Thompson: A Cautionary Tale About 'The Brand Called You'

Personal Branding has been around since at least forever -- how else to entice that mate back to the cave? -- but Tom Peters famously put a concept on it for the business world in a Fast Company piece he wrote in 1997 titled “The Brand Called You.” Well, the brand called Scott Thompson has left the battered brand called Yahoo in a slightly more tattered state than he found it after departing yesterday following a firestorm over a resume claim that his bachelor's degree from Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., was in computer science as well as accounting.

Ross Levinsohn, who had been Yahoo’s head of global media, has been named interim CEO. In addition, director Fred Amoroso replaces Roy Bostock as chairman. Several reports suggest that Levinsohn, the new “Salesman-in-Chief,” as the hed on Staci D. Kramer’s Paid Content piece puts it, might be named the permanent CEO down the road. 

“We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote back in the hard-charging Nineties. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You. It's that simple -- and that hard. And that inescapable.”

Peters self-consciously used the cliché “don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle,” which some might interpret as code for making the product seem a bit more dazzling than it might otherwise. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Peters was advising people to tell untruths; there’s a fine line, as everyone who has ever written a line of copy knows.

Activist investor Daniel Loeb, the CEO of New York-based hedge fund Third Point who had first raised the issue of the fudged credentials, also questioned those of Patti Hart, the director who led the search for Thomson. It turns out that her bachelor's degree from Illinois State University is in business administration, not marketing and economics, as she has put forth. She’s gone, too.

The former president of PayPal is certainly not the first leader to be “undone by resume inaccuracies,” as an AP roundup published in the Detroit Free Press puts it. But it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of one’s career. The story ends with Vice President Joe Biden, who dropped out of the 1988 presidential campaign “after admitting he had plagiarized as a law student, made false claims about his academic achievements and occasionally used others' words in his speeches without giving them credit.”

“If you're really smart, you figure out how to distinguish yourself from all the other very smart people walking around with $1,500 suits, high-powered laptops, and well-polished resumes,” Peters wrote. 

But a boldface lie is clearly the wrong kind of distinction.

 “The company is starting from scratch yet again,” Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter, tells Bloomberg’s Brian Womack. “Scott put them in a very difficult position, and something had to happen.” “The company is in a precarious position,” adds Bloomberg Industries senior analyst Paul Sweeney. “Probably the best thing and the easiest thing to do is to make this change.”

I don’t know about you, but I am often amused while reading resumés. “Oh, you did that, did you?,” I’ll find myself thinking. “Led expansion of [product] globally and raised mindshare among international customers by 2000%.” Interesting. Didn’t said product flop the following year? 

Thompson had tried to stem the fallout in a memo to Yahoo’s staff last week. 

"I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you," Thompson wrote on May 7 in a memo obtained by the New York Times. "We have all been working very hard to move the company forward and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you." 

Thompson had reportedly blamed Heidrick & Struggles, the search firm that brought Thompson to Yahoo, for introducing the error into his resumé, Richard Waters writes in Financial Times. “Based on information in our possession, this allegation is verifiably not true and we have notified Yahoo to that effect,” Heidrick CEO Kevin Kelly responded.

One source tells Waters that Heidrick’s denying complicity “added to the board’s concerns”; another says his fate was already sealed.  

Amir Efrati is reporting in the Wall Street Journal that Thompson told company's board of directors and several colleagues over the weekend that he has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Apple, meanwhile, has dropped its 4G credentials from its new iPad marketing overseas. “Previously billed as 'Wi-Fi + 4G', the new iPad is now described as ‘Wi-Fi + Cellular,’” reports Joe Svetlik in CNET UK. “While technically capable of connecting to LTE bands, it only uses the ones in the U.S. and Canada, not in Europe. That didn't stop Apple from marketing the device as '4G' over here and in the State.” 

Being “technically capable” of something is not the same thing as being factually correct, we are reminded once again.

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1 comment about "Thompson: A Cautionary Tale About 'The Brand Called You'".
  1. Greg Ippolito from IMA , May 14, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.
    The great Bill Bernbach wrote that you can't invent a product advantage that doesn't exist -- and that all gimmicks eventually fall apart. Forget the moral aspect of it; lying doesn't work in branding. Quite the opposite. In a modern mediasphere where people expect to be manipulated (EXPECT IT!!!), the authentic, credible voice is the one that gets heard. Moreover, lying is lazy. You are what you are. Sell yourself with passion. If you feel the need to lie to make yourself seem interesting, then…hey, maybe you're just not.