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Should Marissa Mayer Have Posed in Vogue?

Should Marissa Mayer Have Posed in Vogue?
Image credit: Vogue
Marissa Mayer's Vogue profile can give us a new perspective on Yahoo's capabilities -- and the growing ways CEOs need to tend to their personal brands.

Tech and business types don’t usually cluck about Vogue profiles, but Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has changed all that. Vogue's piece on Mayer, which hit newsstands Monday as part of the September edition, is accompanied by a photo that has sparked some fuss. In it, she reclines on a white chaise, stretching across two pages in red lips, a crisp Michael Kors shift and thick-buckled stilettos. It’s not how we’re used to seeing Mayer -- or CEOs in general -- and the response has been mixed.

Dan Schawbel, author of "Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success" says the photo makes her seem like she is on vacation while her staffers toil at work -- an unfortunate message, he says, for someone who’s done away with flexible schedules. Policy Mic called the piece detrimental to her image. The Street went so far as to say the story was pointless and Mayer herself out of touch. 

But is she?

Mayer is no stranger to the fashion glossies, but this profile wasn’t in just any women's mag. The September issue of Vogue is traditionally one of the most talked about and anticipated editions of any title. Last year's edition had a circulation of 1.5 million. That's a standout for Vogue but just a fraction of the circulation for mass reads such as Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens. That's what makes Vogue and the September edition different. The chatter about it starts months before the drop date and continues long after it hits newsstands. There’s a reason this 904-page edition clocks in at 4 pounds with more than 600 pages of ads: It gets noticed.

In this world where news outlets cover other news outlets, “the halo effect of being in Vogue is phenomenal,” says Mark Silver, a partner at fashion public relations firm Factory PR. Silver says the Mayer piece makes Yahoo more attractive to advertisers and media strategists. “I this this was very strategic. I think this is a B2B piece masquerading as a consumer piece.”

Before Mayer, could we imagine anyone from Yahoo being profiled in Vogue? To be profiled in Vogue is to be on trend and Yahoo is not seen as a particularly sexy company. Job recruiters still advise against using Yahoo email addresses on resumes, and in some circles, even having a Yahoo email opens you up to some good-natured ribbing. “I don’t even think people go there for news content anymore,” adds Silver.

Mayer’s mission has been to change all that. She upgraded Yahoo’s cafeteria to better match what’s now standard in tech. She’s acquired a host of new companies including Tumblr, a service known for verticals like fashion and design that aren’t usually associated with the company. Kelly Studer, a career consultant who’s worked at tech companies including Google (and whose team recruited for Mayer) says, “She is all about style and substance. By association, this type of profile could potentially help Yahoo up its coolness quotient.”

This piece is part of that makeover. It asks us to change not just how we see Yahoo and Yahoo’s leadership, but CEOs in general. We’re used to seeing CEOS standing like Superman or leaning forward at comically large desks. These are masculine poses thanks to the fact that 96 percent of CEOs are male. In contrast, Mayer’s shot is feminine and sensual while still being very corporate, says branding expert Karen Leland. Mayer holds an iPad with her face on it, says Leland, stressing she has a body and a brain. “To me she’s trying to create an integrated message that yes I’m a CEO but I’m also a feminine woman and that makes me powerful.”

Adds Silver, “This is a company that needs to take some risk. Posing awkwardly for Vogue is very low risk for that kind of story compared to acquiring Tumblr for a billion dollars. It shows that she’s taking calculated risks.”

The Vogue piece also reminds us that, now more than ever, CEOs are becoming celebrities, says Leland. In the Vogue article, we learn about Mayer’s infant and her husband and what brand of cardigan she prefers, much in the same way we would learn about a movie star's life and wardrobe. CEOs can become larger-than-life pop culture figures, as evidenced by the not one, but two Steve Jobs movies coming out this year. This is a reminder that going forward, CEOs have to carefully craft a personal brand in addition to their company’s brand, says Leland. While Mayer was reclined on a Vogue chaise, she was actually hard at work since, as Leland reminds us, “Your brand is work.”

Of course, no company’s image was built -- or changed -- in a day. As Schawbel acknowledges, building a company culture is more important than press and much of the positive and negative impact of the piece will be short lived. That said, Silver says that as a PR professional, this type of piece can pave the way for a related project yet to be unveiled by Yahoo. He says. “I can’t imagine that we’ll start seeing her in many fashion editorials. From a PR perspective, this is the big consumer story you do that either launches or teases something significant.”

Linda Lacina is a special reports editor at Entrepreneur.com.

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