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Dirty little “L” Word No One in Social Media is Talking About

This blog post could go one of two ways.  It may spark a new twist on the debate over personal brands, or it may be laughed at as another attempt by an over 40 professional, not hip to the new trends in business, trying to make a point.  In this social media/ internet marketing world I am starting to feel very old before my time (might need a cane soon), but I think this industry would be wise to consider some traditional “anthropological”/culture issues as it grows.

Pretty consistently technology drives well ahead of our culture’s ability to properly handle it.  From the Internet’s impact on pornography in the early/mid 1990s to our tax laws trying desperately to catch up with e-commerce, technology continues to throw our culture off its foundation.

With Social Media the dirty little “L” word is loyalty.  I think this word lies between the cross hairs of character and maturity.  It is a word that means different things to different people but can also be seen in some interesting legal precedent.

Legal Precedent

Does anyone remember the Barbie vs. Bratz court case (AKA Mattel vs. MGA Entertainment)? Simply stated, the designer of Bratz worked for Mattel.  Mattel said “no” to the idea but the designer was able to sell the idea to MGA Entertainment and Bratz were created.  Mattel sued saying they owned the idea since it was developed while the designer worked for them.  Mattel won round one but MGA won a recent decision. Read the link below for an update on the case.  I believe this case could build some interesting precedent around social media.

http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2067001,00.html

Personal Brands

It is my belief that the ability to build a personal brand ranks in the top 5 of the impact internet marketing has had on business and commerce.  It is astonishing how quickly and effectively someone can gain, near instant, creditability when building and maintaining a personal brand.  This is where it gets sticky.  For full-time contractors/self-employed professionals this is a non-issue.  For workers who are currently a full-time employee, building a personal brand on the side comes with risks.

Loyalty: When I look at and ponder my professional career path up till now, I realize loyalty was the difference maker.  Showing and proving loyalty to my employer (even though it never made me the highest paid person on staff) provided me a vast array of professional growth opportunities. What I am saying is loyalty is a critical trait for long term professional growth.  A personal brand can be seen by everyone, including your boss, your boss’s boss and so on.   When I look at a personal brand, it is sad to say but the first thing I think about is: Heck, they had time to do this, so why didn’t they spend more time on our internal project X.”  Secondly I think: Do they care more about their brand or the company who pays their bills?  Finally I wonder: How much business are they getting on the side because of this blog? I wonder if we share customers.  In the end it is difficult for a traditional manager not to start questioning the loyalty of a worker with a strong personal brand, it is only natural.  Now I have read the dissenting opinion that building a personal brand can significantly increase the corporate brand equity its attached to and I understand that point, but I think it goes back to character and maturity of the person, or rather, their intent.

Intent: I love this word.  It is the foundation on which all circumstantial criminal and spirit and intent civil cases are made.  The key question on a personal brand, from a manager’s perspective, will be:  What is the intent of the employee?  Sad thing is, this becomes somewhat of a judgment/subjective call based on the perceived character, maturity, and loyalty of the employee and objective call based on the content of the employees branding efforts.  Interestingly, this can become a generational thing.  Based on the demographics and stereotypes of generation X, more assumptions will tend toward personal brand intent based on building the individual not the company.  Remember generation X lived through the death of the corporation as a “through retirement and beyond plan” and into the wild world of 401K and maximizing individual return.  Whereas generation Y seems to be more focused on the “wow”, the “what if”, and the “this is cool and different and powerful” mindset that would drive intent towards building the company as much, if not more, than the individual.  There is not a specific study that can be referenced on the generational concept, but an interesting place to start would be to review this article on generation “Y”. http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/07/20/hot.schedules.millenials/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Content Ownership: I am not a lawyer (and do not play one on TV), but from my basic knowledge of employment law I believe that anything developed with direct ties to what your company does during the time period of your employment with that company is considered owned by your company.  This is the foundation of the Mattel case against MGA Entertainment. So from my perspective, personal brand developers who are currently employed should watch this case very closely.  In the end this is a true case of where our culture/laws/anthropology has not caught up with technology.  The legal precedent has not been set yet which really means advantage to the business over the individual.  I can foresee a case were a business owner/manager sues an ex-employee for damages, content and customer ownership based on personal brand.  Meaning any book, blog content, video or customers, developed based on the personal brand, would be claimed by the ex-company.  The outcome can only be speculated on BUT the employee will be put through the wringer and could pay some serious legal expense.

Summary

When employed, building a personal brand can be a risky proposition.  The first thing that is going to be called into question is your loyalty.  The first question is:  Why not build that branding on your company’s blog or doing company videos?  Then the question of intent will arise; which is all based on speculation and subjective opinion, an area you NEVER want to get into if at all possible.  Finally, the issue of ownership of what was built can be called into question, which could ultimately end ugly.  I think it all comes down to that one dirty little “L” word – loyalty.  As you build a personal brand and, at the same time, are employed with a company, where is your loyalty? Especially, if your personal brand is tied either with the industry your company is in or the work you do for that company.  And as stated above, loyalty is at the cross hairs of character and maturity.  Show this and there is no problem.  If you can’t or won’t, well, you live in the wild west of legal precedent and your boss’s whim.

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