Harnessing the Power of Collective Branding for Human Brands

Have you ever wondered how star athletes become brands themselves?

Professional athletes, with their mass following on social media platforms, have started to outperform traditional brands in terms of brand marketing. Cristiano Ronaldo, as an example, amassed more followers on Instagram than all Premier League clubs combined in 2021. However, research on human brands, particularly athlete brands, is still nascent. The emergence of digital platforms has empowered athletes to engage directly with various actors such as fans, sponsors, and media, thus influencing their brand.

A study called “Empowerment of Human Brands: Brand Meaning Co-Creation on Digital Engagement Platforms” dives deep into this subject. Researchers Matthias Anderski, Lars Griebel, Pascal Stegmann, and Tim Ströbel studied how famous athletes build their brands online.

A New Way of Looking at Brands

The research team, hailing from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and the University of Bern, Switzerland, brings together a diverse set of expertise. From integrative human branding to digital transformation in sport, the team’s collective knowledge significantly contributes to their innovative approach.

They used a unique approach to understand how athletes use social media and other online platforms to create their brand.

The team chose a professional female athlete from Germany as their subject, analyzing online interactions on the athlete’s digital engagement platforms and conducting semi-structured interviews with various actors involved with the athlete’s brand.

Their multi-method approach resulted in the discovery of three new performance categories for the co-creation of human brands on digital engagement platforms, providing invaluable insights into the branding process. Namely, it introduces “integrative branding” to human brands.

Integrative branding acknowledges that creating a human brand is a dynamic, social process involving multiple actors. Rather than the brand owner having sole control over brand identity, this concept argues that other actors, such as fans, sponsors, and media, play crucial roles in shaping a brand’s meaning. Put simply, they showed that instead of seeing a brand as something controlled only by its owner, they showed that a brand’s image is a shared creation. Fans, sponsors, media, and others also shape what a brand means.

Lessons for Marketers

Marketers can learn a lot from this research. Here are the main points:

Brand Building is a Team Sport

Traditional marketing sees the brand owner as the one controlling the brand’s story. But in the digital age, brand building is more like a team sport. Not only do marketers need to think about the image they want to create, but they also need to consider how fans, sponsors, and other people interact with the brand.

Make the Most of Social Media

Social media can be a goldmine for creating and maintaining human brands. It’s a direct way for brands to talk to their audience and build relationships. How fans and others react and interact on these platforms can shape the brand’s image a lot.

Be Flexible and Dynamic

See branding as flexible and dynamic, involving many different people. Marketers need to manage their brands across many different channels and platforms, not just push out their chosen image.

Understand Brand Behaviours

The study also uncovered three new ways brands behave on digital platforms. Understanding these behaviours can help marketers interact better on social media, helping to build and maintain powerful human brands.

Think Beyond Athletes

Even though the study focused on athletes, its findings can apply to other types of human brands too. These can be entertainers, celebrities, or even influencers. The study’s findings offer valuable tips for marketers dealing with all sorts of human brands.

New roadmap 

The study offers a fresh way of looking at brand management. It provides a roadmap for marketers to better understand and harness the power of human brands. By embracing shared brand creation, making the most of social media, being flexible, understanding brand behaviours, and seeing the broad applicability of these insights, marketers can supercharge their brand strategies in the digital age.

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Opinion – Cultivating Community

The growing influence of human brands in our society is undeniable. The power of personal branding, particularly when amplified through digital engagement platforms, cannot be underestimated. And while it may seem like celebrities and athletes have been the primary beneficiaries of this shift, I believe that there is an enormous potential for all of us to become better marketers in the process.

The key takeaway from this research is that branding has become a communal act. We need to let go of the notion that brands are defined solely by their owners or by a team of marketing experts. Branding is no longer about broadcasting a monologue. It’s about fostering a dialogue with various stakeholders and using their input to shape the brand’s narrative.

This new approach to branding requires a new set of skills. As marketers, we need to learn to listen and engage with our audience more deeply, to understand the subtleties of our digital engagement platforms and to be open to change and adaptability.

In this new era of brand management, we are all part of the branding process. We are all brand builders. And as we learn to navigate this new landscape, we will not only help build stronger brands but also become better communicators, better listeners, and ultimately, better marketers. With guidance from the best branding companies, we can leverage expertise to elevate brand-building efforts and achieve unparalleled success.


  1. Anderski, Matthias ; Griebel, Lars ; Stegmann, Pascal ; Ströbel, Tim:
    Empowerment of human brands : Brand meaning co-creation on digital engagement platforms.
    In: Journal of Business Research. Vol. 166 (13 June 2023) . – 113905.
    ISSN 0148-2963
    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2023.113905

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