How Companies Respond to the Risks of Personal Brands

Some companies are wary of personal brands
Last week, I spoke to a social media strategist as a very large consumer packaged goods company, he expressed to me over this client call (called an inquiry) that he was concerned about employees getting too popular due to their personal brands and as a result, getting pulled right out of the company.

[Despite that social technologies can improve customer relationships, the risks may be too great for some companies to bear, as a result, some corporations will shy away from allowing employees to have personal brands]

Personal brands can bring trust to monolithic corporations
In the age of transparency and conversation, brands know they need to join customers where they are, and that often means in social sites where real people are having real conversations –it’s about building trust. As a result, social media marketing continues to be adopted by brands; I help them daily.


Examining the risks of personal brands
Personal brands are indeed a powerful tool, for one, it’s helped me get my current and previous job, and it will likely be a factor for my next, however there are a few risks to brands:

Risk 1: The personal brand is a cost to the company: Why let employees build their own brand on the dime of the company or leveraging the brand of the employer?

Risk 2: The now popular employee is likely to get poached: Perhaps a common concern I hear is that competitors can easily identify the stars, and hire away these folks along with their market reputation and google juice.

Risk 3: Employee exits leaving a chasm to fill: In the modern workforce, we hear less of lifetime employees seeking pension than we do of job migrants, or career gypsies that move from company to company every few years. As a result, after they’ve built up trust with the market using social tools, they leave the company, and a gap is left that the brand can’t fill.


How companies respond
Brands respond to these risks in a number of ways, I’ve categorized them based on level of sophistication.

First Reaction: Keep marketing faceless: Lean on traditional marketing, avoid human voices to come through.

Second Reaction: Approach with team or hybrid approach: Rather than encourage personal brands, you may instead see corporate team blogs that have an equal weighting to employees. Another example is with Dell and Oracle employees who fuse their name with their employer –it’s both personal and professional.

Third Reaction: Let the customers be the product face: Perhaps the most sophisticated way to market a product isn’t to put your employees on the product blog, but instead, your customers. I don’t see too many examples of this currently, but you can expect this to be an approach in the future.

Fourth Reaction: Allow personal brands to proliferate: Some companies allow for employees to create their own blogs, generate revenue on their blogs, and be who and what they want.

Portable brands desirable in the age of career gypsies and job migrants
It’s rare to hear of the life long employee who retires after 40 years of service with a fat pension, in fact many workers today move from job to job –even more frequently in the tech industry. In the end, personal brands within the enterprise are inevitable, just ask Dan Schawbel if anyone wants to track new talent, or hire Generation Y, they’ll have to accept that individuals will have personal brands and they are portable. In fact, recruiters are often seeking on forums, blogs, and social networks to seek out talent.

Personal brands here to stay, with increase in adoption during recession
In my recent post, I pointed out that no matter how hard you work, or how smart you are, you can still get layed off. As a result, expect an increase in professionals to be on social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn, and using conversational tools like blogs and twitter to promote their offerings. The savvy career gypsy will build this up before they need a job.

Now that I’ve put all the options and variations out there, I’d love to hear what you think corporations should do to protect their resources (brand, talent, and time), as well as build trusting relationships with customers?

  • This is a great topic Jeremiah. I do not think there is any reason companies should “worry” about someone getting too popular, especially if they are treating that person well.

    Smart people are not necessarily motivated by ‘more money’ – perhaps by more freedom. You would probably have lost that person regardless if you try and tell them what they can and can’t do.

    Also I’m at a PR agency, and having a personal brand is vital for my success, especially when I spearhead a social media marketing campaign. PR people moving forward that have strong personal brands are the ones with the most connections and the ones who will be most valuable.

    If you can successfully market/promote yourself, you will be able to for a brand as well. This is definitely worth some more discussion, I might put my thoughts together for a post on this too.

  • Adam

    I really hope to hear your response. Most importantly, you could suggest what companies should do.

