Learning from the Wiggles

November 17, 2006

Do you have kids under five? If so, you need no explanation of who or what The Wiggles are. But for those of you who have not changed any diapers in the last fifteen years, I will explain the phenomena that are known as The Wiggles.

The Wiggles are an Australian pre-school sensation now celebrating their 15th year together. There are four members: Greg (Yellow), Murray (Red), Jeff (Purple) and Anthony (Blue). In 2003, they sold out 12 shows at Madison Square Garden in New York. This year they earned $38.4 million dollars with their tours in the United States and Britain helping greatly. The windfall meant that for the second year in a row The Wiggles were crowned the highest entertainment earners in Australia ahead of AC/DC, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban.

The Wiggles story began in the early 90’s when Anthony Field, Murray Cook and Greg Page studied early childhood education together at Sydney’s Macquarie University. The three began writing children’s songs as one of their music projects. They enlisted the assistance of Jeff Fatt, who played with Anthony in the popular 1980’s band The Cockroaches, and The Wiggles were born.

Kids and parents alike are drawn to the enthusiastic, educational and easy on the ears music of the Wiggles. While hearing Barney makes most parents gag, the Wiggles makes watching television with little ones actually enjoyable. I believe the key to the Wiggles branding success are the “real” guys of the band. They are cool guys who could have (and some did) played in a rock band, but instead took their talent and good looks and applied them to preschooler entertainment.

While Barney and the Teletubbies play down to kids, The Wiggles play up to them. A Wiggles concert delivers a song and rock experience akin to U2 for little ones.

But today there is some Wiggly trouble going on. I first realized this when I took my two boys to the show here in Atlanta on Wednesday. As the lights dimmed, it was announced that the lead Wiggle, Greg, would not be performing due to illness and a substitute would be filling in. OK, I thought, everybody gets sick. But then the Wiggles commented during the show that Greg was in Australia and hoped to feel better soon. Well, in Australia meant that he was not just sick for one day but likely to be missing the entire US tour. I made a mental note to Google the Yellow Wiggle upon returning to the office.

And here is what I found out from an Australian newspaper:

YELLOW Wiggle Greg Page is reportedly suffering a mystery illness that threatens his future with the children’s music supergroup. News Ltd says Mr. Page, 34, is at home in Sydney battling a condition that includes regular bouts of fainting while The Wiggles tour the US with a replacement member. The Daily Telegraph quotes Mr. Page as saying that he’s “not really well enough to talk”. But in a statement to fans, Mr. Page said doctors had yet to diagnose his health problem. “I have had numerous bouts of this over the past eight months but they are getting more frequent, and more concerning,” Mr. Page said. “So I have decided that I must go home, rest and seek further medical advice to assure myself that I will be OK for future tours.”

Wow, this is a major problem, not only for Greg Page (who I hope gets better quickly) but for the Wiggle brand. What should The Wiggles do? I think the first step is honesty. When facing a possible PR and brand crisis, getting out ahead of the storm with the truth is the best strategy.

The problem of Greg being sick does not hurt a majority of The Wiggle brand business. The television shows, DVD’s, amusement park rides and merchandise are pretty much unaffected. But the live shows which are the bread and butter of the band are hugely impacted. Can you imagine showing up for a U2 concert and having no Bono on stage? That is exactly how I felt with no Greg. (My kids could not have cared less, running out of popcorn would have been much more traumatic.)

The reality was, the show was fine without Greg. Luckily there are three other Wiggles still on stage and Anthony did a tremendous job of picking up the slack. But keeping Greg’s absence a secret could backfire. I believe parents and kids would be very sympathetic and understanding to Greg being sick. It is not as if he is in drug rehab or jail. But feeling duped by not telling people that he will not be on the tour is a pain many could find difficult to recover from. It is usually the lying that gets you in trouble more so that the act itself. (Just ask Nixon, Clinton or Martha.)

This is always the danger of having a live brand. What happens if something happens to my brand’s persona? If Martha Stewart goes to jail? If Jack Welch retires? If Kobe Bryant attacks a girl? If Steve Irwin gets killed? If Mel Gibson gets drunk? If Greg Page gets sick?

Brand building always involves taking risks. But without taking some risks, you are unlikely to achieve the reward of building a strong brand. It is the price you have to pay to get into the mind of the consumer. So never be afraid to put your eggs in the basket of a person to stand for your brand. Build a strong brand and succeed first. After you are earning $38 million a year you can worry about the what ifs.

Because even if Greg has to retire, the Wiggles brand will likely survive because it is so powerful in the mind. But without Greg the brand would have never gotten off the ground in the first place.

Check out my new post with the latest on the Wiggle brand.