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Posted: February 04, 2014

CEO as brand asset

Consider the new head of GM

David Heitman

Abraham Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt. Richard Nixon. George W. Bush.

Four Republican, two-term, U.S. Presidents. Four very different brands.

Now ask yourself: What’s the first word that comes to mind for each of them?

These four CEOs of United States Inc. shaped the nation’s brand through their own personalities, with huge implications for how Americans felt about their country, and how other nations perceived the USA. In the same way, CEOs of businesses large and small have as much or more to say about their company brands as their marketing departments. As much as any logo, tagline or ad campaign, a CEO’s personal brand permeates the brand of the company he or she leads. This is true of companies from the corner bakery to a Fortune 50 powerhouse.

This infusion of the corporate brand with the CEO’s personal brand can happen quite naturally as the CEO’s vision is articulated, priorities are established and organizational behavior is reinforced. But distilling the CEO’s persona and priorities into a brand asset can also be done with a great deal of intentionality and creativity.

When, for instance, General Motors recently named Mary Barra CEO, it was more than the culmination of a rigorous evaluation process. It was a statement about the GM brand. As the first woman to lead a major U.S. automaker, her appointment signaled that the decision would suffuse every aspect of the company, including its product line with a new brand aesthetic. Considering GM’s need to appeal to women car-buyers, this can only help.

What’s more, Ms. Barra is the symbol of both the old and new GM. She worked her way up to the top after 33 years at the company (and her father worked there before her). But as a woman breaking the glass ceiling, she also represents the new economic order. While it remains to be seen how well Ms. Barra leads the company, and to what degree her personality and her personal brand impact the GM brand, the automaker has made a leadership decision in which the CEO immediately imbues the brand with exciting new dimensions.

History is replete with brands represented by the names (and thus the reputations and personalities) of their founders: Lloyd’s of London was founded by Edward Lloyd in 1688 in London’s Tower Street as a coffeehouse where the shipping community congregated. There were the JP Morgans, the Carnegies, the Fords and the Pullmans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose very names instilled their brands with gravitas and grandeur (and maybe even a little bit of fear). More recent examples might include Lee Iacoca of Chrysler (a pioneer in the cult of CEO as brand asset), Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. Richard Branson, whose bravado infuses the Virgin brand and its various sub-brands, is perhaps the greatest example of a CEO whose radiant personal brand defines and informs the company brand.

And the ultimate case study in CEO as brand asset: Steve Jobs and Apple. No other leader has so infused a company brand with his own personality.

For the most part, CEOs do not become the household names that the above-mentioned titans of industry have been. Thousands of CEOs labor every day on behalf of their companies, unknown by name to most people, yet nonetheless infusing their personalities into the culture and brand of their companies. For example, do you know the name of the $15 billion company that Tony Nicely leads? (Hint: they use a CGI animated gecko as a spokesman.) Geico has chosen not to make its CEO the front man for the brand, at least on the consumer side of the equation.

Whether known for obsessive quality control, creative whimsy, Draconian cost reductions, or unmitigated commitment to customer delight, every CEO imbues her or his organization with a healthy dose of their own personalities. Internally, we might think of this as company culture, but as it permeates the membrane of customer interaction, the CEO’s DNA becomes part of the brand that customers experience. People responsible for branding an organization—whether as internal marketing departments or outside agencies—do well to leverage the CEO as a brand asset. This requires taking an objective, thoughtful inventory of the CEO’s priorities and passion, including some things that are even more important than the bottom line.

That’s why I jumpstart most branding initiatives with a conversation that asks the company’s CEO, “What is more important to you than financial success?” By taking time to focus on the CEO’s loftiest ambitions and his/her vision for the future, it can uncover the raw material of authentic, memorable branding that then leads to top-flight creative.

This all represents an argument for the highest level of integration of a company’s leadership team and its marketing department. When leadership, internal culture and external marketing all flow out of a common zeitgeist, you begin to see the kinds of authentic branding that have made great companies like Patagonia, Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom attract loyal customers and employees who identify with the brand, and are eager to serve as brand ambassadors.

When you see the two personalities—personal and corporate—merge into a coherent brand ethos, you know we’ve done your job as a marketer. And if you are the leader of your organization, the ultimate litmus test is just how authentic your company’s marketing and branding feel.

David Heitman is the president of The Creative Alliance, an award-winning branding and public relations in Lafayette, Colorado. He can be contacted at david@thecreativealliance.com

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