The sad story of Steve Job’s newest medical leave points to an issue many companies face. What to do when your brand equity is tied up in to one person. You can be a global business super-star like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or Donald Trump, or simply a giant in your own industry or local business community. Small businesses and businesses in niche markets are actually MORE likely to be driven by the cult of personality. The success of the company in terms of its public stature, operational effectiveness and even employee morale can hinge on a single person.
Steve Jobs dominates the tech world and culture. When he stands before industry conferences, holds up a gadget and says, “this is cool,” whatever it is becomes cool. The Apple brand is known for design, but it is also known for the guy who invented the PC as we know it in his garage. Jobs had seen success and failure, earning status and credibility that cannot be replaced. Without him, Apple can still succeed and can still be cool, but there is no guarantee is won’t fall back to John Sculley days of declining finances and market share.
The markets are jittery and the Internet is alive with “Apple without Steve Jobs” commentary and speculation. Apple shares fell 50% in 2008 on Jobs’ pancreatic cancer return rumors. They fell again January 2009 when Jobs announced he was taking leave of absence for a liver transplant.
If your company is tied to the fortunes of one person, here are three things you can do to mitigate the potential downside and even create an enduringly strong brand.
- Institutionalize the cult of personality. Coco Chanel has become an icon. Though she passed away decades ago, her spirit lives on. Calving Klein is transforming his company, stepping back and letting others learn to keep his unique style going. Orville Redenbacher is still the #1 popcorn brand, though the man himself no longer stars in the commercials. Like Colonel Sanders before him, he is evolving into a character.
- Find a successor. Frank Purdue’s son is just as charming as the tough man behind a tender chicken. Marc Jacobs stepped into Perry Ellis’ shoes and became a star in his own right. Donna Karan replaced Anne Klein with similar success.
- Diversify. Add new attributes to the base begun by the iconic person. Martha Stewart’s clear take on design is as strong as ever, but she is no longer on every magazine cover and she is sharing the spotlight with other designers like Kevin Sharkey. Condé Nast Publications, if anything, became stronger after Condé Montrose Nast passed away, defining and dominating every category it was in with high-end, glossy publications.
Having a strong brand reputation driven by a single person is the secret to initial success, yet it is a shaky foundation for a brand unless companies anticipate and plan for the eventual departure (to death or prison) of that iconic person.
Author: Lisa Merriam is a branding and naming expert, helping Fortune 500 companies and fast-growth small companies create and build brands. Her blog at http://www.merriamassociates.com/ covers culture, current events and business news from a brand perspective.