For Online Brand Reps, Getting Personal Can Be a Tricky Situation

Some Argue That 'Brandividuals' Gain More From Their Companies Than the Businesses Do From Them

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- You've got a highly visible Web 2.0 persona. You're tapped to run social media for a brand. How much of your personal social-media equity do you lend the brand -- and how much does it lend to you?

Mr. Ford: Scott Monty was criticized for having his Twitter account in his own name.
Mr. Ford: Scott Monty was criticized for having his Twitter account in his own name.
That's been a hot topic in the social mediasphere in the past couple of weeks, since Ray Wert, a blogger for Gawker Media-owned auto blog Jalopnik, suggested that Scott Monty, who works in social media for Ford, was doing more for himself with all his twittering and social networking than he was for the company's own brands. One specific criticism: Mr. Monty's Twitter account is in his name, not Ford's.

While that might seem trivial, it sparked a larger discussion about whether people should put themselves or their corporations first when it comes to Web 2.0. What is the right balance of personal and business? David Armano, VP-experience design at Critical Mass and a Web 2.0 personal brand, explained his views in an Ad Age DigitalNext blog post -- and launched pages of discussion in the comments.

Sure, some argue that personal and corporate brands should be separate, like church and state, but "I'm not sure it's that simple," Mr. Armano wrote. "Take a look at Frank Eliason's (@comcastcares) personal blog. Frank talks about life, his family and, yes, his work. While @comcastcares on Twitter leads with the service that Frank and his team provide, Frank has swapped the company logo for a picture of himself. It's not always business on the social web; oftentimes it's personal, and this is what makes it work."

Mr. Armano calls people like Scott Monty "brandividuals," and said, "For some, the idea is scary -- the melding of our personalities with the companies and brands we work for. Call it whatever you want; I believe we'll see more of it."

Risk for personal brand
We'll definitely see more "brandividuals" as a younger generation moves into marketing, said Paula Drum, director of marketing for H&R Block, in the post's comments. But associating themselves with a brand can be risky: "The risk was far greater for Scott to associate his personal brand with Ford than Ford to be associated with Scott," she wrote. "Ford has benefited from the audience/reach/credibility/human voice that Scott brought with him."

Maybe the idea of the brandividual isn't so new, commented Lara Kretler, associate VP at Fahlgren Mortine Public Relations, but rather a return to a mom-and-pop era. "Back then, we didn't do business with a business; we did business with a person," she said. "I think we're coming full circle back to that point."

Mr. Monty commented as well, explaining that Ford's Twitter strategy is expanding all the time and the company has many corporate Twitter accounts.

Yet there are difficulties. One example: What happens when a "brandividual," in an attempt to defend the brand from an online critic, seems to be telling the customer he's wrong?

David Armano
David Armano
And perhaps a bigger issue: What happens when the personal brand associated with a company's social-media efforts wants to leave? Whoever replaces Scott Monty will have to build a new Twitter presence -- a problem brands such as JetBlue and Zappos don't have.

But Christopher Bacchus, author of the Auto Marketing Blog, said even a new person taking over a corporate Twitter account will have to build a reputation. People "can 'vote' by un-following the new person if they don't like the new personality."

And the opportunity to talk to a person at Ford -- not a faceless entity -- is why Scott Monty has so many followers, said marketing consultant Bob Knorpp. "I think that in itself justifies his strategy of not hiding behind the brand. There was an obvious hunger among Ford fans for a person who would give them access. Scott is that guy for now. But his personal fame in the role does not mean that someone else can't fill that role in the future," said Mr. Knorpp.

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