They say image is everything and, while that’s not strictly true, perception is certainly vital when it comes to business.
That’s especially the case for chief executives because personal branding is such an important element of leadership.
Most companies will have their own brand, and CEOs can complement and build on this by stamping their own personal branding on the business they head up.
An effective CEO epitomises how their organisation looks, feels and acts. And they have the power to project themselves and burnish its image both inside and outside the company – but only through astute personal brand management.
Not everyone can or want to overshadow their own business brand in the same way that the late Dame Anita Roddick transcended Body Shop or Elon Musk puts even his own Tesla in the shade.
Personal branding can strengthen bonds with customers and therefore strengthen its own standing in the marketplace – on a personal basis rather than just ‘B2B’ or ‘BCB’ level.
A CEO can be an incredibly important asset. But it’s still worth considering a few basic questions when it comes to CEO brand management to make sure that your company is pulling together, and everyone is heading in the right direction.
Why is personal branding so important?
It’s because first impressions count. As the figurehead of the company, your CEO has the potential to have an immediate impact when they’re on company duty and taking part in anything from a speaking engagement with their industry’s great and good to a broadcast interview.
With the right preparation and investment of expert analysis, you’ll get it right and that will mean that you’ll be strengthening bonds with the company on a genuine human-to-human level. But fail to put in the homework and you’ll fail to talk the part or even look the part and the consequences could be devastating.
The CEO can make a huge difference on many levels thank to having the ability to inspire people to come and work with you, inspire and galvanise colleagues, beguile the media or to attract potential investment. More often than not, they’re buying into the person rather than the company, as was the case with Levi Roots and his Reggae Reggae sauce with BBC’s Dragons Den. That’s why a high profile matters so much.
How does the CEO brand work?
It will help if your CEO is an outgoing, charismatic type and as the leading figure in the company, he or she probably will be something of an extrovert when it comes to promoting the company. Not all CEOs seems comfortable in the public gaze. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t appear to be a natural, but he’s clearly worked out that CEO branding is vital, so he’s worked at it.
That said, it’s important to work with CEOs to make sure that the company brand and the personal brand are aligned. No matter how media-friendly, it will just create confusion if the CEO goes off on a tangent. Every story they tell in public must be harnessed to make sure it is in line with the company’s values and ethos and its overall direction of travel and solidifies the CEO’s standing and personal authority.
A good example of how not to do it comes from across the Pond, and Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter who stepped down as CEO after complaining about the negative impact on the business from NFL stars who were taking a knee – at a time when Papa John’s were NFL sponsors.
But in contrast, Alison Rose, chief executive of NatWest, Dame Carolyn McCall, CEO, ITV, and Clare Woodman, Head of EMEA and CEO of Morgan Stanley International, consistently show how it should be done. That was very much the case when they helped launch, the 25×25 initiative to increase the number of FTSE 100 female chief executives to 25 in the next four years.
“We have targets to get to a 50:50 gender balance,” said Alison, hitting nail on head in a way that showed NatWest means business in lots of ways. “These are not HR targets. These are business strategic priority targets, not quotas. That’s really important.”
How does a CEO brand flourish?
People are interested in the thoughts of a CEO as a leader who sets the tone of company life, shapes strategy and directs tactics and so there should be no shortage of opportunities to engage with carefully targeted audiences inside and outside the company.
There’s just no stopping Virgin Group founder Richard Branson who really does lead by example when it comes to personal brand development as, amongst many other things, he authors a brilliant weekly blog. It’s special because it’s bang on the (Virgin) money every single time. Short and sweet, its carefully written, well researched, the content is wide-ranging and its very topical.
Regular newsletters to staff and monthly company-wide briefings are an important way to maintain the trust of staff and let them know where the company is going. Outside, media opportunities should be carefully curated to enhance the CEO stature and press releases, thought leadership articles, letters to editors and broadcast media interviews are a great way to project the CEO.
A good CEO will help you secure untold amounts of media attention, but variety is very much the spice of life and so potential speaking slots at industry events, roundtables, and podcasts should also be on the CEO brand plan.
How do you cultivate CEO brand?
Consistency is key. It’s important to be able to articulate opinions that espouse a company’s virtues but as well as being bold it’s equally important to stick to them and not veer all over the place. It’s equally important to stick to talking about what you know.
The Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon certainly does that, whether she’s sticking her elbows out for the broadcaster on the political front as she did in an interview with the Daily Telegraph or promising to show more climate-related content as part of the COP26 Climate Change Pledge.
Don’t let your CEO talk about Peppa Pig when you’re supposed to be talking business. No one is an expert in absolutely everything and any good CEO will know that. And don’t overdo it – it’s vital that your CEO is constantly relevant and doesn’t end up shouting into a void.
It’s also vital that the CEO sounds natural so putting key messages into his or her mouth is a very delicate operation and so it’s best to develop narrative frameworks that do the heavy lifting for them on the messaging front. Done well, the CEO can bring everything to life and the company’s place in the marketplace make sense.
How do you know is your CEO brand is a winner?
It’s probably an idea to picture a scenario where what could go wrong has gone wrong and if so then the experience of former Ratners CEO Gerald Ratner will spring to mind.
It might be an extreme example but his calamitous speech for the Institute of Directors at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It was 30 years ago and it was recently billed in the Daily Mirror newspaper as one of the famous corporate gaffes’ after he jokingly described one of his products as “total crap”. His rivals would have laughed loudest as the value of the company plummeted by £500 million in days, Ratners became Signet Group and he lost his job and the trappings of huge wealth.
There’s nothing like the court of public opinion when it comes to evaluating CEO brand.
There will be trust signals such as positive online and social media mentions, boosting online mentions, sales team talking to potential leads, positive mentions and, last but not least there will be a boost to the bottom line. They will prove that while image isn’t everything, CEO brand management is certainly very important.