How Scalable is a Personal Brand?

As TV viewers we are used to the feeling of false intimacy. TV news anchors in particular enter our houses every day conveying a feeling of a personal connection. But in truth we know little about these people. Sure, Walter Cronkite was called the “Most Trusted Man in America,” but how many people really knew him enough to trust him personally? Charles Kuralt, the venerable host of CBS Sunday Morning and the “On the Road” series built a reputation for being a homespun, down-to-earth kind of guy. But after his death we learned that he had a mistress and a whole secret family.

Social media takes that idea to a new level, promising individuals that chance to know our celebrities as easily as we know our friends. However, is this intimacy scalable? Can a superstar maintain a consistent level of engagement even when they have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers?

A few months ago friend and PR blogger John Cass got a mass email from someone representing Social Media Superstar (and fellow Jets fan) Gary Vaynerchuk asking for feedback on the upcoming launch of his book Crush It!

John was bothered by it and wrote a wonderful blog post on the topic. I threw a comment in, as did Gary and what ensued was a comment thread and Twitter discussion in which Gary asked me to email him directly.

I did and I never heard back.

Eventually I forgot about the email, believing that it fell to the bottom of Gary’s inbox never to be seen or heard from again. This wouldn’t surprise me as it happens to all of us.

But one Sunday morning I awoke to an email from Gary apologizing for not getting back to me and inviting me to attend one of his book launch parties:

Hey so I am sending this note to the few thousand emails I have in my inbox prior to August 1st. I am so sorry that I haven't gotten back to you yet but between the Birth of Misha ( 4 months old now) and the book ( comes out Oct. 13th ) and the relaunch of and launch of and and all the work with I have been insanely backed up! I am really sorry and the reason I have decided to go this route is that I have a feeling through twitter or facebook or in another email I have already answered this. If I have not been in contact on this and you still need an answer please send it back and accept my apology. Most of all I wanted to say Hi and ask that if you are even close to one of the locations of my book tour

STOP BY AND SAY HI! Please, I would love to answer your question in person and give you a hug or hand shake!

Again I am so sorry for the gross delay and apologize if I dropped the ball and please know I am here and trying hard!

I don’t begrudge Gary his time, I figure he’s a busy guy with a lot of interests and it becomes impossible for one person, no matter how genuine, to respond to everyone. Furthermore, I'm told that he explained to the audience at IMS09 that some technical difficulties with his laptop were a big factor in the difficulty he had in responding.

But it did make me wonder about the scalability of a personal brand. In a recent conversation with John he takes it one step further and wonders if this kind of PR actually HURTS Gary’s brand.

Many of us have already experienced Facebook or Twitter overload, where we’re following so many people that it becomes impossible to track everything done by everyone. How often are you in a conversation when someone says something, assuming that you read the detail on their Facebook page, only to feel a bit blank? Or on the other side, how often do you prepare for a call by checking your colleague’s social medial page (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) just to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Each person has their own strategy for this, though it does call into question the value of any particular “follower” on these services. Do people seek out and read your entries or are those entries simply “caught” in passing by a select few?

But for Gary and others in the social media stratosphere, are they close to the point of backlash? How do they take that personal brand and turn it into something that continues to BE personal, even as they grow beyond a “few friends.”

We’re led to believe that social media is different; that what we get is not a facsimile of a personal relationship, but an actual relationship with actual people. Sure, this is possible one to one. You can put yourself in a situation to meet Gary, just as David Letterman and Oprah have, but does that constitute a relationship? Is that something that can help you as much as it helps him?

Part of this depends on Gary’s social media goals. If his goals are to have personal relationships with as many people as possible for personal growth, then at a certain point he has to do a house cleaning and focus on those.

However, Gary’s passion (and his passion for passion) suggests that his social media endeavors are about promoting his wine business. But I believe he, and others like him, need to take that passion one step further and start promoting the other people within their organization.

This isn’t to say that Gary isn’t great at what he does, he is. However, if he doesn’t start spreading the burden of celebrity to those around him -- especially those within his own organization -- he could face a backlash or even an emerging team of competitors.

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2 comments to How Scalable is a Personal Brand?

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chuck Tanowitz. Chuck Tanowitz said: Fresh Ground post: how scalable is a personal brand? […]

  • Hi Chuck,

    Great post — this points to the issue we’ve all been talking about lately, the de-expertization that has been occurring in many industries, including PR and marketing. Just because it may be possible to figure out HOW to do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. Time is precious and delegating is a big part of managing your time wisely.

    In Gary’s book he uses the Domino’s YouTube fiasco as an example and points to the Domino’s CEO as the front line responder, via a YouTube video. (This is probably a bit confusing as an example as it was obvious that this particular effort was a PR scripted effort using the CEO as a spokesperson.) Gary says that you don’t need to “check in with a corporate PR department” before you go off and respond to things like this — just do it, because your passion is the most important thing you can communicate.

    However, just a few pages later he talks about the need to think through all the ramifications of your online messaging. This is one thing professional PR people are really good it — for the most part. And maybe that CEO’s time would be better spent elsewhere. The PR team could be monitoring the online conversation, raising the issue up the organization when necessary and enlisting the CEO as a spokesperson if that is the proper response. (In the Domino’s case, the response might have been a little better received if the CEO had seemed less scripted.)

    The point is, no one can do it all and we all need to leverage the skills of our team, and give credit where it is due.