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Content Marketing

What If Our Brand’s “Face” Breaks Bad?

Is having a personal brand that represents your company brand too risky? 

I’m on a crusade. A #PBR crusade!
No, not for the favorite ironic beer brand of hipsters.
My #PBR is what I call a Personal Brand Representative. I described the role in depth in my post for Moz titled “Personal Brand Punch: Why Your Brand Should Be Represented By Real People.”
My thesis: many brands could greatly benefit by developing and promoting real people who have a close connection with the brand, and putting them forward as content creators who also engage on social media and in live events.
Read that article to get my full argument, case studies, and best practices.

Pushback: What If our PBR Breaks Bad?

As I expected I might, I got some pushback in the comments on that post that centered around a common fear: people are unpredictable; what if our brand representative does or says something that reflects badly on our brand?
But the best of those pushback comments was actually on an older Moz post of mine by Moz user “joeynap.
I’m posting his question with my response here because I believe it expresses a fear many brands probably have about putting a real person out in front of their brand. (I’ve edited joeynap’s comment slightly for grammar and punctuation, and added significantly to my original response.)

Joeynap asked:

What if that high-reputation employee, with a great social media following, gets arrested for something like sexual abuse, child molestation or any other horrible crime, and that story goes viral?

Here is an example:

Juice Plus, a billion dollar supplement company, decided for the first time, to put a sports celebrity face on their product. Who did they decide on? O.J. Simpson, and we know how that turned out. After hearing the company’s current PR spokesperson talk on the subject, I learned that this choice cost them quite a few bucks in damage control, and some seriously bad PR.

This real world example tells us that adding authorship to a social media campaign could be a real gamble; the bigger the company, the bigger the exposure, the greater the risk. To be fair the gamble could pay off huge, as we all know it often does when using a personalized endorsement, aka “influencer.”

Is there a solution to limit that risk?

Absolutely, create a fictitious author, perhaps an animated character/avatar, so anyone can take their place to create content. The company could even assign multiple employees to contribute content, easing the workload so that one person does not get burned out. This would also eliminate having to pay another salary, using the existing resources the company already possesses.

Remember, when the human factor is involved in a project, always plan for the worst case scenario. This will limit risk, limit headaches and surprises, and ultimately limit costly and painful setbacks. Human beings are creative treasures, unique and invaluable! Individuals are, invariably, so very unpredictable.

My Response:

Thanks for your comment, Joey. You raise some valid concerns, but I don’t at all agree that the only solution is to create fictitious personas or characters.
Obviously, there are many brands that have used characters or fictitious personas successfully. Some have even done so with great creativity. I love for example how Burger King built cred with a younger, hipper generation by ironically playing along with the widespread meme that their King character was a bit, well, creepy:

In future articles, I’ll be laying out a strategy for how a brand might determine what PBR works best for them and their audience, on a matrix from cartoon character at one extreme to real, flesh-and-blood company employee at the other.

Of course, what’s most important is having really valuable content that builds trust, authority, and reputation for your brand. Even if that content is posted anonymously, or by authors who you can’t promote as PBRs, it would be better to have such content than nothing. I do realize that pursuing a “real person” PBR strategy is not something every company is ready for.

Nevertheless, for those businesses that are ready and willing to step it up with their branding, content, and social strategy, I think a real, flesh-and-blood, in-house PBR can be so powerful it’s worth the perceived risk.

Getting Real

That being said, you seemed to assume that I was talking in my Moz article about the typical celebrity endorser of a product (OJ Simpson in your example).
Actually, I was not talking about the celebrity endorser nor any kind of fictional or fake persona. While that is a way of humanizing or personalizing your company, and works well for many brands, it is one step removed from what I’m proposing.
I’m advocating, in a sense, creating your own “celebrity.” My thesis, based on abundant experience, is that the best company spokesperson is someone who grew their personal brand while they were growing up in your company. Or at least, someone with whom you have had a trusted relationship over time. (The latter was what happened between Eric Enge and me. While I’ve only worked for Perficient Digital for a year, Eric knew me and came to trust me over a stretch of time before that.)
Best celebrity endorser for your brand is someone you've raised up from within
Again, I want to emphasize that not every company has the resources or present talent to build such a PBR. Nor is this a “necessary” strategy. There are plenty of other intermediary ways to build your brand and make a connection with your audience. Nevertheless, I think the real, in-house PBR can be so powerful and effective, it’s worth considering.

Juicing Your Brand

I don't always use cliche memes, but when I do it's this one.No one doubts that there can be powerful brand value in having a celebrity connected with your product. That’s why major brands still use celebrity endorsers even after OJ and Tiger Woods (a fact you didn’t address in your comment: if the risk of celebrity endorsers is so high, why do major brands keep using them?).
Furthermore, a little research reveals that the association of OJ Simpson with Juice Plus was way more complicated than you presented it. The real problem for Juice Plus was that they had allowed OJ to make all sorts of outrageous health claims in an infomercial. Those claims were later refuted by his murder trial testimony where he presented as part of his defense that the very ailments he claimed Juice Plus had cured were present at the time of the Brown-Goldman murders, thus rendering him incapable of carrying out the alleged act of violence.
The Wikipedia article linked above also documents a history of specious claims by the Juice Plus brand. So it seems inaccurate to blame that brand’s woes simply on bad PR from OJ’s alleged crimes.
More importantly for our purposes here, though, is the real lesson from your example: any relationship with a Personal Brand Representative (PBR) should be based on mutual trust and integrity.
Make sure your personal brand representative is someone you trust
That goes both ways. In the example you provided, Joey, the problems of the brand itself were as much at fault (if not more) than the failings of their celebrity representative.

