Brands in the News

A Ski Crash and Some Savvy Branding

4 Apr 2023  

There were big legal stories last week featuring two celebrities: Donald Trump and Gwyneth Paltrow. Both stories are a curious mix of legal issues and branding.

Today I am going to focus on the Paltrow trial and highlight why it was such a branding triumph. Gwyneth Paltrow walks away from the case the victor with a dramatically enhanced personal brand.

The Case

In 2016, Gwyneth Paltrow was skiing on a bunny slope at Park City and ended up in a crash with Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist.

He sued for $3.1 million, claiming that she was skiing out of control and had slammed into him, causing broken ribs and head trauma the resulted in cognitive function issues and a personality change.

A judged later reduced the maximum damages to $300,000.

It seems like a weak case to me, since apparently Sanderson hit Paltrow from behind, and then went on to live an active life with travels including hiking and riding on camels.

Paltrow’s Smart Approach

Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress and success entrepreneur, made a series of smart decisions in dealing with the case.

– She didn’t settle.

The logical thing to do when faced with a legal claim is to simply compromise and reach a settlement agreement. This is what happens to many legal matters. Paltrow could have paid some money and the matter would have faded away.

She elected not to do this. There were likely several factors behind the decision. First, settling creates a dangerous precedent for her and other celebrities. Second, settling would have been an admission of guilt. As Paltrow explained, “I felt that acquiescing to a false claim compromised my integrity.” Third, the downside risk wasn’t enormous. If she lost, damages were just $300,000. Even before the award reduction, damages were $3.1 million, and this isn’t a huge amount for someone like Paltrow with an estimated $200 million in assets.

-She focused on integrity, not cash.

After Sanderson filed suit, Paltrow filed a counter-suit. She asked for damages of $1. This was completely symbolic. Still, it communicated to the world that Paltrow wasn’t fighting the battle to make money from Sanderson. Paltrow might have been following Taylor Swift’s example on this front.

-She managed her image well.

Paltrow showed up for the trial. She was attentive and polite. She dressed well, but not in a flashy way. In a clearly deliberate move, she wore no branded items. People wondered where her different clothes came from.

Avoiding brands protected Paltrow from easy characterizations. If she showed up with something branded Prada, for example, people would have focused on the symbolism – wealth, elitism. If she arrived wearing a blouse clearly labeled Target, people might have declared that it was a blatant effort to be manipulative.

The lack of obvious branding is of course the highest sort of status. People who have the most status and wealth don’t overtly show it. Instead, they employ what some call “stealth-wealth.” If you show flashy brands and carefully protect your luxury items, it suggests that you are striving for status. If you don’t show flashy brands and use luxury goods in a dismissive, cavalier manger, it shows the world that you have so much status you just don’t care.

-She was well spoken.

During testimony, Paltrow was unflappable. She was pleasant and patient. She gave thoughtful answers. She wasn’t dismissive or sarcastic.

The Result

Paltrow won the case. The jury found Sanderson 100% liable for the incident, and awarded Paltrow the requested $1.

The overall impact of all this? Paltrow emerges with a stronger brand. She comes across as thoughtful, smart, tough, and approachable.

Legal battles aren’t usually considered brand-building tools, but this was one of those times.

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