Become More Personable, Not a Person

Several years have passed since the personal branding revolution took the Internet by storm. What have we learned? Are brands becoming more personable and have people become, well, more iconic?

Probably a little of both. However, we have also seen many examples of brands acting quite silly while they mime people, and the very public fallibility of the human condition.

At the crux of both extremes is the core definition of the general term brand. And yes, there are a ton of definitions. But usually, it comes down to selling: “Brand is the “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product [as] distinct from those of other sellers.”

Like almost every marketing talking head, I have my own version, which I learned from Ellis Pines about 15 years ago. That is that brand is the expression of a promise from a company (or seller) to a customer. That brand is expressed visually, verbally and through customer experiences.

Let’s take a look at how the crossing of personality and brand has worked out for companies and people alike.

Brands Who Try to Be Like People

The smaller a company is, the easier one can associate the brand with a personality. Some brands do this better than others, for example Dell as a large brand and Georgetown Cupcake as a more well-known small brand.

More often than not the personality associated with the brand tends to be a founder, though we have seen exceptions. Flo, the fictional spokesperson for Progressive, has been a wildly successful example of infusing personality into a brand. However, none of us will actually do business with Flo. Other times, we have seen social media experts become the voice of the brand, at least on the interwebs.

However, this personal association doesn’t always turn out well for brands. For example, Kenneth Cole has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth (pun intended).

Chrysler experienced a social media f bomb.

J.P. Morgan “got bloggy with it” and had a snarkpocalypse that to this day ranks as one of the top social media blunders ever.

Picking fun at corporate social media errors is a blood sport online. Inevitably, the errors find their genesis in very human mistakes, the errors of personality.

Some of this is common sense, but even the most rational people have their moments. This is the primary reason why brands tend to stay on business topic, and avoid the beaten path of personality quirks.

People Who Try to Be Like Brands

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Image by Billy Hulbert

Given the volatility of the human spirit, we’ve seen some epic persoanl brand meltdowns online in the blogosphere since personal branding became popular. Perhaps its best to use celebrity examples given the sensitive nature of bloggers.

Here are a few examples of how titanic personal brands fall when a personality commits seriously negative acts:

Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace was capped by a horrific two night return of the Oprah show. $500 million raised to benefit cancer research could not help Lance’s personal brand.

Alex Rodriguez’s best attempts at polishing his personal image backfired as MLB took him to task in the this decade’s edition of the steroid scandal.

Lindsay Lohan began the destruction of a Disneyified personal brand with her first court appearance in 2009. Consistently arrested, Lindsay continues to bury herself.

On the political personal brand stage, there’s no better example of a personal brand screw up than Anthony Weiner’s sexting fiasco on Twitter.

You can go on forever with these. Romances, temper tantrums, employee meltdowns, etc., all combat the sales promise of various personalities’ branding efforts.

The problem with creating a finite brand promise associated with a person remains the human spirit. People change. They evolve for good or bad (so do brands, but rarely at the rate of individual people). They make mistakes. This inevitably contrasts against the personal brand.

Career change? Awesome, but that doesn’t match the brand. Good luck porting that equity over.

Conclusion

From a corproate perspective, the social media era give companies the ability to empower employees to talk with customers directly. Interaction is the expression of the brand through an experience. This is how brands become personable.

However, snarky toothpaste is not a good interactive experience, per say. That’s just a marketing campaign through owned channels on social networks. It’s a different form of branding.

I’m a big fan of encouraging people to be people, to identify themselves as employees. It’s important for them to carefully note that their opinion does not represent the company’s. This is being personable, not adding legions of personal brands to corporate mastheads.

When it comes to infusing personalities into the brand itself, you are really talking about spokespeople. Spokespeople represent a PR or advertising campaign decision, and should be treated with the same filters as a formal messaging camapign, and not unbridled social media wonkiness.

On the individual personal brands side, I’ve been a long-time critic of the concept. Instead I coach people ito focus on their reputation based on performance and relationships. While considered synonymous with a personal branding, a reputation is more fluid and easier to apply to new endeavors and troubled situations.

An iconic brand that’s known for performance in one product area or service sector fails to have that kind of flexibility. When you create a finite promise, you often have to live with it. That’s a hard commitment to live up to for any individual.

What do you think?

This post ran originally on the Vocus blog.

People Need Content

My friend Mark Schaefer wrote a compelling post last week about Content Shock. The ensuing conversation revolved around whether or not the content marketing movement will collapse. The most important sentence in Mark’s post (IMO) was, “Content marketing is not over.” That’s because people need content.

No matter how you slice and dice it, people still want information about other people, places and things. One way of finding information becomes too noisy, they seek another.

Some of the economics in Mark’s post were fantastic, but the overall gist was great content wins. Bad and mediocre corporate content is losing, and it is losing faster due to a competitive arms race.

Frankly, many marketers are producing bad content, and they shouldn’t succeed. And prior to the content marketing boom, marketers produced other shoddy forms of communications. So if that’s the collapse, so be it.

More content creates a premium on well presented information. It also highlights the importance of a balanced strategy including but not defined by the trend. The best competitors stand out. The rest fail.

