This problem is not unique to politics. Investors worried about Apple when Steve Jobs passed away, and it’s difficult to think of the Virgin brand without Richard Branson’s personal brand coming immediately to mind.
In our own industry, personality plays an enormous role in influencing decisions. Most agencies are named after their iconic founders. You get MDs, Creative Directors and Strategists that become almost celebrities. Clients want them in the room and will follow them when they leave an agency.
Personality is hugely important to branding. Strategists spend time and energy trying to define the kind of personality that will resonate with a brand’s stakeholders because they know that a brand without personality isn’t a brand at all. We naturally relate to other people, but we struggle to become emotionally invested in inanimate objects. So when a leader embodies the personality a brand is trying to project, that brand has struck gold. They have a human – a real life human! – to make that personality tangible for consumers, customers and employees.
But people retire. People are imperfect (that’s part of what makes them interesting and emotionally engaging in the first place). People can be flaky or unreliable or mess things up badly. Helen Zille grew the DA brand immeasurably, but she also often damaged it with her problematic Twitter outbursts. Nike had the perfect ambassador for “Just do it” with Oscar Pistorius, until he really wasn’t.
The sweet spot is a combination of personal and corporate brands. Here are a few tips on how to get that balance right:
This seems like an obvious point but it is often ignored – either because leaders don’t want to share the limelight or because there isn’t the budget to sponsor more than one celebrity. Having a portfolio of personal brands helps to highlight different nuances of the brand personality you are trying to build and ensures that reputational damage is minimised if one goes rogue. Similarly, within an agency, it is important to build the profile of a number of leaders so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Many sponsorship and endorsement relationships with cultural or sporting icons are tied to a specific campaign to drive a particular message. This can be successful for catching attention but can lead to fragmented brand associations if those personalities are very different. Personal brands affiliated with your brand should embody the core values of the organisation, not just demonstrate a particular part of a campaign message.
If a prominent leader is alone at the top, the brand is at risk when that leader steps down. Part of the ANC’s enduring success is their strong branch structure across the country that constantly feeds leaders upwards. The DA is playing catch-up on the ground and has run a very successful Young Leaders Programme over the past few years to accelerate the growth of a new generation of leaders. Big brands and private organisations are no different – without dedicated and prioritised employer branding, talent acquisition and employee development it becomes difficult to remain a market leader.
Social media makes listening to customer feedback so easy. Make sure you’re on top of what people are saying about the prominent personalities within or associated with your brand. Pick n Pay, for example, had a serious PR problem on its hands last year when a music festival it supported had Steve Hofmeyr as the headline act after Steve Hofmeyr tweeted hugely offensive things about race in South Africa.
Listen to what customers are saying about how your people behave. You can’t fire employees for every negative comment they generate but ignoring a groundswell of negativity will not end well.
No one stays cool forever. It’s a sad truth about life and the best marketing intentions aren’t going to change it. Celebrities lose their shine; leaders lose touch with shifts in consumer culture. Businesses and brands need fresh blood or leaders who can stay young in their thinking and impulses. A great mark of leadership is knowing when it’s time to hand over the reins.
Powerful personal brands come with their risks, but at the end of the day people connect with people – with their stories and imperfections and triumphs. Personal brands can help consumers, voters, employees and society at large become emotionally invested, and that’s what every Marketing Director wants for his or her brand. The trick is to ensure you have the right balance of personal and corporate, of scripted and unscripted. Build a strong pipeline of personalities and ensure you always have an ear to the ground.
This article originally appeared in MarkLives