Brand Union

Insight Analysis

CEO brand and corporate brand: a new-age marriage

Ivy Lu

December 10 2015

In an ultra-connected world where the democracy of information rules, today’s corporate leaders have an individual brand—separate from the corporations they run—outlined by the opinions, comments, values, stories and even personal quirks.

“You know, you really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this,” said the Jesse Eisenberg-portrayed Mark Zuckerberg to the Winklevoss brothers in David Fincher’s 2010 drama, “The Social Network.” “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

The movie opened on a Friday and had raked in US $22 million in box office sales by Saturday. Some came away hailing the director’s artistic expression of the modern subject matter as a “revolutionary of our time,” whereas the Facebook founder and Harvard graduate himself—who already revolutionized our time six years prior—told the Guardian that the movie was not at all an accurate portrayal of his story.

This did not prevent the motion picture from garnering waves of accolades from critics, or Zuckerberg himself from becoming a conversation centerpiece among the public audience. We can’t resist peeking into those colorful early days of the prodigy who brought our entire civilization to a new lifestyle from his college dorm room. We talk about the stories at the birth of the paradigm-shifting social network, the founder’s wardrobe consisting of one gray T-shirt due to his reluctance to be distracted by trivial decision-making and his many inspiration-filled mantras that if we weren’t “breaking stuff”, we weren’t “moving fast enough.” We buy into the brand of the CEO himself, just as much as that of the product he so seamlessly implanted in our lives.

Of course, Zuckerberg is not alone in our obsession with founder mythology. What comes to mind when we think about Apple? The creative visionary in black turtlenecks. Virgin? The charismatic leader at the helm of many ventures. Tesla? The trailblazing entrepreneur who gave life to Iron Man (diagrammatically). The Trump Organization? The real estate mogul turned politician—or rather, we think about Mr. Trump’s own brand image before we think about that of his enterprises.

Corporate leadership has long evolved from the days of E. I. du Pont. The French nobleman—with a keen interest in gunpowder—sailed across the Atlantic on New Year’s Day, 1800, and built a factory on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. Over two centennials later, DuPont is no longer known for gunpowder, but through generations of change, E. I. du Pont’s kindred spirit has remained with the brand name.

Modern-day CEOs, on the other hand, are no longer masterminds behind-the-scenes. In an ultra-connected world where the democracy of information rules, today’s corporate leaders have an individual brand—separate from the corporations they run—outlined by the opinions, comments, values, stories and even personal quirks. This is the new-age CEO brand.

A brand, beyond the textbook definition, is a collection of its prospects’ experiences and the perceptions of the entity owning that brand. Brands are, traditionally, built upon names, symbols, terms, colors and patterns. But the contents of a brand could extend to any perceivable assets, including image, audio, scent, taste and touch (they can also include intangible assets, such as memories and feelings). Brands convey what can be reasonably and reliably expected of brand owners, as these are often tried-and-true imprints formed over periods of time.

Brands are not identities—the former dictate how we perceive the subjects, whereas the latter tell us how the subjects would like to be perceived. Where these two align, therein lies a consistent and truthful brand (we engage in branding exercises for those who do not align).

“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room,” points out Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. This is no truer for Amazon than it is for Mr. Bezos himself. Not traditionally seen in the limelight, CEOs are now increasingly regarded as the face, the advocate and the spiritual leader of the ships they helm.

In general, CEO brands follow the same rules as their corporate counterparts, except that CEOs are humans. The men and women who wear these hats have real, distinct personalities, which often evolve into their “personal brands.” While it is limiting and often incorrect to refer to a complex personal brand in single dimensions, CEOs— as PepsiCo leader Indra Nooyi brilliantly explained—become “a public property” the second they undertake their roles as commanders-in-chief. It serves both parties’ best interests, therefore, if CEOs learn to shape their brands to completely align with those of their organizations. Where a CEO emerges with established and distinguished values ahead of the birth of an organization, it is important for these values to stay true and consistent throughout the organization’s development and expansion. At the core, successful corporate brands stand for lasting values, and those individuals who embody and personify the same values become inspiring, impactful corporate leaders.

Steve Jobs advocated for relentless innovation in product design: “Innovation is what distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Apple has rarely, if ever, deviated from that purpose. Richard Branson believes in continually conquering new territories: “Balloons only have one life, and the only way of finding out whether they work is to attempt to fly around the world.” The Virgin Group comprises over 400 companies and continues to grow under this principle. Elon Musk endorses courageous exploration for the future of humanity: “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity all realize and propel this vision. What the CEO brands preach, the corporate brands must practice.

Successful CEOs are not all celebrities—aligning CEO brands does not require the creation of a movie star. For example, take a look at the best-performing CEOs nominated recently by Harvard Business Review. One is remiss not to notice that none of the top 10 on the list makes headlines on any regular basis. The leader of the pack, Lars Sørensen of Novo Nordisk, ironically does not like the notion of naming “best performing CEOs,” explaining that “It’s an American perspective to lionize individuals.” But his non-individualistic personal style falls perfectly in line with the consensus-oriented mantra at Novo Nordisk. “I’m obliged to reach consensus with my colleagues on all decisions, and if we can’t, any objection needs to be reported to the board.” Consensus is enshrined in Sørensen’s personal brand as much as his company’s.

Such is the case for many CEOs who inherited their roles rather than started them. The aforementioned PepsiCo Chairperson and CEO Indra Nooyi, who has kept PepsiCo on nine years of steady revenue growth and rejuvenated its long-flat stock price (crushing Coca-Cola’s since 2012), has never been profiled in the media without the context of her company. Commenting on her audacious move to turn PepsiCo’s brand image into one about “healthy snacking,” she derives stories from her rebellious childhood in a socially conservative city in India. “In those days, there was a well-defined conservative stereotype, so everything I did was breaking the framework.” Thus comes the inspiration to reclassify PepsiCo’s products into “fun for you,” “better for you” and “good for you,” as well as to steer the snack giant into a modern enterprise focused on “user experience” and “design thinking.”

The importance of the CEO brand not only lies in its alignment with the corporate brand but also in its quality. Conventional marketing theory dictates that brands can be “weak” or “strong”, but a brand cannot be “negative”, as brands are not established on negative values. Conversely, CEO brands could easily suffer from defective reputation, poisoning their inherent brand value. Heightened by today’s new media landscape, a damaged CEO reputation is often a looming threat over the organization’s brand image, as well as its immediate and long-term financial standing.

Public Relations agency Weber Shandwick conducts an annual CEO reputation survey among over 1,700 executives worldwide. Its most recent findings indicate that 60% of a company’s market value derives from its reputation, and 49% of that reputation is attributable to CEO reputation. These heavy figures speak volumes for the importance of strategically managing their reputation.

The survey also discovered that 81% of global executives “believe external CEO engagement is now a mandate for building company reputation.” Social media has made this particularly true. We no longer live in an age when admirable quotes of Jack Welch and Warren Buffet define our understanding of GE and Berkshire Hathaway. Similarly, our knowledge of the News Corp and BP scandals extends far beyond official statements by Rupert Murdoch and Tony Hayward. While not every CEO’s story ends up as an Oscar-winning film or business school folklore, effective external engagement by the CEO will provide a tremendous service to a company’s reputation, which will make or break its enduring brand image.