Elvis Himselvis gyrates his round body on a simple wooden stage and belts out “Suspicious Minds” to a small crowd of men and women dressed mostly in T-shirts and jeans, many of them with skin made leathery red from cigarettes. Shut your eyes and you can imagine the king himself has returned to the building, not a pudgy man wearing a cheap imitation Elvis Las Vegas suit.
If you call yourself a marketer, you should worship at the feet of Elvis Himselvis. For he is the walking essence of brand authenticity.
I’ve been watching Elvis Himselvis play the Illinois State Fair for a few years, and he’s not just making a buck off the memory of a dead rock star. On this particular day, he works through Elvis Presley’s catalog with more polish and passion than Presley himself possessed later in his career, when he stopped caring. The audience sits at rapt attention on benches, folding chairs, and a cement floor. They represent the aging American heatland, most of them probably old enough to have seen the real Elvis in his lifetime, including one chunky man sporting black pants, long-sleeved black shirt, sunglasses, and thick black hair combed doo-wop style.
They sing every song with him, too — “Steamroller Blues,” “Kentucky Rain,” “One Night,” and a “An American Trilogy,” among the highlights. In effect, Elvis Himselvis redeems the Elvis who fell into decline during their lives.
But what makes Elvis Himselvis transcend the “Elvis impersonator” category — what gives him a stamp of authenticity – is his undeniable love for everyone in the room. He radiates joy when he tosses free stuffed animals to children watching from the fringes of the tent. (Sometimes lets them sing onstage with him.) He hugs and serenades the women, whether they look like Jessica Simpson or Marge Simpson. I have seen him dance with children. I have seen him kneel on the floor and softly sing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a woman bound to a wheelchair and afflicted by palsy, then plant a kiss on her forehead.
And, yes, he cares about the music. You can see it in the way he confers with his band about the song line-up or carefully navigates the tempo changes of “An American Trilogy,” phrasing his words with care. Frankly, he looks nothing like Elvis. But that’s not the point. He is here to interpret music and make people happy, not to mimic songs.
So what can a marketer learn from Elvis Himselvis? My friend and fellow blogger Steve Furman summed it up best once when commenting recently on brand authenticity: “So is it authentic people that make authentic brands? Today’s marketers try so very hard to manufacture brands . . . But try as we might, a brand’s authenticity is in the hands, hearts and minds of the people who greet you at the door.”
Next time you want to discover some authentic brands, try exploring the county fairs, neighborhood festivals, and other places where obscure entertainers share their passion. For real.
By the way, here are some other images from the Illinois State Fair where Elvis Himselvis performs — a little late in coming, but they resonate for me still: