand’s nightmare: an uncensored, un-media savvy celebrity with bigoted opinions sure to draw headlines and attention. Additionally, Phil’s only celebrity comes from Duck Dynasty and he’s irrevocably tied to A&E’s brand.

It’s worth noting that according to IMDB, the Robertson family, including Phil, have been appearing on talk shows since 2012. It’s a stretch to think that A&E has not provided them with any media training. A few people have suggested Phil’s comments to GQ were part of a hoax to gain attention and trigger the firing for even more attention. Hoax or not…

By firing Phil, A&E sends two long-term signals: 1) don’t misbehave reality celebrities or we’ll fire you, and 2) we support LGBT and people of color.

Let’s look at the numbers:

Duck Dynasty saw a season premier in August that shattered reality TV numbers at 11.8 million viewers. 6.3 million of them were ages 18-49, and 5.5 million were either younger or older. The show currently averages 14 million viewers per episode.

In the US, 70% of Millenials, ages 18-32, support same-sex marriage, and it’s not a huge leap to say that they are okay with LGBT people. 39% are racial or ethnic minorities and that’s only growing.

Only 113,000 people have signed the official Save Phil Duck Dynasty campaign. The Save Phil Facebook page has over 1.5 million “likes.”

This is why A&E will come out ahead:

12.5 million viewers of Duck Dynasty haven’t publicly expressed their outrage.

1.5 million is 10.7% of Duck Dynasty‘s larger audience. They are a small, but vocal, number of viewers.

A&E needs to attract the Millennial viewership to its general network in order to stay alive. While I don’t have any numbers on this, I’m going to guess that Duck Dynasty‘s LGBT and people of color audience is pretty small, so Phil’s comments wouldn’t isolate an audience that’s not there.

General TV viewership numbers fall more every year, and for the majority of the US, firing Phil only sends positive signals. And this firing is getting a ton of press. Fresh Web Explorer shows Duck Dynasty averaging about 200 mentions on the web from new articles every day, and that number’s shot up to 10,000 mentions.

Results for Duck Dynasty in the last two weeks via Fresh Web Explorer.
The <em>Duck Dynasty<em> PR machine is turning Mentions of <em>Duck Dynasty<em> in the last two weeks via Fresh Web Explorer

It’s all about long-term goals.

A&E fired Phil Robertson not only because he did damage to their brand and his standing as an employee of the brand, but because long-term, they’ll make gains. Naysayers may think Duck Dynasty will fall apart, but the numbers show that worst-case scenario, they’ll have a 10%+ drop in viewership. Best case, they’ll add people who’d never heard of the show to their following, but saw the press around this.

And in the long-term, A&E’s decision reflects the changing opinions and demographics of the US (and the world). Phil has only served to give them the opportunity to turn a celebrity’s terrible behavior into a branding boost. A&E comes out on the side of history by calling out incredibly obviously homophobic and racist comments.

2 Replies to “The Long-Term Brand Strategy Behind Duck Dynasty Firing”

  1. Very interesting and well-thought out piece, Erica. I agreed with your conclusions but what about now that A&E hired him back? Was the firing the publicity to gain viewers when they reversed their decision after two weeks? After all, it did no damage to the show as they weren’t even filming at the time and it seems to have flushed out all kinds of viewers/supporters.
    The re-hiring disgusts me but I had never watched the show and had no plans to do so. I’m just curious about your thoughts as you seem to be much more media savvy.

    1. Yeah, the re-hiring was super gross. Honestly, I think probably what happened is someone in the C-suite freaked out over seeing how many people had liked the Facebook group and signed the petition to re-hire Phil and made that call. Most decisions aren’t made with data and are “gut” decisions, and I can see how the number of vocal Phil supports would’ve freaked someone high-level, who only cares about revenue/viewer numbers — and often in the short-term numbers when dealing with shareholders — and made them rehire him.

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