A century ago, Hollywood movie studios were the big brands. The actors? Literally players. Music studios like Motown followed suit, maintaining a portfolio of reliably entertaining acts.
In either case, you might be a fan of a particular performer, but you went to see an RCA or MGM production or tracked the latest Motown releases because of their slate of entertainment options. In other words, the brand drove the business. After all, an actor’s contract could be reassigned, or the members of a singing group might change at the studio’s whim. The prospect of individual superstars outside of the orbit of a studio’s machinations was still on the horizon.
Fast-forward to today, when you follow your favorite TV, film, or recording artist from production to production. Platforms like TikTok or Instagram aren’t managing creators under their own corporate umbrella; they’re a vehicle to connect users with creators at the individual level. Artists and influencers are now the big brands inspiring loyal followings and profitable partnerships.
This model of elevating individuals to star status can apply to the business world as well. Because shifts in how we perceive our relationships with one another are happening everywhere. Depending on who you ask, we’re entering an era of authenticity or one of transparency. It turns out both are true because they both relate to where we’re really heading: the era of the individual.
BRAND LOYALTY: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE
We know the pandemic disrupted the traditional loyalty relationship. Before, brands provided goods, consumers chose the goods ecosystem that best met their needs, and then they continued a relationship with that brand. When supply chain failures and increased competition in a rapidly shrinking space became the norm, however, 75% of consumers changed their purchasing behavior.
It’s not as volatile as it sounds—81% of consumers want to form a relationship with a brand. With a renewed focus on personal priorities, authenticity, and social responsibility, consumers are looking at brands through a new lens. And the corporate leaders of those brands are facing unexpected pressure in this regard.
Given a choice of government, NGO, or business, a recent survey indicated that 61% of respondents placed the most trust in businesses. That could be an opportunity or an unbelievable burden. Because it brings with it exquisite scrutiny on the people behind those corporate logos.
While it may sound like a B2C or DTC concern, people engage with, share with, are influenced by, and buy from people. Yet, only 29% of B2B customers consider themselves “fully engaged” with vendors, which means a missed opportunity for upsells and loyalty. Whether it’s B2C, DTC, B2C2B, or B2B, stakeholders are trying to figure out what companies truly stand for and the nature of the people at the helm. In other words, if they want my money and time as a consumer, partner, or investor, why are they deserving of that trust?
BRAND IDENTITY: WHO ARE YOU?
Most companies still think of “the brand” as the consumer experience with that corporation. Like the shift from studio to superstar, however, companies need to evolve their thinking about what it means to be a brand—specifically, the benefits that can come from promoting professionals in your orbit who are brands in their own right.
Technology has made our world more accessible. That means more opportunities for nurturing big brands from small seeds. It also means potential large-scale perils. Why are marketers and brand advisers monitoring discussions around the Ye Wests, Will Smiths, and Elon Musks of the world? There are lessons to be learned about navigating an individual brand and its influence.
It’s not new. Studios and other organizations have always had their “fixers,” and companies have crisis communications experts should things go sideways. But as expectations continue to rise for executives to show they can be business leaders, thought leaders, and social change leaders, managing an individual as a brand has become less reactionary and more strategic, encompassing platform planning, communications, and marketing initiatives.
It also covers a broader base. According to a recent survey, executives estimate that 44% of their company’s market value is attributable to the reputation of their CEO. Yet, the same percentage believe a company’s reputation is influenced a great deal by senior management other than the CEO.
So, what does this mean for you as a business leader? Give your corporate brand a face. It doesn’t have to be yours (although if you are part of a typically underrepresented demographic in a leadership role, it probably should be). To that point, think about how well that brand persona reflects the world around you. In addition to evolving your thinking about the brand, you may need to evolve your thinking about representation and who your future stakeholders will be.
In the end, people need to relate one-on-one to your brand, whether that’s through a more approachable Corporation A or through direct admiration of Executive B and their thought leadership. People are still struggling with uncertainty, so show empathy and understanding that’s real and really human. In this new era of so many individuals, that’s the best way to stand out, start conversations, and gain and maintain loyalty.
Mack McKelvey is founder and CEO of SalientMG, a strategic marketing firm specializing in solutions for growth-stage tech companies.