In one respect, the answer might very well be "nothing." We've all grown up with the very clear notion that personality is 'free' -- that it's inherent, that it's innate.
In another respect of course, personality is absolutely priceless. It is what makes each of us unique, marks us out from the other 6.7bn people on the planet, and -- hopefully -- makes us at least vaguely interesting.
A question for provocative dinner party conversation. Maybe.
But it goes much deeper than that.
This week I became the CEO of Likemind, the European corporate communications business.
And, whether we are conscious of it or not, it seems to me that this is the question that all of us in this sector are asking all of our clients, all of the time.
Whether you are producing a corporate report, putting together a micro-site for graduate hires, or engaging senior staff to live and breathe your values, the ultimate question for clients is the same:
What value do you attribute to your corporate personality?
Because the answer to this question will inform, one way or another, almost every aspect of how their business communicates with its key stakeholders.
It is nearly forty years since JWT published Stephen King's seminal paper 'What is a brand?'. The world has changed a fair bit since 1971, of course. The communications business has developed, specialised and fragmented time and again, as consumers of information become ever more sophisticated, ever more demanding.
But in many respects, it appears to me that it is this very specialisation, this very fragmentation that makes King's words even more powerful today than they were in 1971.
As I set out my opinion below, I'm conscious that I'm not saying anything particularly new, particularly radical or even particularly sophisticated: and there's no doubt that this is more a matter of opinion than fact. I don't have all the answers.
But I am opening up the debate, and would welcome commentary -- from clients, competitors and casual observers alike. Not least because we are all in this together.
So here it goes...
Information, and access to it, used to be a privilege. For the last hundred years or so, and until very recently, it is what distinguished the haves from the have-nots.
But in 2010, anyone under the age of, say 50, now expects information as of right.
It is difficult to overstate the societal impact of this. And the evidence is all around us.
Who of us, in 1971, would have dreamed of questioning the judgment and diagnosis of our doctors? But in 2010 it happens all the time. Just ask your GP how many over-excited web-surfers he or she sees in a daily clinic, complete with an internet diagnosis of what ails them and a concomitant list of suggested remedies.
Who of us, in 1971, ever expected to see a photo of the hotel room we might stay in on vacation? But in 2010, can any of us even remember booking a hotel without having first a) done a virtual tour of the entirety of its 'services and facilities', and b) read several dozen, up-to-date reviews of the place by likeminded travellers from across the globe?
Even war is affected. In February 2010 the American and British publics did not find out limited details about a recent battle by listening to a radio broadcast by a national leader. They read, watched, tweeted, blogged and heard about that battle before it even happened, before the enemy had even been engaged. Such is the demand -- or perceived demand -- for information, at almost any cost.
John Terry, Chelsea and England soccer star, lost his case to keep his private life private, and perhaps he always would have done. But was there even any point going to court in the first place? Anyone who really wanted to know the identity of the 'mystery Premier League and England player', was busy finding out about him and Tiger-style transgressions on Google, Twitter and any number of other social media sites.
So in 2010, information is everywhere, it is commonplace. It is, to some extent therefore, devalued.
The corporate stakeholder -- the investor, the analyst, the broker, the customer, the financier, the employee -- is no different from the rest of us in this respect. And she is in danger of being overwhelmed.
Because all she hears is noise.
Little strikes her as new.
She's not impressed by the clever stuff, not because she's not clever -- au contraire: because she's too savvy. She gets it. She sees the intention behind every ad, behind every piece of PR puff, behind every product placement, behind every party political announcement and photo opportunity, behind every carefully messaged annual report, behind every 'spontaneous' guerrilla event, behind every happy smiley piece of experiential marketing...
And she is tired.
So the challenge for those of us in the comms business is how to speak to that tired investor, analyst, broker, customer, financier, employee.
How do we re-engage the Frankenstein's monster that is the spin-weary, corporate comms-savvy, exhausted individual described above?
Maybe we should think a little about what humans do when they are tired. I've always thought that we seem to have a habit of going back to what we know.
Comfort food. Old friends. A naff but well-loved pair of jeans. Some favourite DVDs. Childhood songs. Family.
Is there any reason why stakeholder reactions to corporate comms should be any different?
If we think not, then the question becomes 'in what does the tired stakeholder seek refuge'?
Everyone talks a lot about authenticity these days, and the notion of 'authentic branding' and the like has in itself become something of a cliché. But that doesn't stop it from being true.
Because isn't the job to return to, and to refresh, King's premise of corporate personality?
Behind all the messaging, every corporation has a personality. It's about discovering who you actually are, and proudly telling that to the world.
That doesn't always mean warts and all, by the way. Most of us have aspects to our personalities that, truth be told, we're keen to play down.
And that's fine, provided that it's set against a backdrop of honest, 'this is us' authentic information.
And nor should it be thought that corporate personalities can't change and develop over time. Simply that there are usually certain core values that never go away. Look at Virgin.
It's really about focusing on the long term. It's about avoiding disingenuous short-term campaigns, or the hunt for the 'right' press pieces, or the 'don't miss out!' discounts in favour of honest, proud development of your unique corporate personality.
But doesn't this long-termist approach conflict with the short term demands of the market, and its insatiable appetite to see everything through the lens of 'This Year'? Not necessarily, although there's clearly some tension.
Nevertheless, that tension is -- in theory at least -- no greater than the tension that exists between how each of us looks first thing in the morning, and how we look when we've dressed up to go to a wedding. Both iterations are genuinely 'us', of course -- it's just that there's one that we'd prefer the outside world to see, and one that we wouldn't.
In 2010, therefore, it seems to me that the corporate comms job is to further reveal that genuine identity; to take it confidently and unapologetically to the world; and to do so across multiple, trusted, and well understood platforms -- from annual reports to employee seminars and masterclasses, and a whole lot in between.
What do you think?
Let's start the debate and air some different views.
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