Robert De Niro’s role in Mean Streets (1973) won critical acclaim and launched a long and fruitful relationship with director Martin Scorsese. De Niro’s portrayal of a gritty and reckless gambler in New York City sent him a bounty of standout crime-driven parts in movies like The Godfather Part II (1974)—for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—Taxi Driver (1976)—which won the Palme d’Or—and The Deer Hunter (1978)—which won five Academy Awards. But since the nineties, De Niro has turned to roles in B-grade comedies, from Meet the Fockers (2004) to Dirty Grandpa (2016)—lackluster roles that some see as a tarnish to his legacy.  

Similarly, Nicolas Cage made his name in movies like Moonstruck (1987), Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Adaptation (2002), but today is most recognized for his roles in National Treasure (2004, 2007) and a host of other thrillers and action movies—not to mention his anti-semitic comments. While these films cut the actor a large paycheck and were generally received well, they failed to garner him roles with a depth of character and did not win high cinematic praise.

Like consumer brands, actors exist in a sea of talent—making them easily replaceable. Even for those who skyrocketed to stardom with a certain movie or director, evolution is paramount in order to maintain relevance and push beyond typecasting. De Niro and Cage exemplify the inherent lack of defensibility in a (personal) Brand—rather, their Brands are entirely predicated on their ongoing performance. Though both actors made big breaks, they now face accusations of “selling out,” which raise questions about their resonance and longevity.

In the consumer world, as more businesses set out to be defensible, competitive and long-lasting, many believe that by creating strong brand, production and distribution channels, a business can flourish for a long time. But the vast majority of these brands lose relevance, fall prey to better-managed copycats, or fail to evolve to meet changing consumer needs—evidence that a brand’s status is never cemented in time.

On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon has managed to transcend a lull in her career by forging her own path—and performing better than the rest. Witherspoon’s major spash came with Legally Blonde in 2001, in which she played a ditzy, but clever sorority-girl-turned-law-student. The success, however, led to years of typecasting in forgettable romantic comedies. Frustrated, Witherspoon decided to take the reins to her career.

Frustrated, Witherspoon decided to take the reins to her career. In 2000, she founded a production company, Type A Films, which in 2012 became a subsidiary of a new company, Pacific Standard. The latter, armed with the mission of creating films with strong female leads, went on to produce Gone Girl and Wild in 2014. In 2016, Pacific Standard ended when Witherspoon split with her co-founder, and she began a third production company, Hello Sunshine, which has helped produce Big Little Lies (2017-2019), which won eight Emmys in 2018, and has a host of other television and film projects in the works with HBO, Apple, NBC and ABC.

Witherspoon could very well have continued to cash in on romantic comedies. But her lack of enthusiasm for those roles, which did not challenge or showcase her talents or interests, led the actress down a different path—one that carves out a space for her and other actors like herself in the long term. Though Hello Sunshine also emerges at a time when the lack of diversity and gender equality in the film industry is becoming increasingly visible, it stakes out a competitive and relevant role for Witherspoon as an actress and producer, which acknowledges but also distances her future from past roles like Elle Woods.

Actors, like brands, need to keep performing. Brand will not continue to resonate based on past success for the foreseeable future. Instead, Brand is created, maintained and grown through an ongoing set of actions—the future can be more important than the past.