One of the most powerful tools available to aspiring leaders is a personal brand. As branding expert Becky Livingston shared in her webinar last spring, your public reputation and persona helps you cultivate relationships and create opportunities.
Successful personal brands are neither quick nor easy to create, but they can take just a few inappropriate actions to destroy. In the past few weeks, we’ve learned the hard way – from Paula Deen’s example – just how quickly and drastically the brand of a public celebrity, politician or leader can plummet.
Paula Deen’s is known as the sweet, sassy and heartwarmingly crass queen of Southern cooking. And compared to her less approachable contemporaries like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, Deen has developed a persona as a down-home, salt(ed butter)-of-the-earth grandmother figure : trustworthy, up-front and 100% real.
Because trustworthiness is so central to Deen’s brand, the news that leaked this past month of her racist comments and behavior have taken a drastic a toll on Paula Deen’s brand. Business Week, in an article that details the most inflammatory behavior alleged against her, estimates that, “In the aftermath of the revelations, Deen’s business empire has collapsed.”
Deen’s declining personal brand has spurred business partners like Wal-Mart, Target, Sears and Home Depot to sever or suspend ties. Most drastically, Food Network did not renew her contract when it expired in June, and Random House canceled their contract to publish 5 more of her cookbooks.
Why is it that celebrities and politicians like Charlie Sheen and Anthony Weiner still find public approval after their scandals, but Paula Deen might not? Partly, I think, because the public forgives personal scandals more readily than the kind of racism Deen admits to displaying.
But even more importantly is that Deen’s behavior was just not just unprofessional, it was totally at odds with the public’s image of her. The story media tells now is how a benevolent, apron-clad grandmother might really be an intolerant person who calculated her relationship with the public in order to maximize her profit. What this means is Paula Deen is a human and a strategic business woman, though many of her fans feel betrayed or disillusioned.
Though many predict Deen’s demise, the same could have been said of Martha Stewart, who piloted her career back from the edge of very public scandals. The lifestyle mogul commented succinctly on Deen’s situation: “She’s a public figure. And I know you have to be extremely careful being a public figure.” Valuable advice for anyone cultivating a personal brand.