There are two kinds of businesses: those with CEOs who are intertwined with their companies and, well, those who aren't. I call the latter faceless brands.
Faceless brands include big companies like American Airlines, Adidas, Chase and Visa. On the flip side, Richard Branson with Virgin, Marc Benioff with Salesforce and Marc Zuckerberg with Facebook represent brands where the founder has made a conscious decision to get his face out there from day one.
Let’s call brands that are indistinguishable from their founders founder-led brands. When you look at media coverage for founder-led brands, they seem to get a lot more of it -- and most importantly, a lot more interesting coverage than their faceless competitors. For example, when was the last time you saw anyone from American Airlines on the front cover of a magazine? Richard Branson is on at least one major magazine cover each month.
There’s a good reason founder-led brands receive more coverage in the media. It’s because they’re more interesting to read about, and as their businesses start to experience success, those founders come with a built-in audience that shores up readership. Founder-led brands still launch new products and might use traditional media like billboards, TV, etc. for branding and customer acquisition, but the reason they resonate well with customers and potential customers is because they’ve mastered the art of telling stories and standing for something -- and I think that’s the key point.
Founder-led brands are typically disrupters with huge missions that interest a lot of people. And, if they have competitors, they’re generally from the old guard and have stopped innovating. How Aaron Levie positioned Box against Microsoft’s Sharepoint a few years ago is the perfect example of this. Did Microsoft respond? No. Did they need to? No.
Even founder-led brands such as Dropbox, with cash-laden and innovative competitors like Google and Apple, can still win. Why? Because Drew Houston tells a different story (solving a problem versus growing revenue as a business unit inside a behemoth global brand) and built his business to meet a real need. He continually tells the story of how he had the idea for Dropbox: “I could see my USB drive sitting on my desk at home, which meant I couldn’t work. I sulked for 15 minutes and then, like any self-respecting engineer, I started writing some code. I had no idea what it would eventually become.”
Regardless of the company, people tend to remember and gravitate toward founders who tell a genuine story about what made them want to solve a problem. That solution then becomes a revenue-generating business and they continue to tell the story over and over again, in slightly different contexts depending on the audience. But it’s their face and their story that resonate with people.
I bet you know the stories of how GoPro, Spanx and Chipotle were started -- or at the very least, you know what their founders look like and what they stand for. Most founders have really interesting stories about why they started their business and excellent insight into the problem they’re solving. They just either aren’t comfortable being interviewed or don’t feel their story is interesting enough to share, which most times just isn’t true.
There are a million ways to become the face of your brand. That’s the easy part. Look at how others have done it and implement the same strategies. Either have a huge, compelling vision or be the David attacking the Goliath of your industry like Aaron Levie did at Box or Marc Benioff did at Salesforce ten years ago.
Another popular strategy is to zig when everyone else is zagging. McDonalds continues to add more items to its menu, while Chipotle focuses on sourcing local ingredients from farmers and never compromises on their integrity to grow sales.This is core to their messaging. McDonalds same-store sales are going backwards, and Chipotle's same-store sales are growing by about 15 percent year-on-year.
The important thing is being able to tell a fun and interesting story about the problem you’re solving, and to then commit to telling that story to whomever will listen via interviews or speaking at events and meet-ups over and over and over again. It’s a commitment you’ll need to invest hundreds or even thousands of hours in over the life of your business, and initially, it might be painfully awkward. But as you build momentum and your story becomes more well known, you’ll find that awareness starting to translate into sales, which becomes a measurable return on investment.
You’ll also find it a huge help for recruiting, especially when you’re trying to poach top talent from some of the world’s best companies. Being the face of your company can mean the difference between a candidate responding with, “I’ve never heard of you guys, why would I want to work for you?” versus, “I saw you speaking at that conference last month and believe in your mission. Thanks for reaching out, I’m interested in joining!”