Is social media the new corporate star-maker?

bewitched darrin

A few months back I did a fun interview with Susan Wassel, the social media voice for Sharpie pens.  Susan made me a believer. If you can bring pens to life over Twitter, just about anything is possible.

So here is a debate I have with my customers: Do you have a real person (like Susan) represent your company on social media or a corporate logo with a rotating line-up behind the scenes (like most companies)?

Susan represents the ying and yang of this argument.  On the positive side, she has built a faithful following of nearly 4,000 who tune in to hear the latest Sharpie adventures of her friends and family.  She is an enthusiastic, charming woman who has come to personify the brand online.

Now the downside.  Some day Sharpie Susan will move on.  Remember the feeling you had when they replaced the first “Darren” on Bewitched?   That was hard to take.  There was a pretender in the role.  I don’t want a SharpieKim or SharpieFred or even (gasp) SharpieDarren.  I want my SharpieSusan dammit.

This is the ultimate two-edged sword of establishing your company’s voice online.  What happens when a solitary person BECOMES the brand?  Where do all those followers go when your spokesperson leaves … and joins your competitor for more money?  Sure, the company will survive, but why make the investment in developing the talent when you don’t have to?  Avoid the risk.

If you’re a talented communicator with a great personality interested in being a corporate social media persona, this is great news by the way.  Becoming your company’s social media rockstar may be the ultimate job security.  Or, you might be sentencing yourself to social media hell. Do you really want to be the company Pat Sajak for the next 20 years?  Any way, we will certainly see a growing number of popular corporate bloggers whose importance and value to the company will grow exponentially.

To close the loop, my recommendation to my customers is to provide a real face to the world. Nobody wants to relate to a logo.  But I don’t have answers to the hard questions I’ve raised here, either.  Let’s hear from you on the subject …

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  • Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!

  • I couldn’t agree more about providing a real face for the company. And, I’d have to add, a story or two to go with that. However, to address the issue of brand superstar and what happens once free agency strikes, here are some thoughts.

    First off, the tried and true, no one is irreplaceable. With all due respect to Darren, and I agree with you about him, thinking “irreplaceable” always seems to lead to trouble for everyone but the superstar of course.

    If there is a “brand superstar”, then perhaps a “bench” strategy should come into play. Sharpie seems to be doing this with Whitney and some of the others that are coming to represent the “brand”.

    Another thought, a company doesn’t always have to build around an employee. Customers and partners come immediately to mind as potentials.

    Even with the possibility of losing the superstar though, if it were my company, and I had the good fortune to have one on my staff, I’d be ever thankful for the buzz, recognition and equity that they can build for you.

  • Morning Maven Mark,
    We are assuming that the personality will live beyond the communication platform. I invite you to consider shifting personalities as you shift communication platforms.
    Definition of platform here is the specific tool in use, such as Twitter. Not the larger aggregate of “on-line.”
    To that end, that may make the security short-lived and bright.
    I’m thinking 15 minutes of fame.

  • Real person here. I monitor and actively use twitter, facebook, linkedin and the company blog daily. I have been a musician for more than 12 years and have played in front of large crowds, so I don’t mind being ELS’s “SM Rockstar”

  • A question came up while I was reading your article, ‘who owns your tweets?’ If you do a project at work, the company has rights to it. So would they have the rights to your tweets and your twitter account when you leave your company?

  • What I have done in my past few jobs and has worked well is to manage two Twitter accounts the “corporate” one that includes a logo as the avatar, but still has my personality shining through (you can check out http://www.twitter.com/mediamiser to see what I mean.) I identify myself as the person who manages the account.

    While I be sure to let my personality shine through I keep that account really focused on our customers/industry.

    On top of that I have my own account (twitter.com/krusk) which identifies my job in the bio but is more a reflection of me personally than my work.

    The two are interconnected, and sometimes I even retweet myself but the audiences are different and if I leave my job, they still have the corp account that someone else can take over but keep focused.

