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Brand humanity comes from empowered employees

March 9, 2012

As we move into an era where everyone with a heartbeat has become, or is in the process of becoming a brand and the media landscape to build the personal brand is so widely available, big brands might be at a distinct disadvantage.

I was made to think about this when admiring Starbucks new coffee laboratory in Amsterdam, it’s a beautiful piece of design that’s clearly been well informed by a thorough analysis of the latest trends, but it lacks a certain something, there’s no person behind it.

Whether it’s a brand new start-up, the nationwide maker movement, or even a small local restaurant or bar- the news about them is all driven by the stories shaped the people involved. These are human, and very personal stories that create a strong connection to potential customers; people want to buy, eat and drink from people like them.

Look at the latest phenom, The Dollar Shave Club and you can see how the back story about how the company founder created the spot, adds a new compelling layer.

When you have a digital infrastructure, platforms and social broadcast channels- these stories can seep out into culture and gain greater currency and traction as they get passed along.  These stories get shared and more and more people connect with them and this helps the brand grow and flourish. The founder(s) stories and personalities that are behind a brand hold within them a massive reservoir of emotional connectivity, that if used intelligently, can propel even a tiniest brand forward.

When you think about a coffee shop, most people think of the ubiquity of the Starbucks brand, but at the opposite end of the scale are thousands of mom and pops that don ‘t follow a corporate cookie-cutter model and are filled to the brim with the personality of the owners; from the way the place looks, to the coffee they serve.

Starbucks’ Amsterdam laboratory has lots of touches that are atypical for the company and seem almost personal, but it’s a sleight of hand, these touches are fake, because there’s no one really behind them, even if there is, they’re a hired gun with no real long- term personal interest in the venture.

As companies struggle with a new brand future, I believe their inability to bring human faces to the front of their organizations, could be their biggest failing. It’s so hard to be real, authentic and true when you words and actions only have the company voice behind them.

Today, words uttered by corporations increasingly seem like misfits in a world of personal and person-to-person conversations.

The way forward is challenging, but it’s going to have to happen. Firstly, there’s a new generation of employees who aren’t going to want to work for a corporation where their ability to create their own personal brand is going to be crushed and blunted, they want to build their public reputations. If companies let their employees build up expertise and a perspective that blends their expert professional opinion with that of the company, but more importantly, passion, they will have an army of effective human representatives.

What’s holding this back are the corporate lawyers, won’t probably don’t think it’s a great idea and then there’s the obvious problem of these “corporate” personalities becoming too big and getting poached by others, or holding their companies to ransom or concerns over having a consistent brand voice. Because of this, big corporations have deliberately limited the number of “voices” and “personalities” they build up, most of the time, it’s only the CEO, but often there’s even a celebrity hired to represent the company. A celebrity representing the company is a very strange idea when you think hard about it; leveraging the recognition of an outsider, because there’s no one inside equipped to do the job?

I have to admit, I am being a bit extreme here, because I do recognize that some large companies are empowering their employees to represent them, it’s not generally the case. From the experiments of these outliers and pioneers, we are going to learn that it is possible to bring humanity to the organization, by bringing employees to the fore.

The battle moving forward is going to be all about which brands can make the leap fastest and most effectively and have the guts to let their employees come out of hiding, develop their personalities and have their voices heard.

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