And when marketers fail, they will seek a different way to develop customer relationships. Social media isn’t scalable? No one likes our blog? OK! Let’s try sponsored content.

Change the Rules

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I agree with notion that in spite of big companies, niche and differentiated content will find ways to win. Yet, in last week’s conversations I saw assumptions that those brands with frequency, the most sizzle, the best personalities, and overall distribution strengths will win. While these are assets that big companies can purchase, it’s only to win a digital content arms race defined by bloggers.

What happens when someone changes the rules?

Let’s face it, someone (or Google)

      Always

changes the rules.

It’s not about shooting more. Instead, change the game. To use a Seth Godin saying, instead of trying to out-moo every other brown cow, become a purple one. Do something that completely differentiates your efforts.

As an event creator, I love it. Blog posts are easy. Quality events are hard.

The increasing glut of digital information makes quality events more important. Why? People rely on their peers and live real-time buzz more than ever. An event is a primary driver of large word of mouth moments, dynamic personal interaction, and yes, great content.

The need for live real-time entertainment and events is driving outlandish broadcast contracts for sports teams and leagues. Sporting events are one of the few live events that people pay attention to in the moment. Disagree? How many of your friends were glued to the TV or compulsively checked scores on their smartphones during the NFL Playoffs?

By the way, PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicted the media rights boom in 2011, when they said, “…sports viewing is proving virtually immune to time-shifting. In the key 18-49 demographic, live programmes dominate the ratings, and sports are well represented in the top-rated live programmes.”

When a tactic becomes overplayed, to win you must either excel or change the rules. If you play the same game, you will be held to the same dynamics and consequences as everyone else.

Cut against the grain. Create different methods and ways to give people the information they want. Or you could just keep publishing blogs (and possibly perish).

What do you think?

Featured Image by Visit Abu Dhabi. Brown cow by Mimadeo.

Let Brands Be Brands

Hugo Boss [Brands @ Westfield shoppingmall London]
Image by Vincent Teeuwen

Why is it that we as an industry wants brands to become people and people to become brands? This manifests itself with a corporate brand online talking like a human being, but without identifying the people behind the communications. It seems like a disaster waiting to happen. When brands act like people — cursing, drinking, or making bad jokeswe pounce on them. We’re mortified for they have betrayed the behavioral norms that we expect of trusted brands.

To think that people, um, that is brands would do such things. The outrage is a result of expectations that supersede the human condition. Brands that act like people inevitably stumble.

Of course, asking people to act like brands only creates the opposite issue. Fake, shiny plastic people. Yay! But let’s not get mired in the ills of personal branding (which apparently is something our European counterparts like to make fun of when discussing American social media).

The problem with the personality conundrum is that transposing roles fails. The reality is that a brand is created by humans for humans. The brand fulfills a means to interact for a promised purpose (in theory) between people within the branded entity, and other people in or outside the organization. It is a very narrow type of communication limited to the business of the brand.

Why confuse the issue in the name of social media? There’s an old saying that half measures avail us nothing. In trying to be human, brands want to add personality to their brand palette, but in reality brands are just marketing vehicles, not people.

Personality can best be seen in a company by using the brand to highlight people within the entity. Afterall, organizations are made of and led by people. Some of the more consistent efforts online like GM Blogs and Bank of America‘s Twitter customer service take this approach, showcasing the voices behind the brand.

This, of course, requires a team approach with a greater depth of transparency which many brands haven’t become comfortable with yet… Teams are needed to counterbalance the negative effects that individual personal fame under a brand can have. Transparency is needed to trust people to identify themselves as a member of the organization. Rare is the brand management team that’s willing to do the latter, afraid of the worst case scenarios of the human condition.

Yet, when these situations occur in real life, people don’t assume that madmen engage in workplace violence or white collar crimes on behalf of the brand! On the contrary, people understand that wayward employees are really just lost souls who have crossed that terrible line we all fear. That is the dark side of the human condition.

Brand managers who cannot understand this will never be able to circumnavigate the personality conundrum. Instead they will be mired in half measures, trying to infuse personality into their brand while controlling their employees. Then when the inevitable brand failure happens serious meetings will occur to create new policies and eradicate future human outbursts.

Let brands be brands, and let people be people. By using one to highlight the other, a brand can show the human side of its company, and protect itself. In the worst cases, the brand can simply state that an employee made an error (or worse), and apologize to or reassure stakeholders. It really is that easy.

Infusing Personality versus Personal Branding

Personal-Professional Mix in Social Media with Geoff Livingston from Kivi Leroux Miller on Vimeo.

Kivi Leroux Miller, author of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, interviewed me last week on the balance between infusing personality into your online communications and personal branding. During the conversation, we talked about how several nonprofits are handling this, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Humane Society of the United States, LIVESTRONG (Lance Armstrong Foundation), and Goodwill of Greater Washington DC, as well as corporate examples Dell and Ford’s Scott Monty.

In Kivi’s words: You have to be genuine, generous, and grateful in social media to succeed, which means you have to be a real person. But if you go too far in putting yourself out there — what some people would call building your personal brand — you can overshadow the nonprofit cause that you are representing. Finding this right personal/professional mix is challenging, especially for small nonprofits.

Thanks for having me as a guest on your blog, Kivi!