Brand personification: lessons from Louis XIV

The statement “L’État c’est moi” (I am the State) has been attributed to Louis XIV of France, illustrating how the monarch is the absolute symbol of the State. Evidently, that quote has to be seen in light of its historical and political context. It is also a colourful example illustrating brand personality.

To infuse the brand with value, personal features of the organisation’s leader are chosen and celebrated. For a greater part of the 20th century, the CEO of large industrial companies was seen as a fatherly (yes, mostly men) figure with a personal responsibility for creating a livelihood for employees and their families as well as communities – especially in countries with a strong tradition in industrial philanthropy and family businesses. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s frugal lifestyle is celebrated, Richard Branson’s bold ambitions and daring moves (and failures) become inspirational and aspirational to all entrepreneurs, Arianna Huffington’s transitions from an unhealthy overworked leader to an advocate of sleep and a more balanced lifestyle altogether.

Obviously, this is a two-way street. Aware of their role, leaders will adapt their behaviour, enhance certain features and craft stories and anecdotes which make it possible for intangible values to become specific – and therefore able to be narrated to others. Personal branding has become more interesting and multidimensional as employees and external stakeholders gain insight into a company’s inner life. The brand voluntarily show their own imperfections, flaws and failures. This makes them relatable and opens a motorway of stories of character and perseverance.

But juxtaposing the brand of the company entirely with the one of its leader also has its set backs.

When a charismatic CEO leaves, a company can become orphan of an important reference and in need of a new figure to embody their values. The wrongdoings of the founder can become a heavy burden – even if such actions do not take place in some work capacity. Incidentally, the same Louis XIV has also reportedly said: “I am going away, but the State will always remain”.

Companies mitigate these risks by appointing external brand ambassadors like influential celebrities, but also by letting their workforce come to the light. Apple recruits talent whose product expertise translates into the job title ‘genius’ and Abercrombie & Fitch shoppers are greeted by staff whose looks and style seem to have popped out of their catalogue. On a very, very local scale, an employee of the local wines and spirits’ shop became a local celebrity when clients started to out him on social media, praising his bulletproof enthusiasm and friendliness towards costumers.

While it is true that the personal brand of founders and executive leaders can be inspiring and tell powerful stories of overcoming adversity, stakeholders understand the complexities of brands better than before. They have their own channels to spread their own experiences of brand interaction and have access to abundant information about an organisation’s internal processes and structures. Yes, brands are sets of associations to values and behaviours and, given the subjectivity of these associations, always attached to personality traits. But making sense of those personality traits – and testing these stories against reality – are everyone’s game now. As Swedish author Per Schlingmann (“Så vinner du kommunikationskriget”, 2015) puts it: brands become more personal and consumers and employees – more than founders or executive leaders are empowered to have their say on what the brand is.

Sergio Guimaraes – Speaking of PR