The Rise and Fall of Shirtless Putin
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Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and other world leaders.
Vladimir Putin is sort of the Old Spice of world leaders. And not just because the Russian president turns up topless on a horse more often than Isaiah Mustafa, the actor whose sleek wit and abs reinvigorated the 81-year-old deodorant maker’s brand with a 2010 viral ad campaign titled “Smell Like a Man, Man.” Indeed, long before Mustafa came out of the shower saying, “Look at your man. Now back to me,” a female pop duo was already topping Russian charts with the 2002 hit “A Man Like Putin,” comparing their deadbeat boyfriend to a more desirable man, “One like Putin, full of strength/One like Putin, who won’t be a drunk.” The anthem would become a staple at Putin rallies, converting the popular leader into a rock star.
Such techno-pop-aganda is just one of many campaigns that have characterized the remarkable branding strategy behind Putin’s 16-year run as Russia’s prime minister/president/prime minister/president. Like Procter & Gamble’s reinvention of the Old Spice brand over the same period — repackaging the original cologne as “Classic Scent” while building out modern scents for a younger generation — Putin took an institution, the Russian presidency, linked to “infertile, geriatric grandpas” (in the words of the songwriter behind “A Man Like Putin”) and reimagined it as the dominion of the ultimate Russian male. In doing so, Putin has become Russia’s Brandmaster, both the brand manager and the brand itself.
Putin became an icon, his granite-faced gaze adorning everything from chocolate to charcoal.
Having a leader who “won’t be a drunk” was actually an upgrade for many Russians in 1999 when Putin took over after the turbulent, often inebriated leadership of Boris Yeltsin. The fit, abstemious Putin was both a Yeltsin protégé, having been elevated from an obscure Kremlin deputy, and the anti-Yeltsin, promising stability and competence for a country of nearly 150 million still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Playing such disparate roles was nothing new for a lawyer who had spent 16 years wearing various masks as a mid-level KGB operative, and who could easily paint himself as the quintessential outsider.
The son of factory workers, Putin came from St. Petersburg, not Moscow, and had been stationed overseas in East Germany throughout Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika movement. But he had no real leadership experience, having risen only as far as deputy mayor in St. Petersburg — a shortcoming he turned into a strength. “He allowed — even actively encouraged — people to underestimate him,” Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill observe in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. And Putin’s KGB cunning, not to mention what he learned there investigating Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs in the 1990s, would help him control the men who had controlled Yeltsin.
But Russians needed more than a Machiavellian functionary to usher in the 21st century. They needed a leader who was the personification of the strong superpower they still longed to be. And while the Soviet Union was not known for its product branding, Putin had the deified leaders of Russia’s past like Lenin and Stalin to draw from, plus some enterprising marketers to do the drawing. “Putin is not the creator of the campaign to create the Putin brand as we see it now,” Gaddy tells OZY. “That comes not from the KGB but, ironically, from the Russian oligarchs … who introduced Western-style marketing to Russia in the 1990s.”
With help from his chain-smoking deputy, Vladislav Surkov, who’d given capitalist makeovers to oligarchs like banker Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin became an icon, his granite-faced gaze adorning everything from chocolate to charcoal. His popularity soared, his strategic photo-ops multiplied and the brand thrived alongside a newly stable and prosperous Russia. Riding an enormous wave of oil and gas revenue, Putin grew the economy, balanced budgets and funded pensions. Millions of Russians enjoyed unprecedented levels of personal income, and most did not mind the Kremlin’s consolidation of power or the extraordinary perks — including 20 residences, four yachts and 43 aircraft — bestowed upon their bare-chested czar.
Despite the benefits and the aura of mystery surrounding him, Putin’s daily routine as a one-man brand, by some accounts, is rather pedestrian. Divorced, with two grown daughters, he lives a regimented existence of swimming, weight lifting, briefings, appearances and pre-written speeches; a cocoon in which others speak in hushed tones and never laugh in his presence and all food must be prepared by his own chefs to avoid poisoning. The 62-year-old president loves ice hockey and animals, but is usually distant. Pentagon analysts think he has Asperger’s, a form of autism. Perhaps he’s just bored or tired. “He looks emotionless, as if nothing really touches him,” one former interpreter told Newsweek. “As if he is worn out … [and] has spent so long as an icon he is not used to anyone penetrating.”
And when Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, after a four-year stint as PM, many Russians started to get worn out as well. Grateful to him for steering them out of the post-Soviet doldrums, many were ready to take the next step, to open up Russian society and loosen the powers of the state. But Putin ignored them, and the face once crafted in Swarovski crystal started turning up on toilet paper as unemployment and inflation rose in the oil-dependent Russian economy. Even the strongest brands — including the steely-eyed, man-of-mystery variety — are not indestructible. Still, as an autocrat, Putin has more cards to play than the average brand manager confronted with a threat to brand loyalty. Enter the recent saber-rattling in the Ukraine, a surge of patriotism and record popularity for the shirtless white knight on a horse.
Will Putin ride his action-figure brand into the sunset (he is eligible to remain president until 2024), even as Western sanctions bite and Russia and its economy rot from within? As long as he can personify how the majority of Russians prefer to see their country, Vladimir Putin will continue to smell like a man, even as everything else around him starts to stink.