    I’m happy with this approach and it’s served me and my employer (and past employers) well. Just another route to consider!

  • My question is, when SharpieSusan leaves, who owns her Twitter account. Is it registered under a personal email or company email? If she owns it, she can just change her Twitter ID to BicSusan or CrossSusan. If the company owns it, they can just change it to SharpieKim or SharpieFred.

    Most of their Twitter followers will continue to follow after the change. Like Gregg said, no one is irreplacable. The brand will continue after the SM spokesperson turnover.

  • I think Kelly is right on target. You must maintain authenticity at all times. Any person who “fronts” for a company and represents it in public has a responsibility to customers to ensure they know the representative is communicating on behalf of the company. Sales people deal with this all the time. When someone leaves, somebody else picks up and often (but not always) a turnover occurs. Personalities are different but the message should be consistent.

    Additionally, it is really important to ensure the legality of the position is addressed. Ghosting twitter is really no different than ghosting blogs or any other form of communication.

    Mark, you had a couple of previous posts about this subject that people interested in this one should also review.

    http://businessesgrow.com/2009/09/03/the-worlds-first-authenticity-policy/

    http://businessesgrow.com/2009/09/02/how-to-be-a-friendly-ghost-blogger-that-is/

  • Dia

    The dilemma you’re presenting could definitely be hard for a brand to overcome. Personally, I like when brands use a spokesman or woman to represent it. Consumers respond better to people than they do to logos.

    I think it’s similar to brand mascots. Although loyal customers become accustomed to seeing the Tony the Tigers of advertisements and promotions, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to refresh that image over time.

    If Susan leaves, who’s to say that the next representative won’t have their own flair? I don’t think Geico gets slammed for changing between the caveman and gecko. They were successful in giving each its own identity and purpose for the brand.

    That’s kind of what brands using stellar social media reps will have to do.

  • Like so many social media marketing dilemmas, this is nothing new. This is the same issue as replacing (or even just backing up) the star in a Broadway show, a late night program, even a very popular sales person in a local store.

    Accordingly, I expect we’ll start to see corporate world “tryouts,” “understudies” and “auditions” for “SM Voice of the Co” in the corporate world.

  • This is a good question that should be asked early on when establishing a social media “voice.”

    I think the safest bet is to have an “anchor” who is supported by a number of bit players who can, if need be, step into the big shoes when that time comes. I think it also serves a brand well to diversify the voice a little. If I were at a party (one of the tired, but usually appropriate metaphors for the social Web scene), I wouldn’t spend all my time talking to one person. Even if the party was a corporate event, I’d want to mingle a little – chat up Danny from sales, Margie from accounting, and that cute new guy from the warehouse.

    Just kidding. I’m not chatting anyone up … I’m just saying.

    I also think companies can have some fun with both fictional brand personalities (as long as they are clearly fictional) and with positioning around changes of the guard. Even in B2B, it’s ok to lighten up and have some fun.

    Thanks, as always, for asking the question

  • Mark

    I love it when you guys flesh things out with even more penetrating questions. You’ve loaded me up with a bunch of new blog ideas. Lots of good questions, but the answers are truly difficult.

    I like the “understudy” metaphor and the other persepctives you;ve developed here.

    Here’s the fascinating opportunity — I can’t think of many examples where somebody other than the chairman or founder has been the corporate icon … think Lee Iaccoca, Colonel Sanders, Richard Branson. With social media, anybody has a shot at corporate celebrity. It could happen. I could see somebody becoming so popular, they would be eventually be aprt of the advertising, PR, etc. Fun to think about!

  • @Mark You might have thought of this, but a good example right now is Jared and Subway.

    You see Jared’s face at every Subway(at least the ones I’ve been to), but over the past couple of months it seems like they want to slowly phase him out. For example they have been taking focus off him by putting in sports starts or little kids. In my opinion a good ‘live’ case study to look at.

