Managing human brands

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Managing Human Brands

When managing a human brand (including your own), there is one metric that matters most

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I’ve been lucky to work on a broad range of branding assignments— semiconductors, dolls, vodka and panties (there’s a punch line waiting to be written in that true life sequence). Over the past few years at UTA, a lot of my attention has focused on human brands like celebrities and influential people. It’s no surprise that I’m often asked, “How do you manage a human brand?”

The answer is: delicately.

The biggest difference between creating strategies for corporate brands and human brands is that human brands are … well, human. They have emotions. Their lives are complex and nuanced and always less than perfect. You can talk to a CEO about her corporate brand without much risk of offending her personally. It’s not as easy when the brand you’re discussing is the person sitting in front of you.

A lot of what I discuss in this week’s Report uses celebrities as a case example, but the insights I’m about to share can be just as easily applied to real estate agents, community organizers, lawyers, or anyone who wants to develop equity in their public persona.

Like any brand, we can measure the value of a human brand by awareness and familiarity. Reach and resonance certainly matter. Likability is also a popular metric. Unfortunately, likability is unreliable. We can like brands without being persuaded by them. That’s why I tend to focus more on attachment and credibility.

I’ve written about attachment a lot. It’s a dimension of branding that considers the connection we feel. How much or how little is the brand like me? How much would I like to be like the brand? Do I see the brand as a role model? Attachment captures all of these. And this quality of attachment is not exclusive to famous brands like celebrities. We can feel attachment toward school teachers or local business leaders, for example.

Unlike likability, attachment is a very reliable predictor of behavior. When we are attached to a human brand, we are more likely to follow their guidance, defend them when they make mistakes, and promote them voluntarily through our growing social networks.

While attachment is a key outcome of strong human brands, it isn’t always the best strategy guide. If you find that your brand has low levels of attachment, the question often looms about what to do to improve it.

That’s where credibility comes in. Over the years I’ve applied many different credibility models to my research on human brands. One very strong model was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2004. It found that two variables have the most impact in calculating brand credibility: trustworthiness and expertise. While this research focused on more traditional corporate and product brands, I’ve found that it applies quite nicely to human brands as well. One caveat applies: Whereas trustworthiness is an all-purpose variable (people either think you are trustworthy or they don’t), expertise is highly contextual. I might trust you implicitly, but that doesn’t mean that you have the credibility to operate on me, unless you’re a surgeon, of course.

Lately, I’ve adopted several metrics from a 1990 study published in the Journal of Advertising. Like the 2004 JCR study, it includes trustworthiness and expertise to calculate credibility for human brands. But its model also considers an additional variable: attractiveness. This shouldn’t be all that surprising to you. In last week’s Report I shared a 2007 study that demonstrated how people were more interested in an article of clothing after seeing an attractive person wearing it. Attractiveness can increase a brand’s persuasive power. It’s worth noting that attractiveness has many forms. While it certainly encompasses good looks and sex appeal, it also includes charm, grace, and sophistication.

I usually measure these credibility variables through survey research. I average the scores along each component dimension and then combine them to calculate a composite mean and median value.

Lately, I’ve found it very useful to look at the ratio of the scores in the components (attractiveness, trustworthiness, and domain-specific expertise). Using a seven-point scale, I disregard answers from three to five. Statistically, we’ve found that these scores collectively represent a neutral opinion. So, I look at the ratio of sixes and sevens to ones and twos (see the example).


This credibility ratio has proven itself valuable. When it is greater than one, it usually means there is strong equity in that dimension of the client’s brand equity. When it is less than one, it means we may want to get to work, or pick a different strategy. For example, if a client’s expertise score is 0.67 in a category where we want to build a business, it may mean we need to expose more examples of the client’s knowledge and experience in this domain in order to strengthen their ability to influence their following.

Again, while all of the examples I’ve provided are in the context of famous people, they can apply to any human brand. If you were trying to build your personal brand at work, you might focus on strengthening your attractiveness by considering everything from changes in grooming to behavior modification. How approachable are you? How much do you project confidence? You might improve your trustworthiness through a focus on team interactions; providing examples of your dependability. Or you might focus on improving perceptions of your expertise by sharing what you’ve learned through your own experience or by increasing your knowledge of critical subject matter and sharing it liberally. While you may find it hard to measure your scores through a brand credibility survey, the dimensions are there and the impact can be the same.


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