A Brand Called C.E.O.
In an era of celebrity business leaders, a new class of experts called executive branders has emerged.
According to the people who make a living at it, executive branding is rampant. With C.E.O.'s more high-profile than ever-due to shareholder pressures and media attention-making a "brand" of the person at the top of a company can be as important as hitting the firm's quarterly numbers. Only, very few C.E.O.'s will talk about it.
"It's like saying you've had plastic surgery," says William Arruda, president of Reach Communications, a personal- and executive-branding firm in New York City.
Yet a burgeoning new crop of professionals dedicated to molding the boss's image dots the business landscape. They craft a message behind an individual, spruce up his or her appearance, if necessary, and then release him or her into the wilds of conferences, book publishing, and media scrutiny, with the expectation that it will help boost-or at least maintain-a company's share of market, shareholder price, and ability to woo partners and investors. And they may be on to something. Public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller polled 600 global executives and found that they attributed, on average, a full 50 percent of a company's overall public perception to the reputation of its C.E.O. "And we've noticed it rise year to year," says Carol Ballock, managing director of B.M.'s Executive Positioning specialty group.
Hence, a new class of experts: executive branders.
"When I first started as an executive brander eight years ago, there were very few of us," says Arruda, who's worked with senior-level executives at companies like Adobe, I.B.M., and Morgan Stanley on their personal branding. "Now there are thousands."
As head of communications for the online division of MTV, Mark Pasetsky spent much of his time branding the group's C.E.O., Nicholas Butterworth. The idea was to establish Butterworth as a cutting-edge digital pioneer by getting him booked to speak at music and industry conferences and convincing reporters to quote him as an expert in industry publications.
"It was a full-time job to build up his brand," Pasetsky says. "He was basically on a speaking tour half the year." After realizing how much time he was devoting to executive branding, Pasetsky eventually decided to form his own consulting company.
Of all the C.E.O.'s in the world, the executive branders' all-time favorite is Steve Jobs. They drool over his black turtlenecks and carefully scripted presentations that scream "cutting-edge tech pioneer."
"He's someone who is so visionary and so focused on innovation and quality that it permeates everything the company stands for," says Deb Dib, president of Executive Power Brand, a P.R. firm based in New York. "Apple wouldn't be what it is today without his driving brand behind everything."
There is no single approach to perfecting the C.E.O. brand, but B.M.'s Ballock uses what she calls the 10-10-10 influencer approach. For each company and industry, she identifies the top 10 conference opportunities, the top 10 media placements, and the top 10 best-of lists that will raise their profiles and establish them as industry leaders. Currently, she considers the top conference-speaking opportunity for executives to be the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, followed by Washington, D.C.'s Business Roundtable, the Detroit Economic Club, and executive conferences run by Fortune and Business Week. Media placement and best-of lists vary by industry, but Ballock says Barron's annual survey of the World's Best C.E.O.'s is one of the top places to be.
Executive branders also frequently advise C.E.O.'s to write books to further solidify their brands. Leslie Gaines-Ross, the chief reputation strategist for P.R. firm Weber Shandwick, points to Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz of Starbucks, as a platform that helped established Schultz as a C.E.O. with vision and values and Virgin Group C.E.O. Richard Branson's book Business the Richard Branson Way, which cemented Branson's reputation as a bold risk-taker.
Some dismiss the emphasis on reputational and branding services as just another ploy by P.R. consultants to increase their billable hours.
"Public relations professionals are trying to increase the level of responsibility they are getting from clients every day," says Keith O'Brien, editor-in-chief of the industry publication PR Week.
And others take issue with the very notion of building C.E.O. brands, saying that it places too much emphasis on a single irreplaceable executive at the expense of a longer-lasting culture and team.
"The difference between a religion and cult is that a religion survives after the leader dies," says Rakesh Khurana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic C.E.O.'s. According to Khurana, the current overemphasis on C.E.O. personality has led to excessive compensation, weak governance, and "the triumph of celebrity over substance."
Still, the media's focus on personality is not likely to abate anytime soon, meaning the emphasis on executive branding is likely to continue to grow.
"The whole topic of reputation in the past 10 years is radioactive-it's exploded," says Gaines-Ross.
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