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Companies have traditionally branded themselves with fictional characters that represent products or services (think the Brawny man or Mr. Peanut). These classic symbols function as the personalities of the brands and a brand character is often the first association people make with the product or service.

But social media is changing this dynamic. Consumers now are using blogs, forums and social networking sites to interact with each other and their favorite brands. In a quest to communicate on a more personal level, companies are increasingly speaking through the voices of actual people rather than their fictional spokesperson ( Ford’s Scott Monty and Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh).

Which brings us to this week’s question:

How do we strike the balance between brand personality and having a personality as your brand?

CHRIS:

Brands stand to benefit greatly from personal representation on social networking sites. People in these spaces are accustomed to interacting with people, not corporate beasts. People identify better with a single person who they can actually get to know. A face and a logo can act to represent the brand in a way that consumers can relate to on a personal level.

AMANDA:

Sure, a company should try to reach out to consumers on a personal level. No arguments there. BUT a business should not depend on a single person to act as the brand identity for the entire company. There’s too much at risk. People make mistakes. They change companies and they’re not invincible. Using human faces and personalities to support an existing brand campaign works great – look at Apple, Inc. , for example. The company has long built its brand on being the forward-thinking, ground-breaking, “cool” technology company.The Get a Mac campaign portrays Apple as cool, young and trendy, while PC is a middle-aged, stuffy guy.

In 2006, Apple launched its “Get a Mac” ad campaign, portraying Macs (young, well-groomed actor Justin Long) as cool and trendy and PCs (a middle-aged, husky guy with glasses) as stuffy and outdated. Putting a face to the Apple brand – and putting that face next to a stereotypically “dorky” one – helped reinforce Apple’s outstanding brand image, but it wasn’t the only campaign the company had going. Ads featuring the new iPods ran in conjunction with the Get a Mac launch, and the company continues to air ads that focus solely on the product’s “cool and trendy” technology. Using people to support the brand is a great strategy, but basing a company’s entire reputation on one person is just plain dangerous.

CHRIS:

Apple is a great example of a company that’s fostered a community to support its brand. The “Mac” character in the popular commercials has helped Apple create a dedicated following of real people interacting in the online world. It’s these REAL people who enhance Apple’s branding efforts, and something the company counts count on when releasing new products (CEO Steve Jobs is a master at using secrecy to spawn excitement for Apple’s announcements.)

Not every company is lucky enough to have this kind of loyal following though. Companies looking to establish a community are smart to employ a specific individual with the task of interacting with REAL people online. In the SM space, too many brand symbols can be confusing, and a corporate identity can seem contrived. Though fostering an Apple-esque community is ultimately the responsibility of an entire department (be it Marketing/PR/Advertising), the brand’s voice needs to be a personal one – what better way than to make this be the voice of an actual person?

AMANDA:

Yea, but if you’re depending on a single person’s voice, you have to be willing and ready for the worst possible scenario. One of my favorite examples of the danger in celebrity endorsement is the Beef Industry Council – this group seems to have some bad luck picking spokespeople. James Garner seemed like a great choice – I mean, who doesn’t like Darby’s Rangers? The campaign was going great… until it got out that Garner had quadruple-bypass heart surgery while promoting the wonders of artery-clogging protein. Yea…

So the Beef Council took another stab at branding with spokeswoman Cybill Shepard. What could go wrong? She’s a respectable, healthy Southern woman… who let it slip that she doesn’t eat meat. Strike two.

I’m not saying Sharpie should drop its popular Sharpie Susan because there is a slight chance she might go to rehab for marker-sniffing or announce she favors Crayola. I’m saying be careful how many eggs you put into your person-as-a-brand basket.

CHRIS:

The Beef Council is an excellent example of how personalities can destroy an organization’s image. But personalities can help a brand just as much as Garner and Shepard hurt their brand. Think Jessica Simpson rep-ing proactive, Jared the Subway guy or Charelton Heston acting as the President for the NRA (though some NRA members may disagree on this).

BUT…. In the scheme of things, these mega personalities (read: celebrities), don’t help foster the relationships that REAL people do. I’ll use one of my favorite brands to prove my point.

Pandora Radio is a unique online music service that plays “only music you like.” The company has fostered a fairly significant online community with >32,000 followers on Twitter and >111,000 fans on Facebook, thanks to a team of online marketers and IT folks. But the effort is headed by one person, Lucia, who balances her personality with that of the brand. By letting one person champion all online interactions for the brand, Pandora has allowed Lucia to establish human relationships. For me, this personal interaction is much more significant than any engagement I could have with a logo.

AMANDA:

I think it’s great that you and Lucia are so close, Chris, but I have to assume that with more than 32,000 followers, she can’t be making these personal connections with everyone. There just isn’t enough time. And if her face is the face of Pandora, what happens when she decides to leave? Does the Pandora personality and its credibility go with her? What if she just needs a break – managing an entire SM marketing campaign must be stressful – does the team take over on her accounts? Then you open a whole new can of worms with the ghostwriting issue.

