RSR: Retail’s Cult of Personality – What Happens When Brands and Individuals Get Married?

Discussion
Jul 01, 2009
Nikki Baird

By Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, Retail Systems
Research

Through a special arrangement,
psented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail
Paradox
, Retail Systems Research’s weekly analysis
on emerging issues facing retailers.

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, has become
a very public crusader against excesses and basically fraudulent behavior
in the short selling market. Not only has he made a case against it, putting
both his reputation – and by extension something of his company’s reputation
– on the line, he used it to predict the market downfall long before anyone
else seemed to be talking about it.

He’s so passionate about it that if you go
to Overstock.com you
will find a link under “Professional Relationships” called Patrick
Byrne and Deep Capture
, which links to a
blog that has the in-depth details on the whole short selling thing.

So here’s my question: In a world where it’s
easier than ever to connect the multiple facets of a person’s life together,
and where company executives (who are, it could be argued, brand stewards)
are increasingly making their individual voices heard under the umbrella
of their brand, how do you separate individual quirks and passions from
company and brand values?

It’s probably not so bad a thing – maybe a tad
distracting – when your company CEO decides to take on alleged institutional
or systemic corruption. But what about a company like American Apparel,
whose brand is up there with Calvin Klein when it comes to pushing the
line on using sex to sell clothes, and whose CEO has been
accused
of “living the dream” perhaps a
little too far on the wrong side of that line? Perhaps it doesn’t matter
much to AA’s core customers, who are not exactly MSNBC’s target audience,
but could you imagine the backlash that would occur if it was, say, Chico’s
CEO, and not American Apparel?

Is Patrick Byrne synonymous with Overstock.com? Perhaps
in business circles, but I doubt it in consumer circles. Is Dov
Charney synonymous with American Apparel? Personally, I had to look
up his name to include it here. But what about Richard Branson and
Virgin, or Steve Jobs and Apple? In each of these examples, it gets
more and more difficult to separate where one begins and another ends.

So where does all this take us? Into a new
place. It’s not a comfortable one for me, and I think RSR has much less
to worry about than, say, American Apparel. Will the day come when a company
or campaign is taken down by the social networking antics of one of its
executives? I believe we will indeed see a day like that in our future,
and I think it will be a scary day for brands everywhere.

Discussion Questions:
In the age of social networking mania, should corporations insist
that their execs be more careful about how their personal lives and beliefs
affect their brand’s positioning? Is it going to be possible for a corporate
leader, then, to stand up for a cause?

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7 Comments on "RSR: Retail’s Cult of Personality – What Happens When Brands and Individuals Get Married?"


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Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

Great topic! Yes, yes and yes (on companies needing to insist on personal/corporate boundaries), particularly as social networking becomes an all too tempting vent-space. Just this week, I was horrified by several wrong-side-of-the-bed tweets from people I know are in high profile positions. One was so offensive that it made me question the company’s judgment for hiring that person; it certainly forever marked the tweeter as irresponsible and lacking restraint in my eyes.

On the “real” social networking scene; good old fashioned face-to-face interactions can be equally troubling. Even at a time when you can’t buy a retailer a cup o’ Joe, plenty of folks still find ways to party down and hope that last night’s loose lips don’t make a bomb go off. Unfortunately, they don’t always know when that has happened; business just kind of slip slides away.

Standards must be set, and followed, from the top down!

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

While it can be increasingly difficult to separate our personal and professional lives, I think it is important that we remember that as a “public” figure known for their affiliation with a brand, company, cause, etc. that the individuals bear in mind that they have an obligation not only to themselves but to the people/company they represent. This does not mean executives should not have personal opinions, but that they should be conscious that whatever they say or do reflects on not only them, but everyone they represent.

When I was the president of a publicly-traded company, I was very aware that everything I did was seen not only as my personal actions but as a representative of the company. Today, this is even more true with everything these individuals do being recorded and findable online. If an individual wants to stand up for a cause, that is their decision, but they should be aware that the board may elect to not to support it, or them.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

The conduct of executives can affect the lives of many people beyond their own family by negatively impacting their company and brands. If an executive turns off a portion of its customer base not only could company sales suffer but also, careers and jobs could be lost. The manner in which they conduct themselves should be part of their corporate responsibilities. Their job is to advance the sales and share of their brands and if they impact this negatively with poor public conduct, that should be treated the same as poor job performance.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

I agree with Carol, and furthermore, it’s not that the CEOs shouldn’t communicate via their brand through social networks and traditional advertising. They simply need to control themselves. They need to distance their comments from topics that are too political in nature. Also, they need to consider their most likely audience and see how their comments are perceived. There are a few loose canons out there, and the senior leadership of those firms need to be proactive prior to permanent damage to the brand occurs.

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

Everyone is a public figure in today’s transparent environment. How can you be passionate about your brand if you live a lifestyle that’s inconsistent with the brand’s values?

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

It is increasingly important for executives of companies who project their own personality on the brand they manage, that they walk the straight and narrow. I would think it is also important for retiring execs, those who leverage their experience at major companies and go on to write books or join the speakers circuit, to be great ambassadors for the brand.

How can you have faith in a company/executive who talks a good game but doesn’t walk the talk? When you get at the upper stratosphere of management, it should be required that an executive who is personally connected with the brand (projects their personality to build trust in the brand), controls their lifestyle to ensure trust is built.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

Remember how babies believe they’re invisible when they close their eyes? Lots of grown-ups now seem to have the same belief nowaday. They think they can say or do whatever they want on social networking sites and not be noticed by colleagues or competitors. It’s about time they wake up and smell the coffee. If they want to keep their jobs, that is.

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