  • Your third reaction is indeed sophisticated and interesting. What happens when a customer leaves? Is it the same as when an employee leaves? Worse?

    Visibility in the marketplace is not unlike internal visibility. In some organizations there is implicit power residing in one or two positions, which may walk off when those professionals move on. In the end, it is easier to be loyal to people than it is to faceless entities, however the tension is perceived and handled inside and outside the walls.

  • Valeria

    That’s interesting, what if the CUSTOMER leaves. It’s quite possible that customers are far more fickle than employees who may stay for 4-5 years of tenure.

  • i was me before (http://www.coolwebsites.org/septcool.html), where i work and i will be me long after..

    =)

  • I think the fourth reaction is the right one. So what if an employee builds a monster personal brand. That is like having Terrell Owens on your football team. You, Josh Bernoff, Charlene Li are examples of monster personal brands – and I would argue that Forrester is much richer for it.

    Which of your competitors is even close to Forrester in this space? None.

    Risk to company? They will have to pay those with big personal brands more money to keep them around. So what? THEY ARE WORTH MORE.

    So, let 1,000 personal brand flourish. This revolution is about relationships and that requires people.

    TO’B

  • @paisley – you have a good point there.

  • I think EMC falls into Category 4, as we are each reminded when we start blogging that we are solely responsible for what we say and do in our blogs – even if EMC chooses to spotlight us as members of their “Blogging Community”.

    I don’t know if anyone has considered the “gaping hole” potential, though. The risk of any of us departing is probably small, but it surely isn’t zero.

    I agree that getting customers to be the product face would major competitive advantage. Unfortunately, at least in my industry, our customers tend to have policies against showing favoritism to any vendor. These policies are sometimes driven by Purchasing, who want to maintain the negotiating leverage of pitting purported equal vs. equal to get the best price (hey, it’s their job). The unfortunate side-effect is that it is almost impossible to get public references from significant influential customers, be they captured in text, audio, video or social media.

    Great topic – look forward to the discussion!

  • Great post Jeremiah. I think a number of people, myself included, are very passionate about this issue. As a professional who has built up a brand through social media and done so in a non-traditional market (Cleveland, OH) I know what it looks like inside a company that reacts the right way and the wrong way to this situatuion. I have also successfully ported my brand from one company to another.

    I’ve built a personal brand from zero through blogging and used it to move into a better position with better opportunities. I think trying to lock somebody down will either frustrate them to leave or cause them to go rogue. Why not empower them, set clear guidelines to protect yourself, but use them as the marketing asset they are.

    When I hire for my team I look at the personal brands of the people who apply. I’m a passionate marketer and I feel that if they don’t have a personal brand (even a fledgling one) I take a pass. It’s never been easier to start and there are no excuses.

    Personally, I wouldn’t work for a company that does not see the value in what I am doing and support me in that. It’s my litmus test. This is adding value for their brand at the end of the day. Plus, if I leave then they have a good model for the next talented employee.

  • Jeremiah – As you RT earlier this morning, corporations have indicated through action that we are dispensable, so we are viewing our job options through the same lens.

    That point is an important backdrop for this topic. Employees aren’t going to be around for long periods of time (usually). Eventually circumstances changes and they will move on. Companies should make the best of the time they have with employees and maximize their productivity by embracing and supporting an employee’s interest in developing their personal brand.

    Critical Mass is a positive example of a company doing this well, with how they support David Armano. He gets the freedom and latitude to do what he feels is important, while the company benefits at the same time. There is a positive halo effect for the company.

    I don’t think the argument that this will increase the likelihood that employees will leave holds much credibility. Talented people will always be in demand regardless of whether or not a company is working with that talent on personal branding.

    So, if you’re running a company, why not take advantage of what is happening/going to happen anyways?

  • I think nonprofits are way more cautious with personal brands than corporations. Most nonprofits react by keeping the marketing faceless and “institutional voice” which can be stodgy, formal, boring, and cold. If they move past that, they typically have the recipient of their services be the brand or face – or the person’s stories … stories of the impact of the nonprofit’s services on one person or one puppy are more powerful and can inspire donations. So, why change that?

