Stephanie DuPree describes herself as a performance-driven, sales and marketing professional who’s representing the SLIPNOT brand.

What she doesn’t overtly say is that she’s a highly successful technical sales and account manager who deeply understands her markets, customers, and product applications. She’s assessed food and beverage manufacturing plants, inspected commercial and residential construction sites, has been a stand-out at many trade shows converting leads into sales like it’s nobody’s business, and with the personality the size of the state of Texas (where she lives).

Stephanie has shared that she unapologetically uses the assets she’s been given. Nope, that doesn’t mean sex appeal – it means that she is distinctly a woman in male-dominated industries with great intellectual curiosity and creativity, strong interpersonal skills, and technical acumen.

When asked to write a different kind of piece assessing distinctive brand assets, or a non-brand-name trigger that’s verbal, visual, or auditory, and immediately creates brand recall in the minds of consumers and stakeholders, Stephanie was the first point of recall.

Why? Because the theory of distinctive brand assets focuses on the importance of unique, identifying characteristics and not unique selling propositions. Doing it right makes it easier for consumers and stakeholders to notice, recognize, recall, buy, or invest in the brand.

People as distinctive brand assets

Engaging people as distinctive brand assets works symbiotically with Human Capital Management (HCM) which is a timely and urgent business driver. Organizations with strong HCM view people as more than just overhead – in financial speak, they’re an intangible business asset whose value can be maximized through strategic investment and management.

In fact, human capital is estimated to comprise, on average, 52% of a company’s market value – and the value is only growing. The nature and future of work are quickly changing, new generations are shaping the workforce, and businesses are focused on corporate purpose and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) topics. Influential investors like BlackRock and State Street Global Advisors have made human capital priorities while ESG reporting frameworks like the Global Reporting Initiative and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board have identified human capital as a key value-driver.

Doesn’t this business case sound familiar? Brand marketers position brands as intangible assets – goodwill that sits on the balance sheet with financial value and equity. And, in fact, often, the financial value of brands is calculated based upon traditional distinctive brand assets including:

  • Trademarks and copyrights;
  • Copyrights
  • Website domains;
  • Branded intellectual property;
  • Customer relationships and strength of customer brands.

Imagine the potential for organizations that view human capital and the Stephanies of the world as distinctive brand assets. Valuing the alignment of company culture, human behavior, and capability with the brand attributes of the firm results in stronger product launches, fewer regulatory hurdles, less litigation, greater engagement, and lower turnover.

Branded characters

Marketers have long used celebrities to represent their brands – this practice dates back to the 1930s when Babe Ruth served as spokesperson for Red Rock Cola. We’ve also easily recognized brand mascots like Ronald McDonald, the Planters Peanut, Mr. Clean, and the Geico Gecko. These are examples of distinctive brand assets that have withstood the test of time, even if the products they represented haven’t.

Yet a new definition of brand character has emerged –individuals who exemplify the personality characteristics attributed to a brand name. A brand character who has a strong personal leader brand and exemplifies the behavioral attributes of a company or product brand can be a qualitative value-add.

When you do a napkin-based assessment of Stephanie against the personality of the SLIPNOT brand that she represents, it takes about 30 seconds to conclude that, in addition to the experiences and beliefs that have shaped her personal leader brand, she embodies the compassion, and the consultative, business casual and active style of the corporate and product brands. And this was recently affirmed by the top company investor who was “blown away by Stephanie because she knows her stuff and knows how to work with customers.”

Brand characters humanize and make brands dramatically more communicative and relatable. They aren’t trying to create the next big thing – they represent classic and timeless ideas. They typically do not represent multiple brands, unless an organization wants or needs them to, and they offer opportunities to evolve with creative campaigns and storytelling about the brand. They tie their brand to a certain theme that consumers and stakeholders can connect with on a deep, personal level.

Where to start?

Determine the purpose of positioning people as distinctive brand assets

Are you working for a business in transformation where people create confidence (like BP after the oil spill)? Are your consumers telling you that they want something more authentic like the Lucky Brand? During the pandemic, Lucky has been featuring employees in informal settings at home through an online hub of tutorials on how to make masks and tips from working from home.

