There's a long history of corporate brands being strongly associated with people. Indeed, many corporation brands are eponyms: Ford, JP Morgan, Bloomberg, Kellogg, Johnson & Johnson. And many brands that don't bare the founder's name have nevertheless become very tightly aligned with a founder or with subsequent leadership: Oracle and Larry; Apple and Steve; even Ben and Jerry. Getting a brand wrapped up in the identity of a founder or CEO can have problems, as we've seen with the ailing Steve Jobs and with Microsoft post-Bill. When brand equity accrues to a human it needs to be carefully managed.
In the new world of social media, the tension between the corporate identity and individual identity is getting stronger. We're seeing it most in knowledge-based markets, where IP is often intrinsic to individuals. This has always been a dynamic in publishing and entertainment: several decades ago we saw this dramatically in the movie industry with the fall of the studio system and the rise of the cult of celebrity star or director. It's happening again in the news business with the rise of celebrity news anchors and the co-opting of personalities like Sarah Palin (I give her six months at Fox, but that's another story).
Social media has removed a significant communications barrier to creating the eponymous brand. Suddenly, anyone with half an idea can become well-known and command attention. This gets knowledge-based companies very jittery. Take Forrester Research, who recently got into trouble when it leaked that they'd put heavy restrictions on allowing their analysts to have personal blogs. They're not alone – most analyst firms have imposed some kind of restriction on blogging. From the company perspective, this is simply protecting their intellectual property; from the individual analyst's perspective, this is a muzzle on their rights to express themselves.
What's clear is that the constitution of corporate brands is changing. Increasingly, corporate brands will be made up from the brand identities of employees and management. This is a huge opportunity. Companies that can find a balance between promoting their leaders and innovators under a corporate banner have an opportunity to create a true 'company brand' that will have strength and definition as a collective. I hate sports analogies, but an obvious one exists here in the way sports teams define themselves.
Smart companies will start to foster individuals that can command a presence in the social media world. Done right, this will only help define the corporate brand. And increasingly, effective public relations will be about managing these individual brands as a whole. And smart agencies will see an opening here – how to craft a branded online profile for company executives.