Star Power: Where Does It Come From?

On his blog Web Ink Now David Meerman Scott asks a really provocative question: does star power come from a personal brand or from a corporate brand?  Essentially, does Really Big Company lose out when Really Famous Guy leaves or does Really Famous Guy lose credibility when he is no longer associated with Really Big Company?

This reminded me of one of my favorite bits from Ruth Reichl’s book, Garlic and Sapphires, which is about her years as the New York Times restaurant critic.

As she tells the tale, the former critic, Bryan Miller, starts to give her the cold shoulder.  Unsure of why she asks one of the secretaries who tells her that he is bitter at having given up the job as he now realizes this star power has been much diminished.  The secretary tells her:

After nine years he thought it was all about him, that the paper was holding him back.  When he gave up the beat, he thought the offers would come pouring in.

The offers do not, as it turns out, pour in.

The woman goes on to advise Ruth to remember where the fame really comes from:

[L]ater, when everyone’s telling you how wonderful you are, don’t forget this.  Remember that no matter how well you do the job, the power is not yours.  It all, every scrap of it, belongs to this institution.  You’re just a byline. Take a good look.  The minute you give up the job, you become a nobody.  Like him.

Ruth learns the lesson.  She does eventually give up the Times job, but only after landing an even better gig as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

I actually think the answer isn’t either/or.  It’s both/and.  No question that Ruth Reichl became a star because of her association with the Times and then Gourmet.  But now she is Ruth Reichl and has a personal brand that is separate from the specific institution she is associated with.

What does this mean for companies and for employees?

My advice to companies:

  1. Don’t overestimate the importance of “stars”: Yes, superstars can be a boon to your company and even to your brand.  But if you’ve built an enduring brand that is bigger than any one person then the loss of even a few key superstars isn’t the end of the world.
  2. Support your stars, but do it in the context of your corporate brand: Let your employees worry about their personal brands.  They will anyway.  You can support their efforts but do it in a way that enhances your company brand.
  3. Hire lots of stars: This is a no-brainer.  Diversify your assets.  If just one person speaks on behalf of your company then you are truly up a creek if that star leaves.  Have a stable of stars.  Then you are less vulnerable to any one of them leaving.

My advice to employees:

  1. Take a page from the Book of Ruth: Don’t underestimate the reflected glow that comes from the company you work for.  The bigger your employer’s brand, the more care you should take to not believe too much of your own press.  And be sure to set yourself up with a new great gig before you leave the current great gig.
  2. Associate with great brands: No matter how smart or talented you are the brand for which you work has a big effect on your personal brand.  Choose your employers well.