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by Phil Birss
3 min read
Leading from the front. The impact of a CEO in building your brand
Author: Phil Birss
Posted in Branding on 23rd October 2017 9:00 am
The concept of the ‘corporation’ unites organisations into single entities, literally defining them as legal persons (incorporated in the flesh, as it were). And, metaphorically speaking, these beings have arms and hearts – and they also have a head: their CEO. Just as in the ‘body politic’, in which the monarch acted as the guiding force for the nation, so the CEO must act as a dictator for their business, directing its path, defining what it stands for and acting as its mouthpiece.
All of this means that the CEO has a pivotal role to play in a company’s branding.
It starts at the top
The very definition of leadership is that managers set the standards for their subordinates and establish what is expected of them – and this goes all the way to the top. What the CEO cares about – or doesn’t care about – will be evident to those who report to them, cascading down the business to account reps and customer service personnel. If the CEO turns a blind eye to bad behaviour then it may well continue unabated, while their personal gripes may well become company policy. This can have powerful consequences – Sheryl Sandberg, for example, discovered that she had inadvertently issued a total ban on PowerPoint after requesting that her subordinates refrain from using slideshows in presentations.
The business personified
This naturally extends to external communications: the CEO is the public face of the company. When the company has significant news to share, the CEO should comment; at company events, the CEO provides the keynote; and if the company needs to address challenges or concerns, the CEO should respond, as the ultimate source of authority within the business. In the very worst cases, this can run to a CEO resignation – see the Equifax debacle for an example.
If the CEO is uncomfortable with public appearances, however, then it can hamper the business, diminishing the company’s public presence and quietening its voice. Look at Theresa May’s apparent discomfort with public speaking, for example, and the criticism that she received for refusing to join televised debates ahead of the 2016 election. Richard Branson might be the polar opposite of this – cross-dressing and abseiling off buildings amidst all manner of publicity stunts in order to promote a portfolio of cross-branded businesses. In fact, the one thing that these enterprises all have in common is their name – and Branson himself.
Seize the megaphone
Indeed, a CEO can have a much wider footprint than just providing quotes for press releases – everything Richard Branson does (all the way to Virgin Galactic) is effectively a promotion for the many Virgin brands, after all. At a more down-to-Earth level, executives can write books and thought leadership pieces (think Gary Vaynerchuk) or make external public speaking appearances (think TEDx). Of course, if they do speak to the public directly then the business will want to make sure that they’re not contradicting other communication channels (don’t be like Trump).
What’s more, if the CEO is also a founder of the business, then personal and corporate brand may run closely together. Facebook’s history is a ‘Mark Zuckerberg production’, after all (and the archetype of Silicon Valley success stories), while the ascent of Apple over the last 20 years was the narrative of Steve Jobs’ corporate comeback. This can add a real, human element to what might otherwise be a relatively dry pitch – look at the businesses run by Apprentice winners, for example.
Indeed, the CEO’s brand has a lot of power – and they have a lot of responsibility for the reputational health of the business. A 2015 study found that executives attribute nearly half of a company’s reputation and its market value to the reputation of the CEO. In reality, the CEO is not only a public face, but also a brand asset to be maintained, nurtured and developed.
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