Art & Commerce: Leaders of the Pack

What do Steve Jobs, the visionary CEO of Apple, and Oprah Winfrey, the lovable force behind Harpo Inc., have in common? They are both leaders that personify their brands—and do it so aptly that they’ve elevated their brands to near cult status.

Although many companies have strong leaders at the helm, very few have leaders who embody the brand. Those leaders who do are precious assets, and provide a great opportunity for bringing a company’s brand to life.

What typifies one of these rare “brand leaders”? Although there is no set formula, there are several telltale signs that a CEO/president personifies a brand: He or she is an extremely dynamic, articulate public speaker and typically has a compelling public persona. A natural synergy exists between their personal voice and the company’s marketing voice, and, even more fundamentally, between their personality and the company’s personality. He or she is seen as the heart and soul of the company, regularly makes a measurable impact on the business and commands credibility among industry insiders, often because of “coming up through the ranks.” In the best cases, this person is widely viewed as an industry innovator and visionary.

If your company’s CEO meets these criteria, you are well positioned to develop a “personified brand,” or a brand strongly linked to its high-profile leader. Brands that highlight this connection benefit in important areas: When a leader stands so prominently behind a brand, it gives the brand instant credibility; because of their public stature, brand leaders are newsworthy almost by nature, which in turn keeps the brand fresh and interesting; and, finally, a brand connected to an individual, as opposed to a more abstracted corporation, is more likely to establish a personal connection with end users.

Although there are powerful benefits associated with a personified brand, companies should proceed with caution. First and foremost, the connection needs to be authentic. Pushing a CEO into the limelight that does not fully embody the brand and what it stands for can create confusion around the brand’s core message. Moreover, it is important that brand leaders are not overexposed and are presented in a true-to-life context. For example, although memorable, Chrysler’s recent “Dr. Z” ads were received with mixed reviews. Many consumers wondered if the caricatured Dr. Z could really be the CEO of one of the world’s major automakers.

Which leads us to a critical question: How can organizations credibly leverage the power of their brand leader? Companies should start by adopting strategies that make the most of their CEO’s existing brand-building activities. For example, they should make every effort to document speaking engagements and use the Web or other dynamic outreach vehicles to publicize them. Ideally, this type of digital media will then be archived so interested parties can view a “best of” the brand leader’s public appearances at any time. To the extent possible, companies should also develop regular outreach mechanisms for their brand leader, so the public knows when and where they can tune in to see them—for example, Steve Jobs’ highly anticipated keynote at Mac World and Oprah’s cover photo and introductory letter, which set the tone for each edition of O magazine.

Other effective and increasingly utilized communication channels include e-newsletters and, to a lesser extent, blogs. Both provide a great opportunity for brand leaders to communicate more directly with target audiences and are relatively cost-effective. In some cases, consumers are also encouraged to e-mail a company’s leader directly with questions or concerns. A few CEOs, such as Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, are rumored to spend as many as three hours a day personally responding to customer e-mails. This speaks volumes about their involvement in the business and commitment to end users. Of course, brand leaders who blog or correspond directly with end users may suffer from overexposure, so the pros and cons of each approach should be weighed carefully.

To optimize the impact of a personified brand, companies should weave their brand leader into marketing communications, for example, using personal photographs and quotes to enhance materials. But ideally this is just the beginning. Companies should make every effort to ensure that the essence of their personified leader remains an integral part of all aspects of the brand. In the best cases, this happens organically, but clever marketing can help reinforce the connection in people’s minds. For example, Charles Schwab’s “Ask Chuck” campaign reminded investors that Charles Schwab’s commitment to the needs of personal investors is the driving force behind the company and its services. In addition, materials tied to the leader should have a strong visuality and voice, immediately cuing recipients that “this communication is coming directly from the top—and the heart—of the company.”

In my opinion, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars (a longtime client) is the quintessential brand leader. Bob started making guitars in high school, and at 19 he and two co-workers bought out a small guitar shop, renamed Taylor Guitars in 1983. From the beginning, Taylor has been the company’s chief visionary, evangelist and technical whiz kid. We understood that bottling his enthusiasm and know-how was the key to driving the success of the Taylor Guitar brand.

Whether its Taylor, Jobs or Oprah, the most successful personified brands integrate their leaders so deeply into marketing communications that the overall effect is seamless: Consumers can hardly distinguish between the brand leader and the brand itself. Although this level of integration is extremely unique, putting a human face on your brand will go a long way towards deepening its relationship with consumers, a particularly valuable advantage in a brand-saturated marketplace.

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