    A few nonprofits have staff with personal brands and they allow it – a great example is the American Cancer Society’s fispace blog.

    What’s most interesting to me in the nonprofit space about this – is the free agents or personal brands who working outside of the construct or silos of nonprofit firewalls to make social change.

    Thanks so much for this insightful post

  • An employee who feels strongly about building a personal brand will do so whether using the company dime or not. (As you said, “The savvy career gypsy will build this up before they need a job.”) And because of the 1st Amendment there is nothing the company can do about that. But, savvy companies can keep and use this brand equity by keeping the employee happy, and as Adam pointed out, it may not take more money. It’s important for companies to stay tuned in to what employees want most — freedom, time off, better benefits, whatever. And of course treat people with respect and trust. Employees who feel that their company doesn’t trust them enough to blog or comment may look for a better relationship elsewhere.

    You can also flip this issue: what happens when an employee has built a personal brand tied to a company and then that company lets them down? Responds poorly to a crisis or behaves badly in public, such as breaking trust with customers? What happens to the employee’s personal brand?

  • I have a rather public personal brand and I know that much of what we all do in this space can be confusing and frightening for organizations built on old control structures.
    I have been learning as I go along how to use the me and my personal brand and the eightbar group brand we accidentally turned into a movement too.
    It is a new area, there are no social or corporate structures to deal with a sudden rise of a personal branded leader in an area.
    Learning to be public, to deal with the extra level of pressure, the new skills one aquires, the potential role model that you can become is not going to be for everyone.
    They are also by their nature things that can transcend and out grow a physical organizational structure (e.g. suddenly having a global voice or impact not just local teams).
    It often also seems like those people who fear it are those that have more self interest in maintaining their positions, however that does not have to be the case. A senior manager, VP, CEO etc can choose to use their already strong corporate position to get a jump start on engaging with a stronger personal brand.
    Any company attempting to squash, control or “deal with” a web 2.0 leader, mover and shaker is missing a huge trick.
    Keep those people onside, so they may become a little bit more famous, they may end up with delivering your company brand message for you, but it is usually done out of passion for the business and the company not to crush the company.
    Of course until everyone is doing this suggesting that having a strong personal brand assists in being a career gypsy may not be true. Many organizations will still have old fashioned HR policies and ideas. A vibrant seemingly rebellious or process bypassing personal branded web celeb may just be too scary 🙂

  • Companies have another option – limit access to both internal and external tools, through excessive use of “legal” and “compliance” issues/risks/concerns. Rather than sponsor those people that embrace this new medium – and help build both the company and personal brand – they ultimately just limit access. Why help 1K or 10K people become advocates and social voices of your company, when you can have one or two people and control you’re exposure?

    But as we know, limited “authorized” access does not stop the creation of personal branding, it only forces those motivated people to seek out “external” tools to create it. In many cases, the personal brand becomes more about my “experience” than that of my “companies”. If this happens, the company is the loser, not the employee.

  • @Matt – “Personally, I wouldn’t work for a company that does not see the value in what I am doing and support me in that.” The support comes from a specific advocate or champion inside the organization – it is just an entity.

    @Ken – your comment reminds me of that age old question: what if I teach/train them and then they leave? And answer: what if you don’t and they stay? Except for after years of cut backs professionals now have the tools to train themselves, seek mentors, etc. Those who are hungry to learn and innovate will stay that way, whether you (the employer) will acknowledge it or not.

  • Jeremiah,

    Great topic! Sadly, I think many of the problems faced by companies today stem from their desire to hold employees back.

    While there is a risk of talented well branded employees being lured away by other organizations, I think companies would be better served by taking better care of their well connected superstar employees. These employees are the ones who are usually producing the results.

    While money will always be a factor, time and time again studies show that people are also motivated by things such as an interesting job, appreciation, security, loyalty and opportunity for growth.