  • Mark – Thanks for the post discussing the issues surrounding employees who become branded and are leading the charge in social media marketing. The id @sharpiesusan is owned by Newell Rubbermaid and the Office Products Division. If Susan were ever to leave Newell Rubbermaid, we would keep that id and she would be free to reestablish herself on Twitter or any other social network as herself. BTW – we sincerely hope she stays with us for a very long time…she is a passionate brand advocate for Sharpie and our other Office Products brands including Expo Markers, Uni-Ball, Prismacolor and Paper Mate to name but a few.

    You bring up some valid points and concerns around when an employee becomes the brand representative and grows their role to the level of celebrity. That is why my goal for Newell Rubbermaid is to have many employees representing the brand and to get customer service more actively involved as well. A good, successful example of this can be seen at Zappos where many employees (well over 300) are actively involved in social media either promoting the brand and products or solving customer problems.

    Going back in time, @sharpiesusan started on Twitter as an experiment to see if social media would be an effective way to interact with Sharpie consumers. She was the first person in the Office Products Division to take on this role. Obviously her popularity has grown and she does an excellent job representing the brand. Now we have several other brand managers who are active on Twitter and on other social networks (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc.) including @SharpieWhit, @ExpoMarkers, and others.

    The real concern I have about the potential loss of someone like Susan is not so much the brand she has built up but the passion she brings to the role. @SharpieSusan (Susan Wassel), @Gracobaby (Lindsay Lebresco now Kelly Voelker – yes we are already experiencing a change in personnel) and @Rubbermaid (Jim Deitzel) all bring a lot of passion to their social media efforts. I personally believe this has a lot to do with these brands social media success to date. Now we must continue growing these efforts and are developing strategies to scale them.

    Thanks again for the very nice post and bringing up some valid and thoughtful concerns.

    Bert DuMars
    VP E-Business & Interactive Marketing
    Newell Rubbermaid
    http://newellrubbermaid.com
    blog – http://socialmediaecosystem.com
    @bwdumars

  • Mark

    @George — actually as I was writing this, Jared did flash in my head. However, I decided that he is more of a character like the Geiko Gecko than a company employee who has become an icon. Good thinking, though! Thanks!

  • Mark

    @Bert Thanks so much for lending your very important voice to this discussion. After all, you’re smack in the middle of the issue!

    It’s fascinating that you had the forethought to keep the “SharpieSusan” brand under your domain. That makes a lot of sense and probably representsa best practice for others to consider.

    It’s also interesting that you’re developing a “farm team” of other tweeters throughout the company and that you’re leveraging Susan’s success to other brands. Also best practices, Bert.

    Despite Susan’s success in the role, she probably doesn’t represent an irreplacable part of your brand image. But what if she did? I can see that happening somewhere in the future. Somebody becomes a rockstar product tweeter and materially adds to the brand growth. They become inexorably associateed with a brand and start appearing on commercials, at public events, etc. That will be so interesting to observe! What a great time to be in marketing, eh?

  • Hi Mark,

    I’m much in agreement with Kelly and Steve. I used to represent a company as their online voice throughout all platforms. I used the company logo but made it clear that I was the voice behind the brand and I let my personality and the companies personality mesh into one profile. I also maintained my own personal accounts which I identified that I worked for the company. I found this approach to be successful as it allowed the company to easily take over the corporate accounts when I left as it was all separate from my personal ones.

    I definitely hear where you’re coming from in that it can be risky to allocate one person to ‘become’ your brand. I think as long as the people you have managing your corporate accounts stay true to the brand and the essence and personality of it, the transition between the online reps can be easier.

  • This calls to mind Boeing’s blog, Randy’s Journal, which was started by their prior marketing VP Randy Baseler and continues under their current marketing VP, Randy Tinseth. A nice stroke of luck. Maybe Sharpie will consider only Susan’s for the job?

