Thursday, May 8

Branding Dilemmas: Personal Vs. Public Brands

As social media adoption takes hold, some companies are starting to wonder: if employees need to step out of the shadows, to serve as transparent client advocates in a community relations role, where will it leave the company brand? Held hostage by individual employees with no loyalty to the company beyond an individual connection?

A few examples came to mind. And no, not just Robert Scoble.

When I bought my Infiniti a few years ago, I got a great deal. Of course, I didn’t want to purchase an Infiniti; I wanted a Volkswagen, but the only local dealer in town at the time wouldn’t order what I wanted. So I decided to shop around. The Infiniti seemed like a great car, but the sales associate clinched it.

He believed in the product. So much so that he said he wouldn’t work anywhere else. That is, until he moved to a Ford dealership a few months later. He sent me a card in the mail, asking me to file away his new card when I was ready to trade my car in.

Before anyone asks why I was surprised, I wasn’t. He was a car salesman after all (no offense intended to anyone working at a dealership). But even back then, I considered how interdependent brands can be: the manufacturer, the dealership, the sales manager, the sales associate, the guy who comes out at the end of the deal to recommend meteor insurance.

If these various brands don’t work together, there is a problem. Or, more specifically, if my loyalty is only with the salesman then the dealer that created the right environment might one day be cut out of the picture. I see it happen to agencies all the time — never mind the strategic and creative, accounts tend to stick to account executives (because that is where the relationship is established).

In a world of free agents, where does customer loyalty fall?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, the average person held 10.5 jobs between ages 18 to age 40 — 36 percent of these jobs were held for less than one year. Some recruiters tell me that they prefer candidates who have less than five years at a company. In the local Las Vegas market, the majority of people change jobs every two years.

With increased visibility and personal branding though, one might wonder what it means for companies. Are employers really expected to place an emphasis on individual brands that might not be there in two years?

And what if individual transparency amounts to a company negative? More often than not, the brand damage will stick to the company and not the individual (with some exceptions in public relations). This is exactly why some companies are finding it challenging to give employees too prominent of a voice in social media. In essence, some liken it to paying employees to elevate personal brands for the purpose of a better job offer.

I’m not one to subscribe to fear factor business decisions. It’s not in my nature. But some executives may raise a good question. And I don't think the answer has much to do about employee control as much as it does effective leadership.

In a world of interconnected brands, communication is key.

• Stronger internal branding programs to develop the right corporate culture
• Successfully establishing a core message to guide employees in one direction
• Succession planning, especially among employees engaged in social media or direct client relations

Social media doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. In many ways it very much the same as front-line communication and many companies seem to do pretty good with nurturing (not controlling) appropriate customer connections while protecting their brand.

If you ever stayed at a Four Seasons Hotel, you know what I mean. Apple retail stores have come a long way too. I’m a big fan of the Apple Store Genius Bar. Even one of our grocery stores seems to hit the mark.

In every case, these companies train employees to adopt certain company values. Consistent internal communication ensures they all understand the company's mission and message. And, they tend to establish more than one employee connection with the customer.



Geoff_Livingston on 5/9/08, 12:28 PM said...

great post, Rich. In many ways, I have seen this with my own small humble company, and have taken steps to reduce the amount of Geoff flavor in the Buzz Bin, and use to be more personal. This is allowing us to expand and be more than 1.

A company is more than 1. I think to some extent good social media for cos demonstrates that.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

I see a very grave danger in companies emphasizing personal sells.

There was a time when I was a regional account executive for a publishing company – details don’t matter. I am not particularly proud of what happened and how I handled the following situations. It just stands as a testament.

My sales pitch was based on the integrity of my company of which I sincerely believed. One day I was asked to do something by the VP of sales (the immediate authority over me) that I felt betrayed the integrity of the ethics I had been advocating and the companies own marketing vision.

I immediately planned my resignation but not before taking the time to personally visit my lead accounts. Not only did my lead accounts fold with me – I received phone calls for well over a year from marginal accounts or potential accounts wanting to know why I wasn’t with the company.

In affect the region folded with me. If I was smarter I would have taken my complaint to the CEO – I later discovered that the VP was on edge. Oh well, lesson learned –

But you’re right. There is a huge emphasis on personal branding and it makes sense. I would much rather buy from somebody who I consider a friend or ally than an impersonal bureaucracy. But you point out the dangers and companies should have a much broader communications program than emphasizing personal sells.
I have always felt tremendous guilt about how I handled that situation. Thanks for reminding me that my experience is far from isolated.


Rich on 5/19/08, 5:18 PM said...

@Geoff, Thanks for the comment Geoff and my apologies for the belated response.

I think the solution comes from successfully pulling the team together. Then, working together to establish one direction, which leads to many voices with the same core message. Glad to hear you are moving that way.

@Kevin, Well, very often, if there is nothing to distinguish the product, then the relationship might be the tie that binds. At least, that is what seems to be your case.

I know in our company, we have a iron clad rule of thumb that accounts always stay with our clients, unless the client expressly states we can retain the account even if they do not. After almost two decades, I am happy to say we have lived by that rule.


Anonymous said...

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