Lee Odden

Brandividualism: Dilemma or Opportunity?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Social Media

Many business owners and managers are perplexed by the social web. The effect of customer participation with social media on brands is undeniable. The effect of employee participation with social media can be a bit of a quandary.  The range of acceptance for social web activity runs the gamut from IT blocking all internet connections to sites like Twitter and Facebook to the expectation that every employee spend work and personal time as social media brand ambassadors.

Being social on the web isn’t natural for everyone and certainly not for every company. Once people and companies “get it” and develop processes, listening programs and overall strategy, social media policies tend to lighten up and move towards being productive vs limiting.

Some people really shine in their social web participation and companies often see increased social networking and engagement by individuals as an uncertain area. Some see building personal networks and attention as a threat to the brand that prompts questions as to whether individuals are simply building their own brand, (brandividual) on the company’s dime or are they acting as they should on the company’s behalf?

This issue has come to light several times in the past. As an example, there are some interesting arguments surrounding Forrester’s recent policy decision to limit staff blogging to non company topics. Forrester’s product is their IP, so they want to control what IP is released. At the same time, analysts discussing those topics on their own blogs can build more attention and awareness of the products Forrester sells.

The issue of corporate brand and brandividualism will only increase in importance. The real and perceived loss of control for managers has to be dealt with eventually.  Concerns from managers are totally reasonable since not all individuals promoting themselves and growing their networks during business hours are doing so with corporate business goals in mind.

On one hand, the employee is paid to promote the company brand. Because of so many opportunities for self promotion with corporate brand promotion, there can be “distractions”.

It’s essential that the company and employees acting on behalf of the company operate with a congruent vision and mutually agreed upon expectations.

Many budding brandividuals have an over-inflated sense of importance because of what they perceive to be end goal successes which are often more like proxies or stepping stones to what’s really important for a business.

For example: attracting friends/fans/followers, being mentioned by influential blogs, networking with other “known” digerati can seem uplifting to an individual that seeks increased visibility and credibility.  Those are important events, but they’re not the end goals that help companies make payroll. They’re a means to an end (revenue, brand, customer acquisition and retention). I think a lot of the folks that get “amped up” by social celebrity confuse notoriety with the ability to generate revenue.

Of course customers might become aware of a company’s services because of their social connection with a brandividual and may even stay with a company due to their relationship with that individual. But that’s not the issue I’m describing.

I did a post about the crack-like addiction to online fame in the SEO industry a while back, observing newer SEOs giving away loopholes and “secret” tactics to gain notoriety. Seeing fame as an end goal vs. a tool to extend brand exposure and shorten sales cycles created a situation in the Search Marketing world where individuals would focus all their efforts on becoming “known”, missing the business objectives entirely. “It’s hard to pay the bills with a pocket full of famous“.

On the other hand, empowering staff to become better known and influential with which to promote your brand can be a great investment. The employee gets something to take with them when that time comes (and it will eventually) and at the same time, they have more to work with when promoting your brand.

Some managers will look at such activity and try to control it. That’s not the productive thing to do in my opinion. Others will embrace it and encourage their staff to be all they can be to meet personal goals and company goals at the same time.

It’s critical to set expectations and have a strategic perspective of what the brandividual’s efforts are to achieve. Managers have to talk to these staff members and get involved with what they’re doing more than other types of company marketing. That’s a bit of a rub sometimes because executives hire community managers or digital marketing managers for the purpose of promoting the company because they don’t have time and expertise themselves.

I think in most cases, the best thing to do is keep in perspective that the stronger the brand of the individual that is tasked with promoting a business, the more reach and impact they may have. Getting exposure themselves will indeed benefit them personally, but if they’re doing so as a member of your brand’s “team” then it’s no different than an all star on a sports team drawing more attention to the team franchise.

What do you think? Does “brandividualism” put companies and their brands at risk? If you work at a company and have become a bit of a brandividual yourself, how has the company dealt with it? If your company has some “rock star” social media staff, how do you best empower them? Or does your company prefer to try and control such activity?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. I’ve dealt with this from both sides of the fence. I am a social media consultant to small businesses, and I’m also behind a logo managing community and social media efforts for the company (an online directory) that I co-own. My company has a very strong SM presence, and I’ve felt quite a bit of personal pride from the success there. In my case, things travel and translate pretty well back and forth because I claim, and can actually capitalize from the synergy.

    Let me just say that I have had to look past my pride and “puffiness” occasionally to get the job done. I’ve felt the things you describe and have indeed had to question my intentions and motivation at times. My situation may be a little unique, but I’d like to answer your question. I do think that without clear communication and set expectations that “brandividualism” can be harmful to a brand in the long run.