Risk Reality

Now it would be unfair to pick apart your example and pretend that real PR problems from wayward brand representatives never happen. They most certainly do! It’s not at all difficult to find examples as they tend to get a lot of publicity.
However, if you study the examples, you find that the public gaffes by band representatives didn’t all end badly for the associated brands. Sure some did (and those are the ones media likes to hype the most), but it is quite possible for a reputable brand to not only turn around a PR disaster but actually come out the better for it.
In most cases where a PBR “went rogue” and the brand was damaged, the cause of damage can be traced to one of several factors (and often all of them):

  1. The brand did not have a tight and trusted relationship with the representative.
  2. The brand itself had “shady” aspects that were bound to emerge sooner or later.
  3. The brand mishandled the aftermath, either by ignoring the problem, attempting to cover it up, or denying it.
  4. The brand had either no or insufficient policies in place for handling public relations problems, especially in social media.

Risk Is Reality, But Not Excuse for Inaction

Sure, the truth is that having real people representing your brand entails a certain risk. But so does having a brand! So does even incorporating a business. There are plenty of examples of brands that “broke bad” and killed their businesses without any help from an OJ Simpson. Enron, anyone?
All brand building involves risk assessment. Risk is not an excuse for inactivity.

All of your key executives also represent a significant PR risk, too. They also can get into sex scandals, abuse spouses and children, show bad moral principles, cheat on their taxes, etc. I think this is a key incremental point: the PBR is not unique in bring this risk into your business; it’s already there. The way your company tries to reduce that risk is by recruiting or raising up executives with good character and reputation. Do the same for your PBRs.

So should we stop creating businesses and brands because it’s risky, because something could go wrong, because we might have a PR crisis at some point? Of course not.

That fear in his eyes....

Image credit:

Yes, having a personal brand representative, a “face” for your brand, will entail a certain risk. Yes, that person could “break bad” or have a scandal. But that’s a risk you calculate, just as you calculate the risk of any business or marketing decision. There is no such thing as “risk-free” in business, not if you want to be successful and grow.
A calculated risk is acceptable when you have done everything possible to “stack the deck” in your favor, so that the potential gain far outreaches the possibility of disaster.

Stack Your PBR Deck

In the case of developing a Personal Brand Representative (PBR) for your business, the number one deck-stacker is trust developed out of relationship. That’s one of the main reasons I make a strong pitch for developing your brand PBRs from within in my ​recent Moz post. Before you empower a PBR to be the face of your brand, you should have a history of sufficient length with that person so that you trust their character, loyalty, and wisdom.
Now, all that doesn’t mean that person still can’t go rogue at some point, or more likely, make some big mistake that gets negative publicity. However, most of those situations, as we have seen, are recoverable, and many have been even turned into positives for the brands when wisely handled.
Unfortunately, though, those occasions get so much attention that we can get the distorted view that they “happen all the time.” That’s just not true. The vast majority of PBRs never break bad, never have a major scandal. They return great value for the brands they represent. They were a calculated risk that was totally worth it.
Despite media hype, most personal brand representatives never "break bad"

Can You Fake It?

Now, as to your suggestion of the “safe” alternative: creating a fake persona backed by ghost writers, I wouldn’t even identify that with the strategy I’m advocating here (and again, even more powerfully in my ​recent post about Personal Brand Representatives).

Day 33. They still suspect nothing.

Image credit:

Creating a fake persona may have its uses, but the fakeness severely limits the effect of the PBR:

  1. ​A fake PBR is limited in media. How does “he” make a video? How does “she” get interviewed on a video or podcast? How does “he” speak at a conference?
  2. What if your fake PBR starts to get a reputation, starts to get Internet famous? How long will you keep up the pretense?
  3. And that leads to why your proposal doesn’t at all solve the problem. If your fake PBR is at all successful, eventually “he” will be found out, especially once people start clamoring to interact with “him” in the ways noted above. And when it is discovered you manufactured this person, you’ve just created your own scandal, your own breach of trust with your audience.

The Deal with the Real

On the other hand, a real PBR is a scaleable commodity. As her personal brand and reputation grow, by association so does that of your company brand.
A real personal brand representative is a scalable asset. As her reputation grows, so does that of your brand.
I’ll never forget the impact it had around my former agency the first time a prospect called to say he wanted to hire the agency because he had been following my content and had heard me speak at a conference. His growing trust in my expertise made him confident that the agency I represented was probably a good one.
You can bet management encouraged me to get even more public after that happened!
The point is, given that people more naturally connect with and trust other real people, nothing can better build your brand’s reputation than a real person who knows your business intimately, is intensely passionate about your mission, and who has the talents necessary to create great content and engage well with your audience.

The tl;dr

In conclusion, I strongly believe that, with the right preparations and prior investments, a real Personal Brand Representative who has a strong personal stake in your business is the most powerful representative your brand can have. More than worth the perceived risk.​
If you think your brand is ready to step up to both the challenges and benefits that can come from building the personal brand of one or more of your employees, begin considering whom that might be. Who in your organization not only has your complete trust, but also seems to have the “chops” to be able to create great content, speak authoritatively for your brand, and engage effectively with people online?
If someone comes to mind, than his or her development as your #PBR may be your next (and greatest!) marketing and branding opportunity.

Take It to the Next Level: An Invitation

If what I’ve talked about here has whet your whistle to want to talk about and learn about the power of the personal in your marketing, we’d like to invite you to come join us in our Thought Leadership and Personal Branding Community on Google+. It’s open to all, and we already have some truly incredible minds sharing and engaging there, real people who not only think about this topic but who have been doing it successfully.

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Mark Traphagen

Mark Traphagen was our Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital until February of 2019. He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.

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