COVER STORY Leader of the Brand – Keeping the best CEOs in step

Chief executives must be brand champions who lead corporate and product branding strategies, all strategic brand-portfolio decisions and constantly monitor the implementation of the brand, according to Martin Roll international brand strategist with Singapore-based branding agency VentureRepublic. Tomorrow’s CEO must be an “excellent business leader and passionate brand marketer with truly international edge”, he adds.
In fact, says Roll, all corporate executives must be able to represent and lead the brand. But the CEO in particular should “serve as the company’s and therefore the brand’s primary advocate and nurturer”. According to some commentators, only the CEO carries the credibility, charisma, and clout to successfully drive the brand.
A landmark survey in 2001 by global public relations and communications counselling consultancy Burston-Marsteller, found that 48 percent of company’s reputation is the direct result of the CEO’s leadership and management. In other words, CEOs can themselves be something of brand, and one that investors need to feel confident about. According to the survey, 95 percent of investors consider the CEO’s performance before making investment decisions; and 94 percent rate the CEO’s image as crucial to maintaining confidence, particularly when company’s under media pressure.
But, as Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, puts it: “The brand has become the single most important asset the CEO has to manage… the best CEOs will take ownership of their brands and will spend disproportionate amount of time worrying about them, nurturing them and proselytizing about them.”
But do CEOs generally live up to the job? There’s plenty of room for improvement according to Darrel Rhea, CEO of United States consulting and strategic market research company Cheskin. “CEOs live more for the board or the security analysts” than the brand, he says. They generally leave care of the brand in the hands of the marketing manager.
CEOs who could be considered brands themselves more comfortably fit the criteria of brand champion. Richard Branson, Anita Roddick and Dick Smith are good examples. While they’ve stepped back from the front line, jeweller Michael Hill, retailer Stephen Tindall and cereal maker Dick Hubbard achieved similar status in New Zealand.
These leaders build the company on their vision, passion and ideals. They appear in advertising and drive public relations; they cement relationships with consumers through newsletters or online communications; they periodically fight for the company and are willing to publicly face testing times with shareholders and media.
Championing brand goes beyond being personally high profile however. Consider New Zealand leaders like Tourism New Zealand CEO George Hickton and New Zealand Post’s John Allen. They didn’t start the organisations they head, their names aren’t up in lights above the front door, they don’t appear in advertising, they’re not even hugely media hungry. But they do embrace and drive the brands they head.
In the heavyweight ring of world business, there are CEOs in both corners. As Roll says: “Apple and Nike are examples where the founding CEOs are brands themselves. On the other hand, founder influence has long since waned at adidas, Singapore Airlines, BMW and Mercedes Benz. Their success is due to incumbent CEOs who have initiated strong branding systems within their companies.”
Back home, Hubbard Foods’ Dick Hubbard has been an implicit – and public – part of his company’s brand since its launch in 1988. His company steadfastly avoided advertising which, interestingly, supports the brand positioning of social responsibility before profit. But there has been plenty of media coverage of the CEO’s philosophies and his Clipboard newsletters in every pack maintained dialogue with customers.
Hubbard has been heavily involved in community and professional organisations which, as the company’s website says, “has largely been entwined with the development of the company”. He was founding chairman of New Zealand Businesses for Social Responsibility (now The Sustainable Business Network) and sits on boards including the Business Council for Sustainable Development and Outward Bound. And remember the company’s 10-year anniversary trip for employees? Chartering plane to the Pacific Islands generated media exposure and cemented Hubbard in the public eye as boss who cared for his staff, and by implication, the ordinary Kiwi. The media flavour mixes into perceptions of the product.
For Allen, CEO of New Zealand Post since 2003, the glare of the spotlight is overrated. “The company’s story needs to be told both internally and externally and the CEO is one of the people who can communicate that message,” Allen says. “However I am very resistant to the cult of personality which surrounds many CEOs. In my assessment, their personal brand is substituted for that of the company.”
But he champions the brand? “Yes I do. It is not hard because the business values and objectives are very aligned to my personal value set. I am, like New Zealand Post, ambitious for New Zealand. I believe in the growth and success of New Zealand businesses and communities as the key driver of future prosperity.”
Allen is in good company in his comparative public anonymity. As Roll says: “Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is classic example of legendary CEO who has built one of the strongest brands in the world but who is quite anonymous and shies away from public speaking and media appearances. The CEOs of Gillette and Kimberly Clark are also examples of CEOs who have led their brands to great heights but managed to remain quite anonymous.”

CEO branding drives bottom-line
It can’t be dollar quantified but, there’s consensus that whatever the leadership style, when CEOs embrace the brand it directly impacts financial performance. “For most listed companies, 85 percent of the value of the company is not based on book value, but on its intangible assets – the expectation of where it is going,” says Mark Weldon, CEO of the New Zealand Exchange (NZX). “That’s about brand and reputation. It is unquestionably core job of the CEO to be the steward of the company’s brand and reputation [to grow] the value of the intangible asset.”
Allen agrees: “My actions are all about driving growth by getting closer to customers, building the capabilities of people, and improving our internal processes.” The same is true for George Hickton, CEO of Tourism New Zealand since 1999. He has unquestionably influenced the global branding of New Zealand, and implicitly, Tourism New Zealand. He’s not Richard Branson, but he is hands-on, internally and across the industry. Hickton constantly presents to tourism operators and stakeholders to “make sure New Zealanders understand and nurture the brand”.
In 2004 New Zealand was, on per capita basis, the world’s second strongest market for new public company listings. It is, perhaps, worth noting that the CEO who leads strong company brand adds to the success of capital raising – as demonstrated by Pumpkin Patch. Under Greg Muir’s stewardship the share price of the children’s fashion chain has more than doubled in year.
Conversely, consider the fate of Carly Fiorina, former high-profile CEO of HP. She resigned in February in response to board dissatisfaction. For five years, she very publicly re-engineered the HP brand, abandoning ‘caring family’ values for aggressive targets and job cuts – with mixed results. Damningly, on the day Fiorina announced her resignation, the company’s stock price surged several cents, and climbed further over the next two months.

Inspire team support
The CEO as brand or brand champion can’t however, do the job alone. “A powerful brand is never one-man show – it always involves company culture that takes it up and expresses it,” says Rhea. “The best brands are power tour de force that look and feel like synchronised swimming

Visited 4 times, 1 visit(s) today

Business benefits of privacy

Privacy Week (13-17 May) is a great time to consider the importance of privacy and to help ensure you and your company have good privacy practices in place, writes Privacy

Read More »
Close Search Window