It’s more consistent to create a brand identity that is not that of a real person. Such an identity has no expiration date and allows more people to help manage brand communications. With more people working on the account, you can build a more effective brand personality. I don’t know about you, but that cute little gecko has about as much personality as any person I know, and I would totally follow him on Twitter. The random Allstate woman? Notsomuch. No offense, but her face means nothing to me except “MARKETING.”

But obviously we’re on two separate pages as usual, Mr. Sledzik. I wonder the readers think?

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As the traditional 9-to-5 workday collapses and we begin to share more of ourselves through social media sites, the line between our personal and professional lives is being drawn thinner every day. We are constantly trying to balance our personal and professional relationships on sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, raising the question of how personal our personal branding should be. Even President Barack Obama chimed in on the debate, warning the nation’s youth “to be careful about what you post on Facebook … in the YouTube age.”

For our first-ever Budding Heads PR post, we ask the question:

Should you censor your online personality for the sake of your professional life?

Chris:  Trying to separate your social online persona from your professional online image is not only impossible, but will result in a lack-luster personal branding effort.

chris promptI’ve wrestled with the term “personal branding” for a long time and am finally deciding to make a stance on how I feel about these two words: THEY’RE STUPID.

While I understand the value of creating a consistent “brand” in the traditional marketing sense of the word, applying this idea to oneself is hypocritical and inauthentic. To me, creating a “personal brand” means deciding who others want you to be and trying to portray that fictional persona to the world.

Often, for young professionals, this means hesitating to share on social networking sites. It means de-tagging pictures on Facebook and making sure your LinkedIn profile picture is a snapshot of you in job interview form.

But why? Why try to be someone you’re not? Aren’t you good enough being JUST YOU?

I am who I am, NOT who I say I am. (And, no, I’m not trying to be Eminem *profanity warning on link.) Granted that perception is reality, as a young professional entering the digital landscape, my words and actions will shape these perceptions. What I do defines who I am. Nothing I say can change that.

My point is that actions have always and will always speak louder than words. If you’re doing one thing and saying another, you’re not transparent, thus breaking one of the cardinal rules of Grunig’s Excellent Public Relations.

Ultimately, the falsified personal brands will be seen for what they really are. Rubish. But that’s to say that folks who are creating a false sense of themselves are even noticed. All too often, young pros fail to take advantage of the personal and professional networking opportunities in SM. If they do engage, they have their trigger finger on the delete & de-tag buttons, fearing that what they do in their personal lives will haunt them in their professional lives.

I say: Get Real.

To me, refraining from being yourself in the online world is like censoring your life. Doctoring your thoughts and actions online to fit into some type of SM normalcy is a bad move. This type of personal branding (READ: life censoring) will leave a young pro lost in a sea of SM celibates, appearing uninspired or unaware of the importance of online networking.

Engage intelligently, but engage authentically.

Amanda: Controlling one’s social media image is necessary to maintain personal integrity and the respect of both professional and personal colleagues.

amandaIt’s okay, Kanye, we all make mistakes.

Tales of public figures’ youthful mistakes have been scrutinized for centuries – think Washington and the cherry tree – but new technology will cement this generation’s mistakes online forever.

When we were kids, gossip was word-of-mouth hearsay, whereas today’s kids can prove who kissed whom at Sarah’s party – with pictures. Students interact with friends via social media, but they are also sending that information to the world when they click “upload.”

This idea applies to all of us – would you show your mom that pic of you bonging a beer?  Do you want a potential employer’s first impression of you to include a “sexy cat” costume? Do you think anyone WANTS to know that chili at lunch gave you heartburn?

Of course, there are countless examples of people getting into trouble because of social media  . We’ve all heard ‘em – and most of us realize posting pictures from Halloween that just happened to be the same day you were “sick” is a bad idea.

When it comes to making questionable decisions, I’m guilty as any college student. Do I have fun with my friends on weekends? Sure. But do I want my boss to see on Twitter that I’m “nursing an AWFUL hangover”? No, thanks. (You can bet I’ll be whining to someone, though.)

And what if someday you become more than just another person, but a public figure? If your not-so-proud moments are embedded in the Web, there’s a better chance than ever they will come back to haunt you. Michael Phelps found that out the hard way.

I’m not saying we should take our personalities completely out of social media, but we need to make sure we’d be comfortable letting anyone and everyone – in our professional and personal circles – into our lives. If you can maintain your integrity with that post or picture, go for it.

Last point I’ll make: Those annoying social media mavens – the ones who post every 5 seconds about where they are or what they’re eating – doesn’t it seem a little egotistical? Do we like to just hear ourselves type? Maybe I’m missing something, but is there anything wrong with a little self-censorship?

images courtesy of : atr.org & valleywag.gawker.com

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