  • Mark

    I think one of the things that hits me through your comments is how it’s important to maintain “old school” discipline in the new media. The channel presnets new opportunities and problems, but if you’ll have a better chance for success if you keep the fundamentals in mind. Clear, consistent message aligned with brand goals; take ownership of every element of your brand (even if it’s a person), listen well, react quickly.

  • My favorite blogger, I am behind in catching up. The comments are as acute as the original post. Thank you!

    Now for one edit…it’s “yin” and “yang.” The urban dictionary describes “ying yang” as “the erroneous spelling of yin-yang.”

    Had to share b/c I got this wrong playing a TV gameshow in the arm chair, and now it will forever never be again!

    @Soulati (which I think I’ll keep and brand for life)

  • Mark

    Shucks. You’re my favorite Soulati. Thanks for the kind words.

  • First, my agent assures me my contract is good for another five years, so all you die-hard @sharpiesusan fans can rest easy! : ) : ) I confess, Mark, I think you over-stated my Twitter celebrity by, like, A CAJILLION MILLION KILOWATTS!!! Where are the limos? Where’s my reality TV show? Why am I still driving a Nisson Rogue to work every day (sweet ride, BTW)? Truth is that while we’d all like to think we’re irreplaceable in our jobs, we’re not. I managed through the transition from Johnny to Jay. I embraced Meredith on Today when Katie cut loose for CBS (not sure I’d recover if Ellen did same). I don’t mean to downplay the value of “celebrity” Tweeters — good stuff bubbles to the top in Twitterville and when it happens, companies should hang on for the ride. But when “celebrity” Tweeters move on, there are lots of smart, funny, talented, passionate Twitter-brand ingenues waiting in the wings — and they probably won’t be demanding corner offices or their own personlized Twitter license plates. I’d also appreciate it when the time comes if they’d let me have a say in my replacement. I feel fairly certain Kate Gosselin would be a mistake (although our hairstyles are somewhat similar, mine minus the japanese fan splay she has going in the back). Instead, I’d like to recommend Kathy Griffin. We share our rightful place on the D List (hers in the land of big-time celebs, me in Twitterville). And if you’ve seen her show, you know she is a passionate Sharpie fan. There will need to be adjustments, of course. She’ll have to Sharpie out all the curse words – makes legal crazy.

    Thanks for the great post, Mark! Off to upload some Twitpics of myself, then tea with Ashton at the Kabbalah Center : ) : ) !! up : ) : )

  • This is an insightful post Mark.
    Cut to the chase and getting to the point,
    not every ‘tweeter’tweets in a similar fashion. I agree with Kelly that you need different ids for personal/professional interaction.
    But how about creating an entirely unique Avataar on the company name which isn’t related to the person who’s tweeting on the company’s behalf?
    That way, when someone wants to move on,the transition can be dealt with enough explanations and proper guidance about the sensitivities of the followers and the ‘nerve’ of the tweeter – The company!

  • Thanks, @Dipal. I think this is the decision many companies are facing. However, it is seemingly so much more effective to have a real personality with a human involved. A few months ago I did a study of B2B social media presence and one of the things that really differentiated some companies is the fact that they had personalities associated with the tweets, not just a company logo avatar. Can you really engage with a logo? It is an option, but it may suboptimize your effectiveness.

  • I’m with Greg Morris on the “bench” strategy, but that still leaves the problem of possibly disjointed personalities on the channel. To fix that, I’d suggest figuring out first what the BRAND’s personality is, and then find a handful of spokespersons who can naturally exemplify it. That way the company gets all the benefits of a personal tone, and the costs of an eventual departure is lowered.

