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When people are your brand

John Battelle reported that Danny Sullivan is leaving Search Engine Watch. Danny’s own site confirms it.
I’m stunned really. As one comment on John Battelle’s blog notes, “…for most people, Danny is SEW” and that Danny provided “…the main brand.” I agree completely, in this case if not universally. I was reading Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin’s new,and very useful, SEO bookthe other day and was struck by how many times the authors cited Danny, specifically mentioning Search Engine Watch only in relation to him. I will miss Danny tremendously in that context and am eager to see what he does next.

I think Danny’s departure is a perfect illustration of how people are the key to building great brands, particularly online. Obviously, you can’t build a great brand, online or otherwise, without the hard work of a good number of talented people. What I’m talking about in this instance, though, is how the names, faces, and personalities of individuals associated with a brand influence consumers’ perceptions of that brand. For instance, in the online space, potential customers typically never have met you. For most brands, it’s likely they never will. How do customers put a face to your name? In larger organizations, celebrity CEO’s do that job. Apple just added Eric Schmidt from Google to its board, gaining intellectual cred to go along with the intellectual capital he provides. Note that the press release emphasizes each brand’s commitment to innovation. Schmidt’s persona (and, by extension, Google’s reputation) benefits Apple’s brand by contributing to that. Still, it doesn’t only happen at the C-level with larger organizations. Many companies have successfully leveraged authority that individuals bring in order to provide a human face and increase the company’s credibility. Probably the most famous comes from the blogosphere: Robert Scoble. He brought a human element to Microsoft over the last few years. He softened Microsoft’s harder edges, countering the “win no matter what” ethos the company displayed prior to his arrival. Another fine example is Bradley Horowitzat Yahoo, who gives us all a little peek behind the curtain.

In light of the Danny Sullivan announcement, a more important question is why a company would risk endorsing a personality as a component of the brand when those personalities can simply walk away, taking the benefits they provide with them. As above, part of it is the halo effect those individuals provide. Google showcases smart people, Apple creative, JetBlue fun. Each of these contributes to consumers’ overall perception of the brand and aids its positioning in its customers’ minds. A bigger component online, though, is trust. Despite a Clickz News article today showing that consumers trust companies more than than previously expected, I believe it depends largely on the brand and the people behind that brand. I want to see which brands those are. I bet a chunk of those brands have a public face that drives that trust as much as any other component the company inherently provides. As Seth Godin notes today, the reverse is alse tru for brands and the personalities behind them. When someone’s face is attached to the product, his name is as much on the line as the brand itself. Would you rather trust a faceless corporate entity to look out for you, or someone who has attached her face, her name, her persona? Identity theft, phishing, spam, spyware, and related tactics limit consumers belief of the benefits e-commerce provides. Increasingly, trust will guide the actions of consumers online. Your team should reflect that. Think about who you have speaking on behalf of your brand online. What do they say about your brand? And, if no one’s speaking for your brand, why should I trust you?

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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