The CEO as Brand Asset

by David Heitman

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

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

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. This infusion of the corporate brand with the CEOs personality happens quite naturally as vision is articulated, budgets are allocated, hiring decisions are made 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.

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 one of the major U.S. automakers, her appointment signaled that the decision would suffuse every aspect of the company, including its product line. With the tremendous need to appeal to women as 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—the very embodiment of the time-honored tradition of lifetime employment at one of the Big Three. 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 infuses the brand with exciting new dimensions.

The CEO’s Role in Organizational Branding

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. And 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 are 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 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 of Microsoft or Jack Welch of GE. Richard Branson, whose bravado infuses the Virgin brand and its various sub-brands, is perhaps the greatest example of a CEO whose personal brand defines and informs the company brand.

And the ultimate case study: Steve Jobs and Apple. Perhaps no other leader has so infused a company brand with his own personality.

Fame Not Required

But for the most part, CEOs have not been the household names that the titans of industry possessed or that the current cult of leadership has encouraged. 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. Same with Aflac.

Whether known for rewarding innovation, obsessive quality control, Draconian cost reductions, a sense of humor 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. Here at The Creative Alliance, we jumpstart that conversation by asking “What is more important to you than even the company’s financial success?” By taking time to focus on the CEO’s loftiest ambitions for the company and his/her vision for the future, it can uncover the raw material of effective, authentic branding and top-flight creative.

And if you are the leader of your organization, the ultimate litmus test is how authentic your company’s marketing and branding feel to you personally.

This all represents an argument for the highest level of integration of a company’s leadership and its marketing. 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 Nordstrum attract loyal customers who identify with the brand. And it’s true of small businesses as well. Here locally in Boulder, McGuckin Hardware, KT’s BBQ and University Bicycles enjoy the same fan base of loyal customers who, at the end of the day, are responding to the vision and  personality of these companies’ founders and CEOs.

It is our privilege here at The Creative Alliance to work directly with the CEOs, founders and leaders of our client companies. We see it as our role to distill the passion and priorities of each in such a way that a truly authentic brand emerges. That authenticity then creates a filter through which we process everything we do for them. And when we see the two personalities—personal and corporate—merge into a coherent brand ethos, we know we’ve done our job.