  • Where is this talk coming from about Susan leaving?! Where do you think she’s going (Susan, are you hiding something from me!) I 100% feel that she is irreplaceable. Confident, smart and witty, Susan brings something fresh to the table every day. I’ve known her for few years now and fully agree with Bert DuMars’ (@bwdumars)statement: “We sincerely hope she stays with us for a very long time…she is a passionate brand advocate for Sharpie and our other Office Products brands including Expo Markers, Uni-Ball, Prismacolor and Paper Mate to name but a few.”
    The purpose of my presence (@SharpieWhit) is not intended to replace anyone. Rather, I am just another voice, a person with a personality all my own. I’m here to listen to the customer, help out @SharpieSusan, share my thoughts, write about topics that are interesting & relavent and build some friendships along the way.
    As for this “understudy” role…I promise to not rig up any booby-traps in an effort to step into the limelight and steal some of Susan’s star power. That being said, it’s all on her is she gets the H1N1 virus 😀

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  • Mark

    @David I’ve played around with the idea of a “scripted” brand preence with one customer, but it is TOUGH to maintain a brand “character” consistently, especially when the market responds to authenticity. The character is bound to evolve to the real person’s personality over time. I’m sure this will be a solution for some companies, though.

  • Mark

    @Whit, thanks for stopping by. Sue has a lot of fans through my blog, so you better start getting in here and mixing it up with the audience here at {grow}!

  • 1st Darren here… (great analogy). There was a day when I was rockin’ the Graco social media efforts (under the Newell Rubbermaid umbrella- sister co. to Sharpie/Sanford) and I thought to myself, “how will Graco make this transition without me?” (Graco moved to Atlanta and left me Bewitched in Pennsylvania:) Actually I decided not to make the move down south) I had established such good relationships with parenting bloggers that I felt, for a time, I was irreplaceable. Well that’s like living in Twitterville- not reality.

    The fact of the matter is that people loved my brand way before I became the face of it. It was nice that they got to interact with someone they liked and respected and that I worked hard to build relationships with them, but I still represented a company, a brand that they were more interested in getting to know then the most recent blogger/twitterer/facebooker. Having someone awesome (like Susan cause’ she is way, way cool) representing your brand is like icing on the cake- but it’s not the whole cake.

    One of the points not being made is rocking corporate social media isn’t just about the face you show to consumers, it’s so much about what goes on behind the scenes. It’s about being a social media champion to stakeholders inside the company. It’s about socializing your business from the inside and breaking down the walls that exist between corporate and consumers. Not just being the voice of the brand out to the world, but bringing the voice of the consumer inside to build a better brand from the inside-out. It’s when rockstars do this, that we get to see them shine their brightest. Susan has worked her tail off to bring about change at the corporate level and so much of what she does (and so many others) goes beyond their [hilarious in this case] comments on Twitter.

    After all, people come and go, and if those people that come and go do their jobs right and well, they build brands that will live beyond them. That’s the point anyway, isn’t it?

  • Mark

    @Lindsay — Wow, what a great post! This is truly a unique perspective.

    I just had this conversation with a colleague yesterday — discussing the INTERNAL work that has to occur to be successful, fighting the political battles that we never see, trying to become accepted in a culture that doesn’t understand social media.

    Really great commentary. Thanks!

  • Lindsay, great feedback! Very inciteful.
    I’m really enjoying this conversation.
    This is a great forum because while many of us would like to think of ourselves to some extent as “social media experts,” we really are all still learning! We learn from each other and from our mistakes; we see what works and what doesn’t and grow (no pun intended) from there.
    Mark, thanks for this post, I’ll be sure to stick around. Thank you to everyone participating too!

  • @Mark Yep, it’s going to happen sometimes when a talented spokesperson really shines through. But I’m thinking more along the lines of how a brand is expressed through its culture, and picking employees/spokespersons who exemplify it. Like when you walk into an Apple store. The genius bar folks are different people, and have different personalities, but they all fit within a certain Apple-like zone in their point of view. They’re a reliable expression of the brand’s personality, but also quite authentic. Of course there is that one guy who helped me that one time and I feel loyal to him… 🙂

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