BP’s Bravest Brandividual: What could be motivating Darryl Willis?

by cv harquail on June 22, 2010

If you’ve been paying attention to BP’s “Making it right” newspaper advertising, or if you’ve seen BP’s recent television advertising, you’ve seen BP’s new Brandividual Darryl Willis.

Aside from Tony Hayward, BP’s walking PR disaster CEO, Darryl Willis is the only person with a name shown by BPs own advertisements as being in charge of anything related to the Gulf Oil Spill. And, Darryl Willis is now the point person for a lot of anger, frustration and resentment over BP’s behavior.  Why would anyone put himself in the position of speaking personally for an organization with such an actively damaged reputation?

Darryl Willis, BP Claims Spokesperson

Darryl Willis is featured in this television spot, where he speaks in the first person. Mostly, he speaks of “we”, as he explains BP’s position regarding fulfilling Gulf Residents’ claims against BP. And he closes by taking a person stand, saying :

“I was born and raised in Louisiana. I volunteered for this assignment because this is my home. I’ll be here in the Gulf as long as it takes to make this right.”

In taking on this role as BP’s spokesperson and using his face, name and personal history to represent BP, Willis is BP’s “Brandividual”.

A Brandividual is an employee who draws on her or his personal identity as well as the organization or brand’s identity, to represent the organization or brand to the public.

When brandividuals speak on the organization’s behalf, they intentionally and deliberately express their own personalities, personal attributes and personal attitudes as they represent the organization. This allows the audience to take the brandividual’s characteristics, along the emotions these characteristics trigger, and associate them with the organization.

Brandividuals loan or rent their own personal brands to serve the corporate brand. Thus, when a well-known and well-liked MarComms person like Scott Monty represents Ford, the positive elements of Monty’s personal reputation are transferred to Ford. When we like Scott Monty, we are more included to like Ford.

A brandividual puts his personal reputation on the line… for the business’s benefit.

Most often we see individuals using their personal brands to grow an organization’s business. Someone comes on board with his or her reputation already made and uses that to grow the business of the organization they’ve joined. Less frequently, brandividuals join organizations to buttress the organization’s damage control efforts with the power of their own person reputations. These sorts of brandividual relationships are less common, simply because they are so costly to the individual’s reputation. After all, why would someone become a corporate brandividual when the corporation’s reputation has already tanked?

That’s why the newspaper ad featuring Darryl Willis got me thinking: What’s in it for him?

In the ad, Willis is presented as saying “I volunteered for this position.” But why would anyone put his own personal reputation on the firing line in such an profoundly negative situation?

Surely, being publicly associated with BP right now has to be a losing proposition for anyone’s personal brand.

Why a person would NOT want to be BP’s brandividual

Being personally associated with an organization involved in a scandal, crisis or crime has many negative repercussions for rank and file members.

Just ask the Employees of Satyam, or Goldman Sachs. Or, Exxon.

The negative implications of association are exacerbated for brandividuals, because their roles as spokesperson make them constant representatives of the organization. They have no other work that takes priority over representing the organization, and no other roles in which to invest their self-concepts.

Further, the brandividual role as a constant, public-facing representative puts them in regular contact with stakeholders who now dislike and distrust the organization. The brandividual now has to manage his or her personal response to being the target of angry stakeholders’ criticism.

Being the Brandividual for an organization with an actively damaged reputation can lead to:

  • Long term, even permanent stain on personal reputation

The longer and more prominently the individual plays the role of brandividual, the stronger the public’s association of the person with the organization. The negative association will be hard to escape, and hard to change.

  • Emotional burnout from wearing a falsely- positive mask

Whether or not the brandividual believes that the organization is responsible, trustworthy or blameless, s/he has to present the organization this way to others. The burden of acting positively while hiding or suppressing even small bits of ones own negative evaluation of the organization takes an emotional toll.

  • Psychological exposure and threats to self-esteem

When brandividuals meet stakeholders face to face, they may be treated with scorn and derision as stakeholders make the brandividual the target of their anger. It’s hard for the individual to avoid internalizing the negative reactions they experience from angry stakeholders and start to see themselves in a negative light.

  • Threats to personal self-efficacy

Being a brandividual puts you in a place where you can represent the organization, but it doesn’t necessarily put the individual in a place where s/he can resolve the problem. Imagine having to apologize over and over again, and make promises over and over again, when you can’t control whether these promises will be fulfilled?

A damaged personal reputation, emotional burnout, threatened self-esteem, and a diminished sense of personal power don’t seem like much of a reward for taking on the brandividual role for BP.

Why might someone (like Darryl Willis) take on BP’s Brandividual role in spite of these potential costs?

  • Strong identification with company?

The brandividual may have so much of himself invested in the organizaiton that he doesn’t distinguish personal harm/benefit from the organization’s harm/benefit. He may think that, by serving as the person who apologizes, he’s actually getting the organization to apologize.

  • Self-esteem of steel?

The brandividual may simply be superhuman, able to withstand the emotional and psychological toll of this negative role. Or, through a related psychological mechanism, the brandividual may not care that much about his personal reputation among this particular (in this case, national) audience. He may have compartmentalized his reputations, and may be able to protect the more important personal reputation.

  • Career Opportunity?

The brandividual may make a deal with the devil, and take on this role as a way to advance his career.

Nothing says “company man” like taking the flack for the organization’s criminality.

  • Chance to make a difference?

The brandividual may sincerely think that taking this role may give him the opportunity to make some kind of personal difference, some personal resolution to the crisis. The brandividuyal may think that s/he can invest the role with something special, something personal, that will shift the situation so that harm is reduced and some good is created.

What’s motivating BP’s Brandividual?

The optimist in me hopes that Willis has taken on this role because he sincerely believes he has a “chance to make a difference”.

Perhaps he thinks that, being on the side of paying out claims, he can be associated with the good feelings of helping Gulf residents in some small way. Maybe he can help with his human touch, with the connections between himself, his family, and the Gulf community.

Then again, maybe he’s just a kinder, gentler face attempting to shield us from the horror of BP’s Gulf Oil Spill.

See Also:

What’s a Brandividual?
What’s your personal ROI as a Brandividual?
Employee Branding in Reverse: Satyam Scandal turns employees into Untouchables?

Jane E. Dutton, Janet M. Dukerich and Celia V. Harquail, 1994. Organizational Images and Member Identification, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 239-263.

{ 1 comment }

medical assistant June 29, 2010 at 7:56 am

Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

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