    If companies would start focusing more of their efforts on taking care of their top talent, they’re going to find that they’re in turn taking care of their customers too!

  • Thank you for the mention. It has been a pleasure and amazing to see your personal brand grow over the past few years Jeremiah.

    As for this post, I think your message is more about “growing a personal branding using social media as the medium.” In general, personal branding is a much broader concept, as it is the process by which we market ourselves to others. You don’t need social media tools to be recognized as a great contributor to your work group or to be recognized in your company for your efforts.

    Social media is just a way to be known by more people, inside and outside of work.

    That being said, personal brands are supposed to build more value for their companies and get them more exposure through their efforts.

    I agree that millennials will force corporations to open up and allow for social networking at work.

  • @Dan – I don’t think there will be any difference between the amount of people building a personal brand today and when millennials are in the workforce.

    Everyone keeps talking about how the next generation is made up of “digital natives” yet these kids are (on the whole) still at the same level of motivation as any generation – only a small percentage actually care enough to do something like build a personal brand.

    Being 25 I have witnessed my own generation enter the workforce, and most are pretty lazy.

    I disagree with everyone saying that millennials will change anything, age has nothing to do with it. Exceptional people change things, not demographic groups.

    They may force corporations to let them use Facebook/the hot social network of the day because they are used to it (it’s like the phone to them) but from my experience only a small % of people actually want to build a reputation for themselves using it.

  • Companies that treat employees well and reward them for their success don’t need to be afraid of letting them be themselves and build their personal brands.

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  • The real issue in my mind is whether companies view super stars as an asset or a liability to their corporate brand.

    Personal brands, to me, are just a way of highlighting what already exists in any business — some people stand out … some people are super stars.

    Some companies view this positively and want to highlight these standouts; others, want to bury them behind a nameless/faceless brand and even defuse their super-stardom.

    I think this is short sighted. People build companies; people contribute to brands; let’s make these people and their brands real, rather than creating an artificial/homogenous/lifeless corporate brand.

    As a marketing leader, I believe it’s important to channel the resources of super stars and their personal brands to help the company. Spending time worrying about the downside only wastes time and energy and possibly accelerates driving these people away.

    COMPANIES decide whether personal brands are an asset or a liability; it’s a self-determined fate.

  • thank you @david b. thomas for being the voice of reason

    like attracts like and strong brands want to be affiliated with other strong brands

  • Personal brands are great. They can really benefit a a company, especially one that hasn’t established itself yet. I remember when DDB hired Kevin Flatt (who I worked with at Fallon on BMW), and they referenced him as the guy who created BMW Films. Do you know how many would kill someone to work with the “creator” of BMW Films? How about how many clients?

    I think it’s the same on the client side. I left the agenc business and went to work on the client side at a CPG company because who I’d be working for and with. People, if you will, matter.

    Let’s examine your risks:

    1. Risk 1: The personal brand is a cost to the company: It’s only a cost to the company, if yo beleive in the concept of a 9 – 5 job. I probably put it in 70 hours a week into my “work” and my personal brand. The company I work for now, is making out just fine.

    Risk 2: The now popular employee is likely to get poached: Well this would only happen if you weren’t paying this person accordingly or creating a non-desirable work environment. It’s simple really, if you take care of your own employees and your own house things will be ok.

    Risk 3: Employee exits leaving a chasm to fill: See point #2. Let’s say the person is a rockstar awesome employee, but the company has a strict no-personal brand policy. That person would leave anyway. So isn’t the company better off embracing things?

    Great post as usual. My general takeaway is that personal brands can benefit companies tremendously. Companies that don’t think so are places the cream of the crop probably don’t want to work at anyway.

  • It seems to me that employees aren’t nearly as likely to be leveraging the company’s brand to improve their own, so much as companies benefit from their employees’ personal brands. Sure it may get to the point where an employee has built up so much value that they’re essentially irreplaceable. But they are bringing that value to the company. If you work to keep their value down, then you’re working to bring your company’s value down. Working to keep a company’s value down doesn’t sound much like good management to me. If you’re afraid you can’t afford to lose an individual and their brand, maybe you should compensate them accordingly so that they don’t want to go.

