Jerry Wilson knows a thing or two about brands and brand management.
Wilson is senior vice president and chief customer and commercial officer for The Coca-Cola Company, the number one soft drink company and most recognized brand in the world. Prior to his current post, Wilson served as president of Coca-Cola's McDonald's Division-the world's number one fast food chain (by sales) and a fellow top ten finisher on the short list of most globally recognized brands. Last year alone, the two companies combined for over $57 billion in sales.
Honing the strategies of two of the globe's biggest brands, Wilson learned something else: We are all brands, as he told a group of Executive MBA students recently at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. Wilson was not just talking about big-time companies and top-tier celebrities; he was talking about serious business people across the globe.
Wilson has adapted the principles and strategies of corporate and product branding to develop a disciplined program of personal brand building in his recent book, Managing Brand You: Seven Steps to Creating Your Most Successful Self, co-authored with Ira Blumenthal.
The book offers a roadmap for building an effective-and genuine-personal brand, drawing on instructive examples from successful corporations such as The Coca-Cola Company and General Electric, and from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bono. Early in his discussion at Goizueta, for example, Wilson asked the students what came to mind when they thought of Tiger Woods. A leader, one said. Risk taker, noted another. A third said, Winner.
Interesting, observed Wilson. No one said, ‘golfer.'
While golfer is Woods' actual job description, explained Wilson, the emotional connection people have with the elite athlete trumps his golfing skills. And it is this connection that led Nike to agree to pay Woods $40 million to wear the company's apparel and use its equipment.
The recent histories of companies such as Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, GM, and Ford illustrate how a brand, or brand space, can change almost overnight. It's the power of images, noted Wilson, recalling how the CEOs of the big three automakers in Washington D.C., there to request bailouts for their ailing companies, were photographed exiting their corporate jets. Everything communicates, and they got mauled.
Decades ago, Nike moved beyond athletic footwear and into other product lines, but the main message of the $12.7 billion sporting goods company remained as it has for the last thirty years: Just Do It. Wilson asked the audience, How consistent are you as Brand YOU? The great brands, Wilson explained, don't leave their core message.
Founded on a systematic process developed over the past few years, Wilson and Blumenthal took proven consumer branding techniques and applied them to individuals. The resulting program details 7 essential steps or stages of personal brand building: auditing one's brand, assessing one's image, determining one's identity, positioning oneself, setting goals, establishing strategies, and implementing one's brand.
The first step, a brand audit, involves asking, Who am I and how did I get here? explained Wilson. We are a function of everything that has happened to get us here, he said. Good, bad, enlightening or disappointing, experiences shape individuals and may well carry the key to future success.
By chronicling one's life and mining life experiences for useful insights and lessons, says Wilson, a person can harness even negative experiences for movement forward, rather than carrying unacknowledged baggage that hinders professional advancement.
Companies with strong brands often audit themselves. In the late 1960s, Harley-Davidson, Inc., then losing significant ground to Japanese motorcycle makers, faced bankruptcy. In 1981, the company was sold to investors who subsequently returned the company to its original look and feel. A thorough brand audit uncovered an untapped wellspring of brand loyalists: a group of incredibly loyal Harley owners. Management set up the Harley Owners Group (better known as HOG) in 1983, with over a million members today.
Harley Davidson got back to its roots, said Wilson. Rather than compete with the offerings of Japanese motorcycle companies, Harley Davidson rallied around the company's product as an American icon, as well as the free-spirited and (although company literature may not say so directly) rebellious nature of more than a few Harley owners. It rebuilt its product and, as a result, its brand.
Step two in Wilson's program addresses the question of image. In this step, individuals both list the qualities they think make them unique, and analytically assess how others perceive them. A corporate world example: Hear the name Volvo and one of the first things that comes to mind is safety. That reaction doesn't happen by chance. The company has over 40 patents related to automotive safety.
People provide ample clues to how they perceive others. Wilson suggests being open to receiving these direct-and indirect-messages and using them to fine-tune one's personal brand. Incorporating feedback from job reviews and trusted individuals helps to reduce the dissonance between self-image and others' perceptions. Utilizing online tools such as the Myers-Briggs Assessment personality test can also be beneficial. This step is a reality check, Wilson explained, or in other words, a chance to see oneself as others do, rather than persist in a false reality.
The third step, determining one's identity, entails a process of reflecting on core values and principles. In this stage, individuals define their personal and intellectual equities. This step is about identifying transferable core strengths that can be deployed to effect professional, as well as personal, changes.
In the corporate world, both automaker Subaru and online company L.L.Bean represent brands that merge city life with the great outdoors. After recognizing the similarities between their brand equities, the two companies teamed up to produce the limited edition L.L.Bean Subaru Outback and Forester models for the USA market.
L.L.Bean recognized that its brand's essence could translate to automobiles, explained Wilson, but there are plenty of examples of ways in which individuals miss the transferability of their core strengths. For instance, there are thousands of currently unemployed autoworkers wondering how they might get another job in the automobile industry. Why? asked Wilson. Take your skills and work for a city to rebuild bridges.
Given current changes in the economy, now is a good time to re-evaluate both professional and personal priorities, and to differentiate oneself with prospective employers, Wilson said. Step four is about doing so. In brand lingo, this step is involves positioning oneself. Successful brands, explained Wilson, focus their efforts on a specific set of consumers and their needs; they don't try to be all things to all people. This step is where you define your target group and how you want them to perceive you.
This is more than crafting a job description, Wilson noted, and is a question of differentiating oneself. I try to position myself as a strategic partner with McDonald's, not as a vendor, said Wilson. It's easy to say, ‘vendor' but you can't live there. There's too much competition today.
In the fifth step of personal brand building, Wilson encourages setting holistic goals by thinking SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. For example, when Jack Welch ran GE, he asked two questions: What business should we be in and what business should we be out of? If GE couldn't attain the goal of being number one or two in the fields in which it competed, it exited the field.
Once goals have been established, it's essential to choose optimal strategies for achieving them. Taking the time to consider a variety of avenues-some of which may not be obvious at first-will heighten chances for success. For instance, when Gillette wanted to increase market share, the company ultimately decided to give away the razor and make money selling razor blades. The strategy worked and led to innovations in razor blade technology and to industry leadership.
The last step, implementation, entails committing oneself to a specific plan of action. At this point in Wilson's program, it is time to put pencil to paper. He advises setting exact dates and times for commitments and recording the results. You've done all these things and suddenly you're freaked out, so you back off and go to your safety zone, said Wilson. You've got to commit.
Panic would have been an understandable response in the early days of FedEx. These days, overnight delivery of packages is an established, commonplace service. But when FedEx came out with its first tagline, Absolutely, Positively Overnight, it took courage to make that statement. But FedEx was ready to implement its positioning plan of overnight delivery, and while the taglines have changed over the years, the company-and brand-has remained consistent to its core message of providing customers with short-term delivery and logistical solutions.
Whether or not the executive MBA students Wilson spoke to will complete Wilson and Blumenthal's Seven Steps to Brand YOU, the challenges awaiting them in the current job market may motivate them to think of themselves as brands.
These steps are useful anytime, not just in a sour economy. In his book, Wilson says that whenever a person experiences or desires a change in life, taking a long look at one's brand and monitoring one's brand's health is crucial. After all, he writes, unpoliced brands lose their value. Focus on continuous improvement and plan your life to work your plan.