The case for CEO brands
What’s in a brand?
Beyond just a logo, symbol, tagline or a combination of these, a brand is “an identifiable product, service, person or place” developed in such a way that creates unique value for the buyer or user (De Chernatony and McDonald, 2003). Over time, the brand becomes inextricably linked to a certain level of quality and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind. In an overcrowded marketplace, where different images and messages compete for the harried consumer’s attention, a brand needs to have a strong brand identity to differentiate itself from the competition. A brand helps consumers understand who the company is and what it stands for. Herein lies the two primary functions of a brand – to define corporate identity and to create a clear brand positioning. A great example would be Apple. Beyond the shiny, chic Apple icon, Apple stands for innovation and technology.
Why CEO branding
When the challenge of defining your company’s brand strategy is posed, consider this: Who has the greatest insight for business direction? Who has the power to execute the company’s brand strategy and ensure its vision comes to life? Who is the best person to lead the organization to success? The answer is obvious – the CEO. And yet, so few CEOs take ownership of their brands and drive brand strategy. Branding is too often placed in the backseat and seen as a mere line-item in the overall business strategy, rather than part of the strategy itself. CEO branding proposes a high-level view of branding, and by focusing on the experience that the company, product, or service delivers, the greater clarity gained leads to sound management decisions. A strong CEO brand has the power to influence markets by affecting price and lifetime customer value, thus driving overall company value.
CEO branding as a unique type of “people as brands” strategy
The difference between a typical product brand and a CEO brand is the level of personal involvement and engagement with the user it creates. In CEO branding, the brand becomes identifiable by a person, namely the CEO of the company. CEO branding is highly advantageous because it can strengthen the brand both internally and externally in creating resonance with its key stakeholders. Internally, when the CEO drives brand strategy, employees are better able to live and breathe the corporate brand. Externally, when the CEO represents the brand, the brand begins with the CEO’s personality. It starts with who the CEO is, what his/her style is, his/her values and so on. This creates a more tangible representation of the brand that can help build a strong emotional connection between the brand and its publics. As with any brand strategy, there is a special set of considerations required when conceptualizing a CEO brand. Besides their prominent role and identity as the director of the company, CEOs are subject to different stakeholder needs, have to consider their relationship with the corporate brand, and of course, have their own distinct personalities. When used correctly, CEO branding is a tool that can transform your business strategy from the inside out.
Creating a successful CEO brand
3 factors that contribute to a successful CEO brand
1. The CEO’s ability to tell a compelling story.
The CEO needs to live consistently according to a well-crafted story, theme or archetype. Whenever the CEO speaks, he/she needs to always put in an aspect of the story. This story will establish the brand’s values and personality; and how compelling it is will determine the level of impact created and the receptiveness of the general public to the brand. Think Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, and how whenever his voice is heard in the media, it often depicts the story of a small entrepreneur competing against established big businesses – despite the fact that Virgin is now a huge commercial company.
2. The CEO’s ability to empower employees.
In order to create internal alignment, the CEO needs to be able to drive and empower his/her employees. The CEO should encourage employees to openly participate in corporate messaging, thus utilizing them as brand ambassadors and key drivers of the brand. A good example would be Tony Hsieh, the CEO of online retailer Zappos – he encourages all employees to have a Twitter profile to connect with customers. In this way, people can experience the Zappos brand through its employees.
3. The CEO’s investment in corporate culture.
Corporate culture has to be driven from the top. Besides being visible to shareholders, customers and partners, the CEO needs to have a strong presence within the organization, inserting that personal touch through his interactions with both management and employees wherever possible. In order to be relatable to the public, the CEO needs to first be relatable to the employees within the company.
Is CEO branding for you?
Ultimately, in determining whether CEO branding is a suitable strategy for a company to adopt, it is important to consider the main actor – CEO him/herself. The CEO needs to be confident and comfortable with being a public figure and the public face of the company, in addressing the media, and in aligning his/her actions and behavior to be consistent with the corporate brand. If not, the company runs the risk of reputational loss. Take the example of BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward, whose insensitive comments regarding the Gulf oil spill escalated the issue into a public relations scandal. After apologizing for the disaster, he was quoted saying, “I’d like my life back.” Such a comment, just one in a string of out-of-touch statements made by Hayward, only serve to highlight the fact that he (and BP, the company which he represents) was unsympathetic to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in the tragedy. Thus, in order for CEO branding to be a truly effective strategy, it needs to be built on the basis of a CEO with the ability to support and align him/herself very closely to the corporate brand.