  • Think about the larger phenomenon. If your employees are branding themselves then so are the people at your competitors and so are the people who would be great for your company that you didn’t know exist.

    If you are looking, now you do know they exist and you can hire them. You can hire the exact right people for the job. When they leave in a few years, you again have the tools to bring on board the person/people that are just right for what you need then.

    The glass is definitely half-full. More information and more liquidity creates a much more efficient market. Embrace it. If you don’t want someone to leave then find out if what motivates them is also good for your company. If it is, do it.

  • Great post and good topic. I worked at FM Global for 5 years in RI & MA. FM Global treated their employees very well and infact promoted/empowered employees who became well known in their industry.

    Most of the brand employees stayed for a long time-became company ambassadors-had awesome connections with customers/vendors-had the magic to resolve complex customer issues with harmony and ease. When they left the goodwill they generated was priceless.

    I think companies should trust their employees – let them grow in the process – even if it means they become brands. Both the company and the employee will benefit.

  • I disagree that personal brands are inevitable at work. The description personal brands does not exist in marketing theory. A person does not have a brand, they have a reputation.

    Intelligent management avoids the Scoble personality dominating social media situation. At the same time companies should allow people to be brilliant.

    The second reaction is the one we recommend. Showing a team is what companies are about — more than one. Personal brands come and go, much like stars come and go on casts and sports teams. No one star is responsible for a team winning, nor should they be viewed as such.

    Using sports again, even MJ and Kobe could/can not power the Bulls and Lakers to championships without other key players. It’s the same with social media. Highlighting those other players allows a company to maintain its program in the wake of inevitable departures.

  • Really interesting post and discussion. I teach a grad course on an HR-related topic, and I constantly encourage the students to start building their brands and marketplace identities as soon as possible, for future marketability and leverage. It can be a real difference maker in what is becoming a more competitive job market.

  • Esther Brady

    I was hired as a result of my personal brand, and I was careful to make sure that my brand wouldn’t become the intellectual property of the company, and that I’d be able to continue pursuing personal brand growth while under their umbrella. If they had required any set of terms that would’ve regulated my ability to grow my brand – I would have had to turn down the offer.

  • @jgraziani

    The 1st Amendment says CONGRESS shall make no laws. Terms of employment are willingly entered into, if you don’t like the restriction on blogging – find a new employer. It is not a 1st Amendment violation to willingly be restricted in what you can/cannot say or to whom you can say it. There is plenty of precedence for this, and it shouldn’t be surprising if you violate that contract or agreed upon policy (that you signed) that you will -and rightfully should- be fired.

    Corporations need to address the issue of blogging up front, as part of the employment process to ensure candidates understand the corporate position on blogging in general.

    No one is forcing anyone to take a position with a company that does not want its employees blogging.

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  • Geoff, I buy that.

    I could have used the term ‘personal reputations’ but it’s not what we’ve come to know. I’ve read your other pieces on this and tend to agree.

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  • Great post. Personal brands are essential to the modern company attracting and keeping both customers and talent.

    I have a few Fortune 500 clients who block access to FB, YouTube, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, etc. To me, there is nothing worse than having a star employee who does their job well, wants to develop their personal brand online and can’t. They’ll either find a workaround or leave. What a tragic lost opportunity for both sides.

  • Funny that companies worry so much about losing the good people. In my experience, if they make it a good place to be, the good people stay. Let them build their personal brand, make them like being there and that personal brand can extend to the company brand.

    @Geoff, I’d say that while the rest of the team helped elevate Kobe, MJ, Shaq, etc. Their names are what sold tickets, went on shoes, etc. Ignoring a star to focus on the team, will simply make the star go elsewhere, hurting the team.

    Also I’d argue there is personal brand, whether marketing theory can handle it or not. I don’t know a thing about Scoble’s reputation. I don’t care what he thinks about anything, not do I know if I can trust him, or if he punches small children. BUT, I know about him. I know of him through his name/brand.

