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When CEOs go on to be the face of a company

CEOs as a brand can be decisive influence over how their companies are perceived

Gulf News

Think Virgin and Richard Branson’s face comes to mind. Steve Jobs, too, was personification of his company, while, farther back in time, Walt Disney was an early example of a CEO identified strongly with his ‘brand’.

It’s not always the case that the personality heading a company has the attributes to associate closely and profitably with a brand, but those that do can have a distinct marketing advantage over bland corporatism, one that can drive tangible value into any business.

CEO branding is the process of aligning that face with the corporate brand. The process includes public relation activities, media interviews, philanthropy, articles, books, speaking engagements, and employee treatment — and it requires integrating the CEO’s brand DNA into how the company is viewed publicly.

Again, think Branson and how frequently his is the voice heard in the media, often depicting the put-upon small entrepreneur up against entrenched big business — despite the fact he heads a very large commercial organisation.

And, consider the impact of that differentiating factor — a recent survey by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR firms, underscores the importance of a CEO’s reputation to the success of the company. The results indicated that based on a CEO’s reputation:

* 95 per cent of those surveyed decided whether or not to invest in a company;

* 93 per cent would recommend a company as a good alliance or merger partner, and

* 88 per cent recommend the company as a good place to work.

Conversely, the power of a CEO to make or break a brand has longevity that some have cause to regret. A prime example is the recent controversy over remarks made by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries, when he defended the exclusivity of his brand by stating its audience was “cool, good-looking people”.

The comments might have been made in 2006, but have re-emerged — oh, the power of social media — sparking massive protests from teen activists, bloggers and media personalities who called on the clothing company to start making plus-size garments to fit ‘normal’ people.

Abercrombie was forced to issue not one, but two apologies about its CEO’s off-the-cuff remarks, and the situation has escalated after a group of teenagers confronted Jeffries at the A&F Columbus headquarters … but with a contract valid until February 2014 and a potential pay-off of anything between $10 million and $100 million, there is little the company can do to defuse the situation.

Empowering staff

So what makes a great CEO, and how can this be translated for the greater good? One key asset is empowerment, allowing employees to openly participate in the corporate messaging and thus utilising them as brand ambassadors.

The CEO of online retailer Zappos, Tony Hsieh, is a prime example of someone who encourages all employees to have a Twitter profile and to connect with customers. He wants people to experience the Zappos brand through the people that work there, creating contact, improving communications and, hopefully, loyalty.

A second consideration is investing in the corporate culture, which again has to be driven from the top — a good CEO is visible to shareholders, customers and partners, but he or she should also have a decided presence within the organisation, interacting with both management and the wider workforce and inserting that personal touch where possible.

Employees might not be able to define their company culture, but studies have proved they do want to work at organisations where they can grow their skills and flourish in ways other than picking up a paycheck.

Another point worth stressing is that any decision on the role of the CEO and how it is used in corporate strategy should be communicated internally, again to encourage the team to buy-in and relate to the direction in which the organisation is headed. In the end, a great CEO is both a leader and a team player.

Active contributions

Most employees appreciate their boss working alongside the team, actively contributing to operations, planning, marketing and other aspects of the job. And as they get used to relating to the CEO in a positive manner, they will overcome the natural tendency to rein in any comments in the presence of the man (or woman) upstairs.

This enables the CEO to demonstrate just why they are in charge, honing the ability to look out over time to analyse the moves and counter-moves of the competition and react accordingly.

Essentially, the best CEOs know both their strengths and their weaknesses, delegating where necessary.

Being an authentic, yet compelling, CEO means having the courage to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and start to engage with yourself to make the necessary change to become a better brand of a CEO.

— The writer is a US-based brand advisor.