    A “brandividual” of great character can also be the greatest thing to ever happen to a brand. I agree 100% with you that this issue will become more and more important in the future. I was very pleased to find such a well thought out article on the topic here today. I hope that it generates some great conversation!

    • Thanks James, I appreciate your first hand experience. I think the more discussion on this, the better. The lines are pretty blurry right for many companies and individuals in this situation.

  2. I don't know how you can avoid having your employees individually brand themselves. When I see a twitter post using a company's brand, I always wonder who is on the other side. We have to trust our employees to do the right thing. This is no different than sending an employee out to a networking event and have them embarrass themselves and the company by getting intoxicated. In the small business arena, people work with people, not companies. If you have the wrong person, you remove them from the company or the specific job. People pride themselves in the people they know, not the company.

    • Excellent point Stephen.

      However, the liability of the intoxicated employee you mention is no longer limited to the networking event and local word of mouth. A few photos and even video published online makes it available world-wide, forever.

      Of course, this post has more to do with the real and perceived risk of employees grandstanding on the company dime than making blatant mistakes. That adds another dimension altogether.

  3. Great post Lee, What I do think is that if you're running a company that specializes in social media, you're going to need a mass following – though I completely understand what you're saying, the following is useless if it's not engaged, for business purposes, if a potential client goes to your site to see what kind of internet marketing you do and noticed you've only got 18 facebook fans and 35 followers of twitter, you're not going to look as good as the guy with 500 fans and 1000 followers. Though we both know half of those people aren't engaging regularly, to potential clients' naked eye, it looks better.

  4. As always great article!

    What came first the chicken or the egg? This is the dilemma of the small businessman. Does he focus on building a brand or does he make payroll? It has been my experience, having been in the advertising business for many years, that one cannot exist without the other. A strong personal brand and a fair amount of social celebrity will enhance your credibility and build your business.

    Whichever way you slice it. You do have to get your name out there to get more business and to stay in business. Not to overdo the “cliches” But if you build it they will come.

  5. I still talk to people everyday who are petrified of the social space. At this point if you are a business which requires customers you need to put on your bathing suit and dive into the social pool headfirst, you should even do a belly flop and make some waves.

  6. As a company still very new to the social media side of things we have definitely wrestled with this. Who should be the voice, what topics should be avoided, what areas should we pursue more? For us it really came down to how we have always approached business. What we say online should be no different than face to face. How we represent our brand to a client should always be maintained. It all comes down the basics of good business practices. There will always be those flashes in the pan, but if you don't offer your customer base honest, genuine service they will see through it – no matter the form.

  7. Honestly, I am not sure that this is as big of a paradox as some might think. Personally, I am an advocate of the newly-implemented “internal branding” practice. It comes down to motivation. How are companies motivating their employees to be effective representatives of their brand? It should start internally. Instead of simply branding business to your potential clients, why not try branding to your employees? It seems to be an unorthodox practice, but give your troops the same TLC you give your customers. This includes taking the time that your employees are meeting their personal goals in their lives, in their homes, and in their professional paths. Surely, this isn't a practice that is easily adaptable by very large businesses, but it appears to be yielding results in small and medium-sized businesses that take the time to practice. Nonetheless, enabling your employees to be happy and proactive in their personal lives will equip them with the motivation to keep on brand when representing your company in the social community. When it comes to individual branding, you aren't going to stop people from wanting to express themselves. But by ensuring that these individual brands are happy, healthy, and proactive, you ensure that the brand under which they work is equally so. The job application process is an individual branding venture. You hired their brand, so trust it. Nurture and grow their skills. In my opinion, it will only make your brand stronger. The bottom line is unless you hire a social media expert to be on the team or outsource your social media strategy and implementation, your employees are your most valuable social media resources. Keeping them as a part of your branding and social media practices is valuable in that it gives you a personal touch, transparency, and allows them to feel like they are a part of the brand. Personally, I think it is a mistake to not give them a voice. Surely, they might need some training or focus, but they will be your brand's bread and butter.

    • Michael, good points. I think implementation of such empowerment is a much bigger effort that most people realize. I'd love to get some business owner perspectives.

      Many biz owners and managers are very fearful and really don't need to be. As you say, those individuals are the company's greatest asset and enabling them to be proactive is actually a competitive advantage.

      On the other hand, some owners are naive and should really gain a better understanding because not every self promoting, social media savvy, employee provides enough value to reach company goals to justify paying them to build their own brand.

  8. Michael, good points. I think implementation of such empowerment is a much bigger effort that most people realize. I'd love to get some business owner perspectives.

    Many biz owners and managers are very fearful and really don't need to be. As you say, those individuals are the company's greatest asset and enabling them to be proactive is actually a competitive advantage.

    On the other hand, some owners are naive and should really gain a better understanding because not every self promoting, social media savvy, employee provides enough value to reach company goals to justify paying them to build their own brand.