  • @Valeria — It’s more than a single champion or an individual. For this to be successful it needs to be a belief that is held in the highest regard and embraced by the organization at all levels.

  • Thanks, Jeremiah. It’s largely semantical, but the phenomena still exists and your piece does a great job of highlighting dangers and resolutions.

    Interesting comment from Esther Brady. As a hiring manager, I’d be reticent to hire someone who was solely concerned with their personal brand and not the larger effort. If they will not apply/sacrifice for the larger good, they will not work out in my culture.

  • When recruiting, many companies tout the fact that they help further the prospective employee’s career development opportunities. Allowing employees to grow their personal brand with the company brand as a sub-brand would be mutually beneficial to both parties.

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  • Great post Jeremiah, and meaty topic.
    Geoff – Scoble did more good for Microsoft than any of their advertising or marketing before or since. And he built his personal brand in the process. I think that was a win/win

    I have helped clients to involve many people in and outside their company in social media. Some voices always rise to the top.

    I agree that strong brands can attract strong voices, and vice versa. This train has left the station, personal brands aren’t going away.

  • BL

    What a hot topic eh? I agree with you Scoble did a great job at bringing the human side of Microsoft forward and increasing trust. He paved the way, he was a benefit more than a menace.

  • Paul Haskins

    The professional services business – especially consulting – has the potential to lead to the creation of personal brands more than most. In many situations the client ‘buys’ the person as much, if not more than buying the company. There is a fine line between the development of personal equity (good) and personal promotion to the exclusion of team (bad). Companies should recognize and reward the right behaviors where employees co-brand their efforts with the company and reject those who clearly pursue their own personal endeavors.

  • I think more companies involved in web development recognize the need for their star players to have personal brands.

    Tools like Get Satisfaction make it easy for a “lone ranger” in a big company to step up and start listening regardless of whether or not the company is on board.

  • Personal brands are essentially today rolodex’s, personal brands are just personal networks and they have always been important in getting work done, and getting business done. Personal networks are valuable in not only getting work done, but also in education. My personal network is my main source of learning right now, learning how to leverage it.

  • I think this situation is similar to what the film studios have been deliberating with for years. Do you hire an individual, a popular/social actor who can take the lead role (but who re-writes the script or at least puts their own accent or personality into it) or do you hire a nobody who just reads from the script? (In this case, hopefully your social media guidelines).
    Individuals like to engage with others. But for most companies, this sort of activity is risky business!

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  • I also think that Social Media will become in 2009 what SEO was in 2007/2008, the straw to which people will cling.

    In a downturn economy, differentiation, especially at the personal level becomes even more important. More and more SM second stringers will appear both as individuals and as individual brands within larger organizations as an adjunct exit strategy or as a means to ensure longer tenure when the axe starts swinging.

  • Great discussion by everyone involved, and there’s many items I would love to discuss, but focusing on one. –>Has anyone looked at the agency Dentsu when it comes to this issue/concept?

    Someone in this thread brought up, “what if a company provides a brand that people WANT to use as their personal brand?” I think Dentsu does a great job of this, and it is re-inenforced by their entrepreneurial type of business model. However, the whole branding of the company is interesting. Employees can choose their own “color,” almost like a personality, so that the company becomes them and they become the comapny, yet Dentsu itself still maintains the umbrella brand.

    i.e. Employees can choose the color of their business card, and other company-wide promotional items. It’d be an interesting case study nonetheless re: personal branding.

  • I’ve just realized after reading Seth Godin’s post on the internet being full that the other advantage of a personal network, is that it is acting as an filter for things I’m not interested in and an amplifier for the things I am. I am connected to and listen to people who I can learn from, and they keep sharing the people that they are learning from. Personal brand is how you build a personal network, but it’s the network of people that you really listen to that’s really valuable. The day of the super star auteur on the internet is over, the people with the most ‘useful’ networks win.