How Savvy Management Engineered Britney Spears’ Comeback

She’s back. Call it born-again pop stardom, the Return of Britney, the She’s Doing it Again. Just don’t call it a comeback.

It’s a comeback, of course. Spears appeared on MTV last night in a brilliant attempt to redeem herself via a documentary called “For the Record.”

Brit spoke honestly about her kids, her past, and her breakdown–precisely what her detractors needed after seeing her shatter into sad little bareheaded pieces. Her disenchanted honesty makes you start to feel sorry for her (from People):

(My) life is “too in-control. There’s no excitement. There’s no passion.”

“I was a pretty cool chick, and I’m really not that way anymore.”

“I think, it could be a lot worse. … People have it a lot worse than I do.”

Britney still sounds sad and trapped–precisely the state of mind her producers are manipulating to enable her comeback.

They tried to use Spears’ messy reputation to their advantage last year with her fifth album, Blackout. It flopped. Brit was still too entropic to redeem herself coherently. The producers also discovered that Britney audiences react well to her hot, blond, functional, all-American image. The Amy Winehouse approach doesn’t work on a former Mickey Mouse Club star.

So they tried again. This time, their approach is working. The buildup to Spears’ latest album, Circus, which comes out tomorrow, included an ab-baring Rolling Stone cover, a successful 2008 VMA Music Awards appearance, and a Number 1 hit with the single “Womanizer.”

Brit, featured angelically on Circus’ cover, looks seductive and untainted. “Forgive my crotch-baring past!” It begs. “I am whole again!”

Nice work, Spears team. Spears’ media cycle is on an upswing; her career could well follow. What did Spears’ master engineers do to endear her to the public again? What can today’s poisoned corporate giants learn from Spears’ turnaround?

Here’s how Spears’ management used her assets to enable her comeback:

1. The Foundation: A Good History

Before Circus, there was the breakdown. Before the breakdown, there was “Oops…I Did it Again”‘s naughty girl. Before that, the nubian schoolgirl from “Baby One More Time.” The world loved Britney’s virginal valence as well as her whore; we celebrated her and flocked to her in the millions. She was blonde, buxom, beautiful, and talented. She was the all-American star, a reflection of what Caucasia considers hot.

We loved Britney. She was off to a fine start. This good reputation gave her a foundation strong enough to survive her eventual collapse.

2. Hitting Rock Bottom in Public

Everyone loves a good show. When Naughty Girl Britney dove into the dark side of adulthood, evolving into a drugged-out, crotch-flashing baby abandoner, we pitied or scoffed at her. Regardless, she continued to hold our gaze. She was beauty turned to shaven-headed beast. We watched her devolution with sick fascination. The same forces that keep us glued to reality TV and car wrecks attracted us to the demise of Britney’s soul.

Though few listened to her music, Britney’s drama ensured that her audience never left.

3. Manipulating Timing

Britney’s managers–now spearheaded by her dad, Jamie–knew the audience was still rapt, that Britney could still redeem herself. But Spears was a mercurial asset. At first they tried to build art around her misery in a 2007 album entitled “Blackout.” Unfortunately, Brit’s audience had filled their mental druggy coffers with the likes of Amy Winehouse. The album flopped.

Management, ever-nimble, took the flop as a sign that the world wants the old Brit back. So they recreated her as a slightly more mature version of the bad girl from “Oops…I Did It Again.”

Knowing that Brit had some explaining to do before she successfully popped out of the ether as though no head-shaving had taken place, they set up a plan to help her redeem herself.

The Chicago Sun-Times Jim DeRogatis reviews Spears’ new life:

She seems relatively sane, sober and content–though at the price of living under the thumb of her father Jamie Spears, who was granted legal control of her finances and personal affairs during her second hospitalization.

“Britney today has about as many legal rights as when she was in the Mickey Mouse Club,” Rolling Stone reports in its current cover story. “She is watched over day and night by security guards Jamie hired (and she’s paying for); it’s also rumored that Britney’s phone calls are closely monitored and that she’s not allowed to drive her own Mercedes.”

4. Knowing the Market

Spears’ context is one of a pop princess. Her audience’s sentiment about her is the key to her success. If the audience ignores her, she’s a goner. This is different from business audiences (investors), who have the power to look through bad reputations to judge the viability of hard numbers.

Even a swampy business like Citibank can say sorry. But investors will demand high performance numbers before considering the business redeemed. Brit doesn’t have that luxury. Her audience sentiment makes her. So she has to expose herself, convince the audience that her regrets are real, that she’s human and cares.

Her redemption will make her career. Her management team knows it. So they made a smart business move, scheduling the documentary, making Britney appear as though the babies, divorces, and rehab never happened, and, sadly, keeping her in lockdown to avoid additional PR disasters.

5. Having Influential Endorsements

Spears isn’t operating in a vacuum. She has her backers, people standing behind her help her regain legitimacy. Madonna is the most powerful. Recently,

Madonna…said she admired Spears as an artist and that she saw a lot of herself in Brit.

“Circus,” her new album, also received good reviews. Its cover looks weirdly reminiscent of Madonna’s Music, with old-West font, simple composition, and Spears’ soft, wavy blond hair, a style Mads has sported for several years. That familiarity can’t hurt. The media has also been cautiously upbeat about Spears’ comeback. All these factors urge the audience-god back into her arena.

6. Gaining Forgiveness

According to Wikipedia,

Forgiveness is typically defined as the process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, and ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

What does it take to prevent Britney’s godlike audience from damning her to eternity for her baby-abandoning, drunken ways? Honesty. ‘Fessing up to mistakes. Crying on TV. Brit’s dismay is real. It also works in her favor, prompting the judging audience to let go of their bad feelings (NY Post):

“When I tell people the way I feel, it’s like they hear me, but they aren’t really listening. It’s bad,” she said, letting the tears flow freely before the most honest admission in the whole show: “I’m sad.”

Aww. Brit, we identify with you.
We’re all sad sometimes. We know you’ve been through a lot. And you look hot again, out of your white-trash KFC days. Thanks for trying. Thanks for letting us know that you want to please us again.

We, the audience, are willing to consume your look and art once again.

Corporate giants who used to have solid reputations, like American Express, InBev/Budweiser, and GM, could execute similar strategies to engineer their own comebacks. Spears has shown that collapsing in public can work to your advantage, if you know when and how to come back into the public eye.

Whether Britney succeeds as a Madonna-like superstar or relapses into a Liza Minelli, her latest move ensured she’ll stay in our collective memories for some time to come.

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Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.