How to work with powerful brands


Helen Zille’s news last month that she would not be standing for re-election as the leader of the Democratic Alliance surprised almost everyone who heard it. With no obvious replacement with her kind of stature or experience, it makes you realise how risky it can be to have such concentrated brand power in the leader of an organisation.

This problem is not unique to politics. Investors worried about Apple when Steve Jobs passed away, and it’s difficult to think of the Virgin brand without Richard Branson’s personal brand coming immediately to mind.

Company Brand Improves Awareness and Perception of Value by Stuart Miles courtesy of

Personality plays an enormous role

In our own industry, personality plays an enormous role in influencing decisions. Most agencies are named after their iconic founders —MDs, creative directors and strategists who have become almost like celebrities. Clients want them in the room and will follow them when they leave an agency.

Personality is hugely important to branding. Strategists spend time and energy trying to define the kind of personality that will resonate with a brand’s stakeholders because they know that a brand without personality isn’t a brand at all.

We naturally relate to other people, but we struggle to become emotionally invested in inanimate objects. So, when a leader embodies the personality a brand is trying to project, that brand has struck gold. It has a human being — a real-life human! — to make that personality tangible for consumers, customers and employees.

People are imperfect

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But people retire. People are imperfect (that’s part of what makes them interesting and emotionally engaging in the first place). People can be flaky or unreliable or mess things up badly. Zille grew the DA brand immeasurably, but she also often damaged it with her problematic Twitter outbursts. Nike had the perfect ambassador for “Just do it” with Oscar Pistorius, until he really wasn’t.

The sweet spot is a combination of personal and corporate brands. Here are a few tips on how to get that balance right:

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

This seems like an obvious point but it is often ignored — either because leaders don’t want to share the limelight or because there isn’t the budget to sponsor more than one celebrity.

Having a portfolio of personal brands helps to highlight different nuances of the brand personality you are trying to build and ensures that reputational damage is minimised if one goes rogue.

Similarly, within an agency, it is important to build the profile of a number of leaders so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Align with your core values, not just a campaign

Many sponsorship and endorsement relationships with cultural or sporting icons are tied to a specific campaign to drive a particular message. This can be successful for catching attention but can lead to fragmented brand associations if those personalities are very different.

Personal brands affiliated with your brand should embody the core values of the organisation, not just demonstrate a particular part of a campaign message.

  • Build the branches

If a prominent leader is alone at the top, the brand is at risk when that leader steps down.

Part of the ANC’s enduring success is its strong branch structure across the country that constantly feeds leaders upwards. The DA is playing catch-up on the ground and has run a very successful Young Leaders Programme over the past few years to accelerate the growth of a new generation of leaders.

Big brands and private organisations are no different — without dedicated and prioritised employer branding, talent acquisition and employee development, it becomes difficult to remain a market leader.

  • Get constant feedback from your customers on their behaviour

Social media makes listening to customer feedback so easy. Make sure you’re on top of what people are saying about the prominent personalities within or associated with your brand.

Pick n Pay, for example, had a serious PR problem on its hands last year when a music festival it supported had Steve Hofmeyr as the headline act.

Listen to what customers are saying about how your people behave. You can’t fire employees for every negative comment they generate but ignoring a groundswell of negativity will not end well.

  • Know when it’s time to leave the party

No one stays cool forever. It’s a sad truth about life and the best marketing intentions aren’t going to change it. Celebrities lose their shine; leaders lose touch with shifts in consumer culture.

Businesses and brands need fresh blood or leaders who can stay young in their thinking and impulses. A great mark of leadership is knowing when it’s time to hand over the reins.

The trick at the end of the day

Powerful personal brands come with their risks, but at the end of the day people connect with people — with their stories and imperfections and triumphs. Personal brands may help consumers, voters, employees and society at large become emotionally invested, and that’s what every marketing director wants for his or her brand.


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