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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's Personal Brand Crisis


In the branding world there are only two things: superficial perception and the inside story.

There is no reality. There is only data. Data means nothing until you give it a frame. Nobody cares about the truth. (What is truth anyway? What is meaning? Graduate school made all that stuff debatable.)

Branding is a game of chicken. I put a story out there (the message), backed by an inside story (the framing of data), and you match me with two levels of perception. The first is what you think without thinking. The second is what you think upon consideration.

Now to Marissa Mayer. She has a serious problem on her hands. Which is that while the data may support her business decisions, her poor choices in communication have created a lot of negative noise around her personal brand. Translated into plain English that means: she's losing credibility as a leader.

From a completely outside perspective, watching only the news and the social media space, here are the communication mistakes she is making. All of them have to do with being tone-deaf when it comes to the brand.

1) Narcissism

Usually it's good to hire a high-profile, powerful-seeming person to turn a tanking brand around. But Mayer seems to have grabbed the spotlight. I seem to read about her in the news as much or more than I read about Yahoo. These days leadership is about helping the workforce to accomplish great things, not the genius leader. It's a lesson we all painfully learned when Steve Jobs passed (RIP).

2) Insensitivity

Mayer comes off as a privileged person who has never had to work a day in her life. Maybe she had good reason to end telecommuting - maybe the workforce was taking advantage - maybe they were doing that a lot. But the fact that she built her own nursery at work and then denied others the  same flexibility seems hypocritical. She should have known what people would think, and anticipated that in her communication on the subject.

3) Unpreparedness

Internal memos are routinely leaked these days. Media and social media scrutiny is ruthless. A skilled leader anticipates potential public relations crises and has a plan for addressing them, primarily going on the attack before the attacks come in. Mayer always seems like a deer caught in the headlights.

4) Inexplicability

I've been reading about various things Mayer has been doing to try and turn Yahoo! around. Some of them seem good - particularly her personal focus on new hires. Others I can't figure out, at least from a branding perspective. As others have pointed out, why would she go on the Today show to announce the new homepage when they have a partnership with ABC and Good Morning America?

5) A Darwinian Approach

The worst mistake Mayer is making has to do with how she treats people. There are iPhones, free food - and unrealistic deadlines. While everybody wants to excel, it is infuriating to bring your boss an idea and have her take it, then threaten to throw you out if you can't deliver it irrationally early:
"Mayer told the team she loves the new product so much that she wants it shipped by December 1 – months ahead of the schedule the team itself had put together. Mayer told the team they had one week to figure out if they could meet this deadline. If, at the end of that week, the team decided they would not be able to meet the December 1 deadline, Mayer said she would find a team that could." - Business Insider
Had Mayer first looked at the Yahoo heritage and isolated its "Brand DNA" - or what made it great in the first place - she could have worked with the workforce to revitalize the company and bring it back to health along a steady path. Instead her moves seem disjointed and erratic. She needs to mend fences with her team, put them out front, then explain what the company is doing, why and how - over and over again.

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As always, all opinions are my own.