Personal Brand or Business Brand: Which is More Important?
Business today is all about relationships and the person behind the brand. The more the market knows the founder, the better their business performs in the market. But can we take this too far?
If you’re like me, then you love reading online articles, opinion pieces and general books on the topics that you find interesting. It’s one of the ways that you can ensure that you keep your interest piqued and stay abreast of what’s going on in your industry.
One of the topics that gets me thinking has always been the concept of branding. It’s why I studied an undergraduate degree in marketing and I completed honours in brand management at Vega, the Brand Leadership School.
I’ve always been curious to find out more. But one aspect of branding that hasn’t been given enough thought I believe is the relationship between the brand and the CEO of that brand.
Who should be more prominent?
It’s a straightforward question: Should the brand of the CEO or the brand of the business be more prominent?
What are the implications of the CEO’s brand being more prominent than the business’s brand? Similarly, what are the consequences of an unknown CEO where the business’s brand is the hero in the relationship?
Let’s perhaps start answering that question by talking about what a brand is. At university, you’ll be taught by your lecturer that Philip Kotler says a brand is a ‘name, term, sign, symbol (or a combination of these) that identifies the maker or seller of the product’.
That’s technically correct. However, I’ve always believed that at the heart of branding lies perception. A brand is a perception. As marketers, we’re ultimately in the game of shaping positive perceptions, because perception sells.
I believe perceptions are shaped by three factors. What the brand tells us about itself (including what Philip Kotler mentions), what our acquaintances and friends tell us about the brand and what our personal experiences are with that brand.
Then there are the secondary factors that include where you were born, your cultural nuances, your history and so on. I’m sure it’s becoming clear that no two people can have the same perception.
Nevertheless, perception matters and the art and science behind branding matters in shaping those perceptions.
So, then what’s more important? The brand of the CEO leading the business or the business’s brand? Depending on who you ask you’ll receive different answers.
CEO vs business brand
Let’s introduce two well-known South African brands into the conversation. Discovery and First National Bank. Both operate in the financial services industry, both are healthy brands — but chances are most of you can only name the CEO of one of them, and I’m guessing its Discovery.
That’s a typical example of CEO brand vs business brand. Adrian Gore, Discovery’s CEO, is an influential leader with a strong personal brand that works hand-in-hand with Discovery’s overarching brand. FNB’s CEO is Jacques Celliers, and in this instance, he’s mostly unknown to the general public.
So, which then is more important? I spoke to a few thought leaders about this, and the general sentiment is mixed. Some believe a strong CEO brand does well for the business, others think the company comes first, and it’s first about the brand of the business.
Personally, I believe it depends on the company and the health of the brand. Let’s look at other examples; Apple and Steve jobs, Amazon and Jeff Bezos, Tesla and Elon Musk.
All of these businesses, we can agree, are a success mainly because of the value that the CEO’s personal brand brings to the table. On the other hand, we have Coca-Cola, BMW and Microsoft. I bet most of you couldn’t name the CEOs of those companies off the cuff.
People do business with people
I believe that fundamentally people buy into people, not brands. That’s why I think there’s a strong case for a CEO with a solid brand. However, there are cons that exist. What happens when the CEO leaves?
Has this CEO become so large that the business fails without them? After all, leadership is about passing the baton. In my opinion, Steve Jobs is the ultimate reason for Apple’s success, however he did a poor job of passing the baton.
Luckily, Apple’s brand is strong enough to withstand uncertainty, but I think we can all agree that under Tim Cook, Apple has started to decline. I used the example of FNB earlier because one of my favourite CEOs is Michael Jordaan. Under his leadership, FNB had what I like to call it’s ‘glory years’.
They were simply unstoppable and every other bank in South Africa was struggling to keep up. Or at least that was the perception from the outside. Remember perceptions?
Michael’s brand is strong, so much so that since his departure FNB has lost its story-telling innovative mojo. Enter Bank Zero. An app-driven bank opening in South Africa in the fourth quarter of 2018.
Why is anyone even paying attention? Because it’s Michael Jordaan. His personal brand is strong enough to grab attention. If it was a no-name would we care as much? Would there be nearly as much hype?
We therefore have two sides to the coin. A CEO’s personal brand is incredibly important when the business’s brand needs an injection of credibility.
But the CEO must be careful that he doesn’t become too big when credibility is formed or restored. After all, great leadership is about passing the baton and leaving a sustainable legacy. Which means the CEO has built a brand that the customers buy into.
I think Coca-Cola, Microsoft and BMW have done brilliantly at this. Their brands are sustainable because it’s about the brand, not the CEO’s brand. I also think there’s a strong case for choosing the next CEO from within the current pool of employees of that business.
THE ELEMENTS OF A STRONG CEO BRAND
- A fearless leader who motivates his/her employees into action
- A leader whose vision is simple and easy to follow
- A leader who rallies not only his employees but customers and clients too
- A leader who isn’t afraid to be in the media and on social media.
On the business side, here is what you should keep top of mind when building your corporate brand:
- Create a strong corporate identity. That doesn’t mean doing it yourself, get the professionals to do it. It’ll include your logo, collateral and how your brand lives online.
- Create your experience. It’s incredibly important that what you say is also experienced by your potential and current clients. This includes user experience offline and online.
- Run online thought leadership and PR. This is what builds credibility. It’s one thing for you to talk about yourself, but when others talk about you it builds your brand in a way that adds much needed credibility. This also increases your SEO because any online thought leader should be linking back to your website.
- Lastly, drive brand integration through your value-chain. When your audience and stakeholders see your brand they know you and what to expect.