From LeBron James to the Kardashians, we are living in an age of personal branding, where people are acutely aware of the commercial value of the image they project and work persistently to cultivate that image. While this has become a point of emphasis for certain celebrities and star athletes, even ordinary people with social media accounts find themselves self-editing to avoid conflict with their desired public image.
The issue of personal branding is especially important for entrepreneurs, who are likely to find their personal brands overlapping with their corporate ones. How much overlap there should be is a matter of personal choice, but it is a choice that should be made consciously.
The Age of the Personal Brand
For about a century, the emergence of popular media has made famous people keenly aware that the public image they cultivate can affect their commercial opportunities, both with respect to their primary careers as movie stars or athletes, and also as endorsers of products. The mix of commerce and popular media has meant that a good personal brand can be good business.
Personal branding as good business has taken on a new dimension in recent decades, which perhaps can be traced to Michael Jordan. Jordan did not just endorse products—he became a brand, a name and a logo that could be attached to everything from sneakers to cologne. In the process, he extended his commercial viability well beyond his basketball career—in fact, over a decade after he last suited up for an NBA team, Jordan made more from his sneaker brand in one year than he did during his entire playing career.
These days it’s not just Michael Jordan who has become a brand. Business leaders are also part of this age of celebrity. While entrepreneurs and business leaders are not necessarily people who put their names on their enterprises, they are people whose personal brands are so associated with successful entrepreneurship, that they’ve been able to extend it across a variety of diverse lines of business.
On one level, there are people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, whose names are practically synonymous with the vast enterprises they have built for Facebook and Amazon. As big as their corporations have become, they have become the face of those corporations. Beyond these examples of entrepreneurs who are primarily associated with one huge success, there are “serial entrepreneurs” like Richard Branson or Elon Musk. Their ventures have been so diverse that it is not a product nor a particular line of business that has been the distinguishing characteristic of their companies, but rather the personal brand of their leaders. They have convincingly branded themselves as entrepreneurs, opening the door for them to take on a variety of new challenges.
You could even argue that President Trump was one of the first and most aggressive practitioners of the modern approach to branding himself as an entrepreneur. Through successes and failures, his ventures have always been identified with the man himself, and this in turn gives him a form of capital with which to pursue new ventures.
Benefits of the Personal Brand in Entrepreneurship
To some extent, all entrepreneurs face the choice of how much to identify their personal brands with their business ventures. After all, doing so has certain, but also certain risks.
From a marketing standpoint, people tend to sell. Even reporters for serious business publications would rather feature a person than a company. Putting a strong personality out front will get a company more publicity than the strength of its P&L statement.
For entrepreneurs who want to move into new fields, a byproduct of this marketing benefit is credibility in attracting new investors. Take Elon Musk, for example, and consider that someone who first made his money and reputation creating what went on to become PayPal, was then able to attract funding for ventures in space exploration and electric cars. Those are not exactly closely-related fields, but their common denominator is the personal brand of their leader as an entrepreneur and visionary. That has been enough to attract new investors.
Beyond marketing and financing benefits, associating a business with a personal brand can provide clarity of leadership within an organization. People like a sense of mission, and no self-consciously-crafted corporate mission statement can give employees the same sense of mission that a leader who is a strong visionary can.
Drawbacks of the Personal Brand in Entrepreneurship
Building the image of a business around a personal brand may have its benefits, but it can also have its drawbacks.
For one thing, it can suggest a top-heavy organization that is thin on depth of talent. This can be seen as both a form of risk and a limitation on growth.
In terms of the internal functioning of an organization, a leader with an overly-dominant personality can limit fresh ideas and contrary thinking. The very single-mindedness that is essential for getting a venture off the ground might later bog it down by limiting its ability to adapt and evolve.
Finally, if an entrepreneurial company is too exclusively associated with its founder, it may restrict opportunities for a liquidity event down the road. Buyers may rightly be skeptical of paying for a company whose perceived greatest asset is getting ready to walk out the door. Ironically, while a dominant front person might aid with selling a company’s products, it might ultimately impede the sale of the company itself.
So, associating your personal brand with your entrepreneurial ventures can be a blessing or a curse. It is a choice that varies according to your personality and your business plans. For people who would rather get on with business than talk about it, it might not be the best choice. Similarly, for those dedicated to building a particular business for the long term, reliance on a personal brand may not be the best way to build a sustainable or saleable organization.
However, some entrepreneurs may be attracted to the boost their personal brand can give their efforts in marketing or attracting funding. This is especially suited to people who envision a lifetime in entrepreneurship. Of course, creating your personal brand particularly suits people with out-front personalities.
Think about this the next time you network with fellow TIGER 21 Members. It won’t take long for you to figure out who puts their personal brand upfront, and who prefers to cultivate a more corporate brand. Observing this should help inform your choice about which path is right for you.