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.


  • I think the difference is in the wording – it’s not the people that “fail”, but their personality. If you’re an asshole offline, you’ll be an asshole online (just look at the GoDaddy goof).

    I’m all for brands highlighting their people and showing there’s an actual person behind the tweet, or Facebook status, etc.

    Just make sure it’s someone that’s not one of your employees who you usually hide from visitors to your workplace.

    • You can run, but you can’t hide. That person invariably touches the public in some way. You can’t hide people, that’s the issue. You can’t control your staff. You can select which ones talk, but even then you don’t really know them. There’s no fail safe method. And how do we respond when there is that error? Guillotines.

      • It depends on how you define “control’. You have an Employee Contract – you have a social media policy as part of that. You define what’s acceptable and what’s not. You choose the best frontline players for your business. You ensure if you even have to consider whether something might be misconstrued, then it probably will, so should that be public.

        Of course, if we’re talking actual owners of a business, that’s a whole other ball game… ;-)

        • I never ver misrepresent my brand as an owner. Hmmm. Yeah.

          Anyway, I agree on contracts. And that’s why they make pink slips. :) Let people be people, and when it’s bad, that’s the appropriate response. Seriously, want to drop the eff bomb on our Twitter handle, then you can get demoted, fired or whatever. Of course, that may be extreme and you could get the Chrysler response. Now that was comical.

          As to best frontline players. Even the best have bad days. How many times have we seen presidents caught cursing when they thought they were off mic? The bar is too high for people to meet everyday, 365 days a year.

          • Ah, but usually the owners are the dickwads because they won’t take counsel on best practices when on a public forum – after all, they/we own the business, they/we know best. ;-)

            For sure, people have bad days. But there’s a difference between a curse and a poor decision to hijack a hashtag stream set up to keep people abreast of life-threatening situations.

            To the brands that think swearing is inappropriate? Fuck ’em. To the idiots that hijack emergency streams? Double fuck ’em.

  • Enjoyed this post and our Twitter conversation this morning. Specifically, the nuance of showcasing the humans behind a brand without making a human THE brand of a company. Afterall we all want the personal connection – and as consumers we buy from people that we like and respect. There’s a way to do that, be real, without limiting how your company and brand can grow.

    Fun discussion.

  • wanted to say big thanks for the article. it appeared to be vry interesting and i like the style you used for it. very appropriate so the result is very impressive

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