How often do you come across a situation where a business and one of its key employees have become so closely identified with one another that they are almost considered one and the same? Steve Jobs and Apple, Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, Simon Cowell and American idol. When this happens, brand performance becomes tied to the iconic employee – for better or for worse.
This topic has come up a lot lately as we’ve come up to the end of the baseball season and the end of Derek Jeter’s current contract with the New York Yankees. Jeter has spent his entire pro career with the Yanks and has played a key role in the five World Series titles that they have won since 1996. He has consistently been working his way up the all-time hits list and – if he stays healthy – is on pace to become the first Yankees player to reach 3,000 hits some time next season.
That all assumes, of course, that Jeter is back next year. I’m kidding – of course he’ll be back. But he is arguably coming off his weakest offensive year and will turn 37 early next season. Though his statistics might suggest he is on the downside of his career, he will likely get a better contract, either in terms of annual pay or number of years, than a generic player with similar stats. For a team that has made history a key component in its brand, Jeter and his legacy have a value that far exceeds that of a generic 37 year old infielder. Jeter is, after all, the face of the franchise.
As a PR professional, I am often intrigued by the synergies and difficulties that come from the tight relationship between branding and the actions of key individuals. Sports are just one example, but you see examples every day – Oprah parlaying her personality and image into her own TV network, the wild swings in Apple’s stock price due to rumors about Steve Jobs’ health, Disney’s often futile efforts to control the off-screen image of its young TV personalities.
The other side of this relationship, of course, is when an individual’s actions can harm the brand – or even threaten the health of an entire business. The years of hard work put into building the Martha Stewart brand were put in jeopardy in recent years through the actions of its namesake founder. And, of course, we have the obvious yet unavoidable example of Tiger Woods, whose extramarital affairs led to a virtual stampede of sponsors seeking to distance themselves from the former A-list ad fixture.
In a world where businesses often refer to their people as their key operating asset, those people can make your business look good. They can also do lasting damage to the brand with one wrong move or they can drive a manager to make decisions that – by traditional measures – may not seem rational. I am reminded of a post last year in Jim Blasingame’s small business advocate blog entitled Beware the Two Edges of the Brand Sword where he wisely reminds companies to leverage the good edge of the brand sword so much that if your “ambassador’s” reputation should fall, the brand’s goodwill will overshadow any negative press.
What do you think? How do you control your branding when your brand is a person?
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