As I mention Coca-Cola, Nike, Apple, and Chevy, I’m 99.99% sure you’re all very familiar with these brands, their products, and their popularity within their industries. It's not just a coincidence or luck that these brands have earned such popularity over time. These companies have invested millions of dollars into developing and maintaining their brand identity. I didn't realize, though, that we, as the consumers, have also helped establish the brand's identity. While studying branding in Strategic Marketing, I took away that companies only have control of their brand to a certain point. The control over how people label or identify these brands ultimately lies in the hands of the consumers. They possess the power to define the brand and measure it against the competition. Think about it, if the companies I listed above were not seen favorably in the eyes of most consumers, do you think they’d be as recognizable and well known?
As I thought through where the control of branding lies, I couldn’t help but instantly draw a parallel between product branding and our branding of ourselves, especially as leaders. We can personally spend thousands of dollars on education, self-help books, and training to develop us into the leaders we want to be known as. However, our teammates and affiliates possess the power to label us as they see fit and measure us against other leaders they encounter. Realizing that the ability to maintain our brand or reputation is out of our control is bothersome. Still, we can take measures to ensure we, as leaders, keep as much control over our personal brand as possible, similar to what product brands do. So, this month, I want to discuss personal branding and point out some similarities between product branding and personal branding. I also want to equip you with ways to ensure that you're maintaining the individual brand image you’ve established; lessening the chance of anything or anyone damaging what you’ve invested significantly in and worked so hard to accomplish.
First things first, if you could be associated with any brand, what would it be? Now, think about why you choose that brand. Is it because it’s known for its strength, power, or maybe its reliability, or perhaps even because it has a reputation for honesty and transparency? It could even be that it's built on religious fundamentals that you respect. Whatever the case may be, I’m almost certain that there’s a quality you believe the brand stands for, that you also think is currently part of you or one you aspire to possess. These qualities we admire are often known as your core values, a concept I’ve touched on quite often in my blogs. Like product brands, our individual branding should reflect who we are and what we stand for, our core values.
Now that you’ve identified some qualities of your brand, think about a saying I remind my boys of quite often. "We can all talk the talk, but we also need to walk the walk." We can all say we're something that we wish to be, admire in someone else, or know that we’ll never become, but the actual test is whether we can live up to that over time and show people that we are who we proclaim to be. So, before you settle on your brand identity, take some time to reflect and make sure that those around you would agree that you possess those qualities as well. Remember, the people you interact with have the power to build or break down your brand. If they see you as someone other than you say you are, an unclear message about who you are as a leader will be conveyed. Also, keep in mind that these qualities can evolve with time, but they should not be temporary or constantly changing. They need to withstand the pressures around you, genuinely reflect who you are at your core, and help drive the decisions and choices you make throughout your life.
Once you've established your brand as a leader, you must invest time and energy into maintaining the brand you’ve worked so hard to build. I can assure you, it’ll likely be more challenging than it sounds because, again, the power to define your brand doesn’t fall solely on you. So, one of the first things I would advise is that you are careful about who you align yourself with. Unfortunately, your reputation can quickly come into question because of a bad decision made by someone you are personally associated with or affiliated with business-wise. My mom always reminded my brother (not me, of course) that he was guilty by association when he'd get into trouble because of things his friends were doing. My brother was a good kid, but others didn’t always see him that way because of the crowd he hung out with. Nike has been subjected to this on more than one occasion. Its reputation was put on the line when Lance Armstrong, road racing cyclist and cancer survivor, was part of a drug scandal. Nike ultimately ended their contract with Armstrong and dropped its line of Livestrong products as a means of protecting its brand image. They fell under pressure when Tiger Woods was facing an onslaught of public humiliation due to marital issues and personal addictions. However, in this case, Nike chose to stand behind Tiger while other brands like Buick and Gillette decided to drop their affiliations. In this case, Nike didn’t feel Tiger’s actions would negatively reflect on its brand and therefore chose to keep their contract. Based on Nike's continued success with its golfing line, many would argue it was an excellent decision for Nike at the time.
Like Nike, as we evolve into leaders, we must try our best to protect the image we wish to portray. This could lead to tough decisions about long-time friends and even family that may not act as ethically as we wish they would. Ties with certain individuals may need to be broken or kept at a distance. People who see you associating with certain people can create distorted images of you that can spread quickly, especially nowadays with social media. One picture of you posted on Facebook with a known "shady" character is all it takes to ruin your reputation, your brand.
Another area to be cautious of while in certain leadership roles is thoughtlessly and carelessly expressing one’s beliefs publicly about controversial, hot button topics. Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the news in 2021 realizes that there’s no lack of controversy in our country, especially when it comes down to politics, racial inequalities, COVID-19 (i.e., masking, vaccines, and testing), immigration, and sexuality. These conversations are almost impossible to avoid, but unfortunately, they can draw out intense raw emotion, frustration, and anger on all sides.
Before I go on, I want to be clear I'm not encouraging you never to let your opinion be known. As leaders, we need to stand up for what we believe in; however, leaders must do it strategically, empathetically, and tactfully while realizing the likelihood of being met with resistance. Sometimes, it may not be appropriate to publicly take a stance, especially if it could offend a lot of people you closely associate yourself with.
It seems that more and more companies are taking a stance on these controversial issues. This isn’t wrong, but it’s risky, and these companies must realize that not everyone will agree. Some stakeholders, consumers, and even employees may no longer feel the brand loyalty they felt due to conflicting beliefs, and unfortunately, negative PR may ensue. The NFL was at the center of this when it supported players who chose to kneel during the National Anthem. Many upset football fans refused to watch the NFL as a result. Years ago, Chick-Fil-A upset several customers as they made a statement against same-sex marriages. This went against their core beliefs, and they took a significant risk publicly making a statement. As leaders, we need to be aware that not everyone shares our same beliefs, and understand the potential risk when speaking our opinions.
To conclude, like companies, we can establish our individual brands, and for the most part, the qualities that make up our personal brands can be tied back to our unique core values. These core values tend to draw us around certain people and causes that we may wish to take a stance for or against publicly. This freedom of expression is fantastic, but like product brands, we, especially leaders, are constantly critiqued and judged. Other people are forming opinions of us, and they ultimately have the power to define our brand image, even if it’s not as we desire. That being the case, I caution you to be careful of the affiliations you make, especially as you come into leadership positions. Also, be aware of the adverse reactions that could result if people are turned off by what you stand behind. If you’re comfortable taking on the risk, then I say, “more power to you!” Nike did it, and they as a company are doing fine. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, be you and confidently wear the brand identity you’ve defined with pride!