Would you rather let someone else do the talking for you?
Boost Your Brand
Personal branding is growing in popularity, as founders and CEOs blog, appear in on-camera messaging, and play a larger role in direct customer communication. Such messaging can win over a public skeptical of corporate leadership, and help a business stand out in a sea of competition.
But are all entrepreneurs suited as spokesmen? Are all businesses poised to benefit from such branding? And even if the answer for your company is "yes," how do you best go about boosting business alongside the presence of the owner?
Tresa Veitia, founder of inktank, a New York marketing firm with experience helping business owners position themselves as brands, says that those owners must think critically about propelling themselves to the forefront.
"This is not an approach for all companies," Veitia says. "It can elevate the individual and the company to heroic levels, but it also makes the individual culpable." The latter is both the blessing and curse of self-branding. The tactic gives the company a tangible personality, someone who can appear in the media, write helpful blog posts, and deliver inspiring speeches.
On the other hand, self-branding makes the company as a whole accountable for its owner's mistakes. After all, look at the stock prices of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia when news broke that its matriarch was headed for the clink. Likewise, Apple shares closely follow news of Steve Jobs's wavering health.
Fortunately, self-branding comes in many varieties, and some firms have explicitly chosen not to go this route--with great results.
The Self-Made Caricature
One entrepreneurial example of self-branding is Boss Hog. Rocco Loosbrock was running a successful online wine club when he launched Baconfreak.com, a site selling all things related to his favorite food. The Ventura County, Calif., businessman noticed that while the wine world spoke of its product in hoity, flowery prose, those who are passionate about pig are different. "When people talk about wine, they are suddenly upper class and sophisticated," he said. "When they talk about bacon, it's down-home." A typical note enclosed in a bacon gift? "Thanks for porking me these past 10 years."
Loosbrock writes syndicated columns and blogs on wine and bacon, respectively, and frequently speaks about the foodstuffs. For the bacon press, he writes in funny, frank language, signing off as "Rocco, 'Boss Hog' Loosbrock." Boss Hog's over-the-top persona jives with the growing world of bacon aficionados (whom Boss Hog refers to as "bacon-verts") and their quirky sense of their obsession. The company owns the copyright to the phrase, "Bacon is meat candy," the unofficial slogan of the bacon underground. "I don't think we'd be as successful as we are if it weren't for Boss Hog," Loosbrock says. "It gives us a sense of identity. After all, what's the point of just selling bacon if you don't get to have fun with it?"
Promoting a Compelling Personal Story
While Boss Hog is a caricature of his bacon-lover clients, Kimberly Fowler is a role model to her customers. Business at Fowler's Los Angeles fitness centers boomed once she revealed her story of overcoming brain cancer and facing death after a climbing accident. "When I started the company I didn't have the budget for advertising and PR, but once I put my face on my company, sales soared," says the owner of YAS Fitness Centers, which has grown into sportswear and production operations. Once her triumphant story was posted on her website, media coverage took off--90 percent of which focuses on Fowler's personal journey. She estimates revenue jumped by 40 percent after she became the brand.
"Part of why we start businesses is that we're passionate about something," Fowler says. "People want to see your passion and be around people who love what they're doing."
Be the Guru Behind the Brand
Meanwhile, Dave Sobel, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Evolved Technologies, positions himself as an approachable expert on his company's core service: virtualization. By marketing himself as a niche guru via blogging, speaking engagements, appearing in webinars and maximizing social networking sites, Sobel is promoting Evolved Technologies as an industry leader.
"I'm asking my customers to turn over their IT business management to us. That is a trust sale," he says. "There is a lot of spin out there, and putting yourself out there lets people see who you really are, what information you can offer and allow them to judge for themselves." Sobel has three warnings: Be genuine ("People can smell a fake a mile away"), be thorough and be consistent. "You can't just blog twice and tweet once," he says. "That is more damaging than doing nothing at all."
Bucking the Trend
While some business owners are blurring the line between their personal and professional personas, others are making a conscious decision to build a wall. When Chicago-based Studio G Interiors launched four years ago, co-owners Jim and Tracey Grosspietsch opted against the usual practice of naming the firm after its principal--in this case Tracey Grosspietsch. Two years after the launch, the firm grossed $1.3 million and employed 11. "There is no way we could have ramped up that fast if we named the company after Tracey," Jim Grosspietsch says. "I'm a firm believer that if we named the company for Tracey, all clients would expect to work with only her, and we'd have a hard time convincing them to work with another staff member."
Another firm that bucked self-branding is Jama, a software company that helps organizations improve product development. The Portland, Ore., firm refuses to emphasize the image of a single executive, but instead promotes the names, photos, personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all its executives. Those seeking customer support are put into direct contact with development leads. Sales demonstrations are followed up with personal video messages.
It would be counterproductive to brand Jama with a single face because the business is built on the emerging trend of open innovation, in which the masses are invited to create solutions and develop products, says co-founder John Simpson, who said the company's philosophy is "the collective thought is a better approach."
Further, having the company so open at so many points gives the company an edge in the competitive field of enterprise software. "The bigger you get, the more faceless you become," Simpson says. "If you had a problem at IBM, whom would you call? There are too many gates at a big company. We have all these little pieces of evidence that we are incredibly available to you."
Many entrepreneurs choose not to self-brand out of fear that doing so could hinder or prevent selling the company. Vietia says that a self-branded firm can be sold with careful planning. For 18 years, Roni Deutch has been the face and voice of her tax law firm, making regular appearances on network news, TV commercials, blogs and online videos. While she has no plans to sell, she imagines her persona would be an asset to potential buyers. "Colonel Sanders later sold his business, and they continued to use his face to promote it," she said. When reminded that Sanders was a caricature to begin with--one that was further simplified post mortem, Deutch says: "If I had to change to become a caricature, I absolutely would."
Questions to ask before becoming the face of your brand
- Am I comfortable in the position of speaking for the brand?
- Am I OK being on camera? In the spotlight? Potentially famous?
- Do my ethics and values match those of the company?
- Should the skeletons in my closet be revealed, what will this mean for my company?
- Is putting my face to the brand the best fit for my business goals? Will this help or hurt my company's growth? How will this affect any plans to sell the firm?
- Does my visual persona match and elevate the company? Do I look the part?
- Do I have a marketing budget to properly execute this strategy? This might include media training, wardrobe and makeup consulting, and experts to oversee a website, blog, speaking engagements and media appearances. "This is not a do-it-yourself approach," Veitia says.