Are you positioning technology for asset managers, individual accredited investors, and investment bankers that requires the domain investor and banking expertise, like JASPY? Or are you working to break away from the pack and differentiate the customer brand experience like SLIPNOT?

Partner with Human Resources (HR)

Human Capital Management is a significant business driver, and understanding the organization’s view and expectations of talent, development, critical roles, succession planning, and leadership competencies will help crystallize the sweet spot between people and the brand. Together, you can answer questions about capabilities, personality, experience, and define the attributes of a brand character. Working with HR also presents an opportunity to reinforce and recognize employee behaviors and create accountabilities for participation.  

Decide how and where to mobilize

How you do it’ is equally as important as ‘what you do’. Your standard opportunities are using employees in advertising or video campaigns; and creating employee social media ambassadors (or even the occasional employee celebrity brand character).

However, we urge marketers to think deeper, and assess every customer touchpoint where a people-driven experience can create a lasting impression – from thought leadership to community impact, customer service, accounts payable, order management, technical support, front-end sales, and executive management. Incent and unleash brand characters (within guidelines) to personalize the brand, create new rituals, and continuously repeat the behaviors that work.

Measure success

Measuring human capital as a distinctive brand attribute is one of the more straightforward brand metrics. Whether through your traditional top-of-the-funnel, lead-generation measurements or in your customer satisfaction surveys, you can ask:

How many customers are asking for a product or service or even asking for Stephanie herself after engaging with her? How many customers are recommending the company and its products as a result of Stephanie? How much unaided brand awareness does the company have when attending a trade show with Stephanie?

You can also share the measurement wealth with your HR partners who are challenged to publicly report data about human capital. How many employees have publicly represented the company with stakeholders like customers, investors, suppliers, media, and other influencers? What’s the median net promoter score of customer-facing employees?

Traditional and distinctive brand assets

The focus on human capital as a distinctive brand asset enhances, not diminishes, the importance of having brand elements that people instantly recognize as you. The Christian Louboutin red-soled shoe, Wendy’s square cheeseburger, the Olympic rings, the Nike swoosh, or even the opening song from “Friends” (I’ll be there for you, by the Rembrandts). These assets are memorable, create emotional connections, and most importantly, are consistently applied.

Start with what you have

Like Stephanie suggests in her statement about using her assets, start by looking at what you do have. In the case of SLIPNOT, it had a name that unmistakably screamed “safety” and “we stop slips.” In changing the primary brand color to yellow (the universal color representing safety in a business that is targeting safety managers) and creating a shield icon sends a message that the brand is a safety hero.

Ask employees, consumers, and other stakeholders

Engage through traditional forums and social media, soliciting feedback, missed opportunities, and ideas for better ways to engage. Test new concepts, communicate openly about what’s working, and give credit to consumers where credit is due. DeWalt tools engage customers in its product development cycle, testing new packaging and designs (beyond its standard yellow and black) and its website usability. Consumers have improved the safety and usability of products and have helped to bring new cordless hammer drills to market.

Don’t be afraid of rapid experiments

While changing the flavor of Coca-Cola was a high-profile experiment gone wrong, most brands who know their consumers and stakeholders well can afford to take the risk of a few rapid experiments. The Bed Bath and Beyond blue coupon mailer started in the 1970s as a one-off promotion and a way for the brand to avoid advertising. Or, in 2006, Johnson Controls tried something new. It issued its first Energy Index Survey in an effort to connect its brand to energy efficiency. Fifteen years later, the company has become synonymous with the index and industry-wide, it’s simply known as the Energy Index Survey.

As marketers, we are data-driven and rely upon insights and validation. Creating brand assets that last doesn’t mean that we need to throw data out the window – it does mean that we consider what makes for a lasting intangible business asset which includes understanding our consumers and stakeholders, getting creative, taking some risks, and using what we’ve got.

Cover image source: Alexander Suhorucov