Should you brand yourself along with your business?
It was hard for Beth Vincent to eat well as a pregnant working woman on the run. Her hunger spawned an idea: Why not create an all-natural health-food bar that's fortified with prenatal vitamins, minerals and DHA, a fatty acid babies need? "This [product] came out of a true void in the market," says Vincent, 39.
Today, her Oh Mama! snack bars are sold at Motherhood Maternity, select Whole Foods and other retailers nationwide, and Vincent Foods, the 3-year-old Baltimore company she co-founded with husband Scott, 40, projects $1 million in sales this year. Vincent is the company's spokesperson, and photos of her dot the company's website and marketing materials. "I want to be the face of the brand," she says. "It naturally dovetails for me to be out there."
As your company grows, you'll have to decide whether or not to build your personal brand alongside it. Apple's Steve Jobs is one founder whose personal brand is as famous as the company's. Virgin Group's Richard Branson remains as vibrant, quirky and risk-taking as the company he founded. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, meanwhile, is still largely seen as the face and the soul of the company (sorry, Steve Ballmer). But for every Jobs, Branson and Gates, there are CEOs who prefer to have a quieter public profile behind the product. "The CEO founder makes a conscious choice to be in the limelight or not," says Deb Dib, president of Executive Power Brand, a senior executive consulting firm. "And it depends on how they're wired."
CEO branding is becoming more prevalent thanks to the internet, says William Arruda, president of Reach Communications, a consulting firm that helps executives develop their personal brands. He sees CEOs writing books and hitting the speaking circuit in greater numbers. Blogging is another way CEOs are branding themselves. "We make buying decisions based on emotion, and who better to convey emotion than a human being?" he says. "A lot of the connection for consumers is in that human aspect of the business." Developing your own brand identity can bring attention to the company, engage customers and attract talented employees, but it can create problems, too. Brands can suffer when highly visible CEOs get into legal trouble or their personal brands deviate from the accepted corporate brand. For example, people would wonder what happened if Steve Jobs became a shortsighted, fashion-challenged cynic touting a conventional product line. "Not every consumer loves Jobs or Branson, but they see them as true to themselves and the companies they founded," Arruda says.
We all have personal brand attributes--in other words, the skills and strengths that others see in us--and savvy CEOs know how to use them. Vincent says entrepreneurs need to understand their personality and ask whether branding themselves alongside the product is good for the company story. "So much of it depends on what the brand is and how it evolved," she says. "There are so many factors intermingled in [deciding] whether it's a good or a bad thing."
Arruda believes CEO branding will only increase as technology offers leaders more opportunities to connect with the public. Vincent, for one, plans to remain the face of Oh Mama! as long as her presence keeps the three-employee company on a growth trajectory. "If we needed a change in mission, I can see myself taking a back seat," she says. "I wouldn't want to get in the way of the brand."
Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area.
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