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Chip Conley: When Social Media Branding Goes Bad

The story about hotelier Chip Conley posting pictures of himself stripped to the waist, previously published on Bnet raises some interesting questions on how personal your online presence should be, if you are associated with a corporate brand.

Much as I love social media and the power it gives to ordinary people, I believe there is also a tendency to over-expose things on these platforms, which are of little or no interest and may even be abusive.

Sometimes this is the result of clumsiness but chances are, scandal mongering is a potential motive too. Twitter messages from people saying "Hello World" or even the recent October tweet craze followed by those who stated "I've just made love" and pinned their names on a map were innocuous examples of cyberbabble

Linking personal statements like these to a brand name is however not a good idea, unless you want to risk a scandal in order to raise your profile. In which case, this is buzz marketing at its best -- risk included.

I'm not certain that this is what Conley had in mind, even though he did manage to get some attention. The main issue is not the burning man pictures of him half-naked, but the fact that they were linked to a corporate image. Now that the dust has settled, here are my two cents on the Conley story:

  • Conley argues in his article that there is no double standard. Yet, if someone from his hotel chain were posting a picture of themselves at an S&M party while were wearing a company t-shirt, he would consider this as an issue. Assuming there is nothing illegal about that S&M party or anything that is in the picture, I would consider both cases to be similar. If Richard Branson were to post naked pictures of himself on facebook, people would rightfully associate these pictures with Virgin (as a matter of fact, someone did that on his behalf).
  • As a rule, there is no need to share that type of content unless you'd want to shock or provoke. In this particular instance, it could be said it's in line with Conley's corporate culture, but if so, shouldn't this culture be extended to employees also?
  • The whole episode makes a good case for a formal social media policy. It's even recommended for disclosure purposes. Education, trust and management aren't bad either. Enforcing both is probably the best case scenario. People should also be given a chance to make amends. After all, this is what Conley did himself.
Brands are important and sensitive. Besides, an Internet presence is a powerful ingredient of personal branding. Associating non-professional content to a brand is not a good idea though.

My advice is never to associate your brand with strong content or feelings. Keep them separate and create another account under an assumed name or a nickname and avatar that people can't recognise. Even in the web 2.0 world, there is still such a thing as private life.

If, on the contrary, you feel like starting a buzz marketing campaign, don't follow my advice. Just go on unabated. However, remember that what celebs can get away with, you might not be able to survive. Not everybody is an iconic entrepreneur; middle managers are more exposed to risk.

(Pic: Ed_45 cc2.0)

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