03/07/2011 06:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Messy Brand Management

In the world of small business, a large percentage of owners are sole proprietors who operate with minimal full-time staff or the trappings we often associate with larger businesses. Whatever brand equity these individuals have is connected to them in very personal ways; often they have to be the brand managers because they are actually the brand.

So the past couple of weeks have been amazing, amusing, and a bit stunning for me to look at the two personality brands dominating news coverage every day. Both Charlie Sheen and Muammar Muhammad Gaddafi could probably use some major help in the brand management department! Only a few weeks ago, Sheen was a brand (lusty but kind hearted scoundrel) grossing $2M per episode for supplying his services to the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Today, because of reckless management of that brand, its value has dropped like an anchor, and the prospects for an uptrend on the value graph seem defined by two clichéd phrases: Fat chance and slim chance.

The Libyan leader should start by giving us the correct or preferred spelling of his name. Building Mr. Gaddafi's personal brand (trash talking dictator in strange clothing) was a lot longer in the making, but it seems to have found a similarly steep cliff to fall off of. If your category is dictator, the generally accepted protocols involve a high quotient of ruthlessness, control and subterfuge. He has done pretty well at that stuff. But building a brand on those core values carries a high risk of a predictably limited product life. His product cycle as dictator began in a 1969 coup making him a historic category leader with over 40 successful years in the marketplace. A good brand manager would have warned him that without some periodic brand polishing, his reign was on borrowed time and the next stop would likely be the scrap heap of history. In his category that can be hazardous to life and limb. Also, being seen as a dictator who is increasingly crazy (off-brand) probably didn't help matters.

The case of Charlie Sheen as a brand probably has more psychological boxes to check than the average focus group would want to deal with. In my view he was still Bud Fox, the character from the first Wall Street film. In character for that movie Sheen said some smart and funny things that have a fresh poignancy in light of his situation today. His lines such as "Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them," and "Having sex with her was like reading the Wall Street Journal, will probably supply material for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. With his present brand plight, Sheen might benefit by hauling out that old script and reading it like a manual of things to avoid. Comebacks are not impossible for a brand that has been mismanaged into the swamp of finger pointing and mistrust, but it usually takes time, discipline and some luck to pull that off. Even Polaroid seems to be finding a second life these days.

Worldwide, we all love success stories, and going from being born in a Bedouin tent to being a probable billionaire is the kind of story we can all get behind. But Gaddafi's brand identity is split in a way that is hard for us to process; is he a laudable rags to riches success story or is he simply a despicable dictator. Who knows? Maybe he'll take the money, exit gracefully and render humble charitable service in some distant land in pursuit of a Nobel Prize. That too can be a brand identity; but I think he's destined for some other form of re-branding.

As you can tell, I enjoy looking at the world around me through the prism of business, particularly small business. Looking in on these two personality brands reveals the drama that exists every day somewhere in the world of business. It's as old as the very first brand building transactions in the first marketplace on this third rock from the sun. So, as you meditate on what you should be doing in your business right now remember, not only do brands have lives, sometimes they are lives.