/ When Your Employee is the Brand

Workplace squabbles over promotions or cubicle space are typically negotiated behind closed doors. But what happens when the employee is a brand? They may take their causes to the airwaves. Conan O’Brien did just that. After being screwed out of his Tonight Show time slot, he submitted his resignation letter… to the New York Times blog.

The power of Conan, the brand, is that he can rally viewers around a cause they can all relate to — the employee who worked late shifts all the way to the top only to be slighted in the end. (When I read Conan’s blog, I couldn’t help but think to myself: Go Conan, stick it to the man).

Of course, Conan isn’t one of the masses. He’s paid a helluva lot more than the masses. But, he has a brand story that will resonate — he’s one of us.  If I was Conan’s boss, I’d be worried. When a brand has a good story to tell, it/she/he can move the market.

But, most employers aren’t NBC execs. They don’t have to worry about their employees becoming the brand. Or, do they? The fact of the matter is: employees are the nuts-and-bolts and spirit of the brand. The institution that is Nike began with a tight-knit group of diehard employees who allegedly had the swoosh tattooed on their bodies. They were the brand. The same was true for Ben & Jerry’s, Snapple and Whole Foods. The best companies to work for are often the best companies to buy from.

As employees become more powerful, through the same interactive tools that enable customers to drive and deride brands online, companies will need to shift their mind-set. First, companies need to view their employees as part of their brand. Not HR, strategy.  Second, companies need to relinquish the idea that they can make brand-shattering decisions behind closed doors. After all, we all know how to Google. The powers have shifted. The employee and customer are no longer people companies and marketers can “talk at.” They are empowered big mouths and want to be respected as stakeholders who invest time, talent and money into brands.

So what should the execs at NBC do? Duke out a supposed-HR matter through mass media? Yes. As a woman born and raised in a capitalist and democratic society, I say let the market and the people choose. And, by the way, the market is the people. Perhaps in an age of consumer- and data-driven marketing, we, the people, should vote online on who holds the much-contended and coveted 11:35 pm NBC time slot. We vote for our president. Why not vote for Conan?

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