There was a terrific piece last week by Stephanie Clifford in the New York Times entitled “When a Founder is the Face of a Brand.”
For obvious reasons, this resonated with me. I run my own marketing boutique firm with my name on it. Thinking about it more, I actually know LOTS of people close to me that are dealing with the same thing, or have. Regardless of whether your name is explicitly mentioned in your business’s name, it is clear that in lots of companies – big and small – the Founder’s and/or the leader’s persona is tied inextricably to the business from a branding perspective. My company, Sprouse Marketing Group, has several clients that are tied brand-wise to the founders. My wife is launching a business very much tied to her own personal brand. My dad ran his own very successful dental practice that he founded. My step-dad runs a very successful company that he founded. I have friends that have founded their own successful ventures. I have other friends that are thinking about launching similar new ventures tied to their own personal brand.
I also worked for 5 years as a senior executive for a brand that is perhaps almost wholly tied to its founder and his persona, Hugh Hefner, and so I know a bit about branding and the rewards and challenges that come from tying a business to a personality.
The context of the article above was Men’s Wearhouse (MW). The news of the termination of George Zimmer made waves in the advertising world. You know…George Zimmer? The guy in all the TV commercials for MW saying “you’re going to like the way you look, I guarantee it”? The article suggested that Zimmer was becoming too much of a cultural icon rather than a “business guy”. I don’t know enough details of the day to day operations of the company to say whether that is true or not. But it begs an interesting question: “Is it GOOD or BAD to tie a personality, or a person, so closely to a business?”
I spoke at a large Veterans Small Business conference in Reno two weeks ago and I used another example: the Domino’s pizza CEO that is in every commercial. Is this good or bad? If you’re a CEO or Founder tied to your brand, are you doomed or are you poised for icon status?
NOTE: This is a different question than hiring a celebrity to represent your brand. Celebrities are paid, and often times lack the emotional passion that Founders do. Founders that become the face of a brand encounter many more challenges than paid celebrities do.
My answer to the “good or bad?” question is: it is inevitable, so why not embrace it?
In this era of social media and connectedness and ultra-networking, YOU will always be tied to what you do. Your personality, your history, your background…they will always be closely akin to your business and what you do professionally. And guess what? Nothing is a secret anymore. That’s a fact. It used to be that the brand of your business never merged into the brand of you as a person. No longer. It is just not the case anymore. Further, people (aka consumers, partners, customers, followers) WANT to have an emotional connection because media and technology have created that opportunity and have conditioned us all to expect that.
It used to be that founders, or leaders, or celebrities could hide behind the “business” brand. There was a clear church and state there. A few examples stand out from over the years for totally bucking that trend. You know….”The Domino’s guy”. “The Men’s Wearhouse guy”. “The old Playboy guy.” “The Wendy’s guy.” Frank Perdue, as the article above rightly mentions.
I don’t know the circumstances around Mr. Zimmer’s departure from MW. But I do know that if the reason was because he was too much of a cultural icon, my response is “get used to it.” It used to be that people really cared about what you sell and how you sold it. I think people still care about that, but there’s more to it now. They care about who they follow, and who the person is behind the corporate brand. Who they like. Who they interact with. What they eat for dinner. It makes business more interesting to people, and makes it personal.
Kudos to those who have figured this out years ago. I’m certainly not one of them, because these are relatively new revelations for me in the past few years as I witness and engage with my clients and my business. I do hold these thoughts to be utterly true because of what I see and experience within my environment, and from past experience.
The branding of YOU = the branding of your enterprise or business. This is going to be unquestionably true forever more, and those who embrace it will win. Those who don’t are fighting the inevitable. So pick out what you know others love about your personal brand and bring it to your business, and don’t be shy about it.
Because chances are, they’ll find out anyway.