What make a brand authentic? For an answer, take a close look at the story of Dolly Parton, who is the latest recipient of the Bezos Courage and Civility Award.
Once upon a time, Dolly Parton was one of the biggest country singers in the world. But her appeal was confined to country. Today she is beloved by people from all walks of life, including those who have never listened to a single note of country music. How did that happen?
For starters, it’s impossible to overstate the impact of the movie 9 to 5 in 1980. The film’s plotline of women avenging sexual harassment in the workplace resonated — and still does today. Parton became a folk hero for her performance as Doralee Rhodes, one of the key characters who turns the tables on her misogynist boss. The theme song, which she wrote, reached Number One on country, pop, and adult contemporary charts.
Because of the success of 9 to 5 she gained more attention from the mainstream news media taste makers who had more influence than they do now. And the world discovered her charisma, likability, and authenticity, which country music fans already had embraced.
No matter how critically received her subsequent movies or albums were, she consistently exhibited a no-BS authenticity, humility, and big heart, which made her transcend the entertainment world for decades to come, including today.
For example, she was openly accepting of the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s at a time when it was risky for entertainers to do so. When she was asked to comment on controversial issues such as anti-transgender bathroom bans, she spoke out in her own disarmingly earthy way: “I think everybody should be treated with respect. I don’t judge people and I try not to get too caught up in the controversy of things. I hope that everybody gets a chance to be who and what they are. I just know, if I have to pee, I’m gon’ pee, wherever it’s got to be.”
An example of her humility: when the Tennessee legislature wanted erect a statue of her in 2021, she said, “Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.”
But what really sets her apart: she has always matched her words of acceptance and love with action. She supports many charitable efforts, including her literacy program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. She is a major donor to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she helped fund the critical early stages of development of the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19.
She invests in her own community, too. Her Dollywood theme park in her home state of Tennessee pays 100% of the tuition costs, fees, and books for employees who pursue higher education.
Does anyone doubt her words when she says of the Bezos $100 million award, “I will do my best to do good things with this money”?
In the age of social media, personal brands can be destroyed with one misstep. If Dolly Parton were a phony, we would know by now. She is the definition of an authentic brand: her actions match her words.