What do Paula Deen, George Zimmer, Richard Branson, Walt Disney and JK Rowling have in common? All of them are living icons of the brands they created. Through good times and bad (and whether they like it or not) these individuals ARE their companies in the minds of the public.
Check out Andrea’s column in today’s Hartford Business Journal where she talks about the good and the bad outcomes when companies use the folks as their chief brand ambassadors. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen how the rise and fall of the lives of these executives has affected the companies they represent. Their personas and personalities, good or bad, are tied to their organizations’ reputations in the marketplace. And sometimes, that just ain’t pretty.
No one better illustrates this than “Butter Queen” Paul Deen. Deen’s business relationships have been steadily unraveling since she revealed the use of a racial slur in her deposition in a Georgia courtroom. It hit the media, the blogosphere, the twittersphere and universe like a grease fire in a hot pan, scorching every part of her $17 million business empire. Within days, the Food Network announced they would not renew her contract. Smithfield Foods jumped in by cutting their ties with her as their spokeswoman. Then, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, ended their relationship and Caesars Entertainment took Deen’s name off of four of its restaurants. The next day, Deen was hit with another cascade, as Target, Home Depot, QVC and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk jumped ship. And, to quote QVC, “but wait there’s more…” — The publisher of her upcoming cookbook cancelled their deal despite its spot on Amazon as #1.
And who can project the damage to the Men’s Wearhouse brand from the sudden and very public ouster of its founder, George Zimmer? The company finds itself in the midst of a firestorm over its unceremonious dumping of the man whose been promising us “”You’re going to like the way you look — I guarantee it.”
He’s had that role since he founded the Men’s Wearhouse 40 years ago. In a very public catfight over who wants the best for the company, both parties have been playing out their respective points of view. Expect the damage to the brand to be significant as loyal customers and lovers of those hokey TV spots line up to vote with their dollars.
Deen and Zimmer remind us that high profile leaders’ personas and personalities, good or bad, are tied to their organizations’ reputation in the marketplace. That’s especially true when the companies choose to make them their chief brand ambassadors. These folks are seen as the face of the company. The very human embodiment of the company’s core values and identity. They give life, meaning and passion to the brand’s story. Consumers see them as authentic representatives of their brands, providing them with their own reasons to buy their products. So what happens when this very personal relationship between the CEO and the customer is called into question? And what does it say about the good and the bad of using someone as a living brand?
The idea’s not new. Frank started hawking his “tender birds” in the 1970s. Lee Iacocca also did it for Chrysler in the 1970s and cashed in those “personality chits” to get a federal bailout for his company in 1979. Dave Thomas did it for Wendy’s hamburgers and the bun has been passed to his daughter, the real Wendy. But it was Steve Jobs who brought the concept of CEO as brand to a new level, imbuing computers with his own personality and sense of esthetics. He’s known to have said that he created products before people even knew they wanted them. And, this idea made us want those products before we knew what they were (how many folks lined up at the Apple store in 2010 just to find out what an iPad was?)
The personalities of these and other business leaders have shaped and enhanced their companies’ reputations. They are icons for the corporate brand, giving it “coolness”, prestige and an honest-to-goodness personality. But, they can also threaten the very health of their companies when they are involved in something nasty. Think Martha Steward, whose face, voice and personality WERE the brand. Her five-month prison sentence between Oct. 8, 2004 and March 4, 2005, sent the company into a tailspin. After her indictment in 2003, Martha Steward Living Omnimedia experienced a net loss in profits of $2.7 million compared to 2002 when there was a profit of $7.2 million. It was down another $75.7 million by the end of 2005. Clearly, her conviction was damaging to the brand that was so closely associate with her as an individual. She affirmed her relationship five months after she got out of prison with an interview in the New York Times in which she said, “I always disagreed with the separation of the name and the brand and the person. To build on that name and brand is one thing. To divorce the name and the brand from the person was not an approach that I agreed with. “
Clearly, there are pluses and minuses to building a brand around your company’s leader. It’s a decision that can play out well on the bottom line. Here’s the good news — when it works, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s about connection. It’s about putting a face on a faceless company and a passion in an increasingly passionless transaction environment (who got excited about buying a computer before Jobs’ passion made us want to be first just to touch the newest Apple product?) The CEO as brand channels a company’s mission and values making us believe these attributes belong to both of them. It’s also very good for brand visibility. Business and Brand Strategist and CEO mentor Martin Roll calls it the “romance of leadership,” saying that, “Media and customers want to attribute the success and failure of brands to some top executive.”
The truth is that putting a human face on the company gives its story a richer feel. It’s comfortable for us to identify with JK Rowlings’ struggles to publish her Harry Potter series. We feel a part of her story and have a human connection to the woman who gave life to one of the most successful franchises in the history of publishing. Every enduring brand has a story and making that story about someone gives us our own personal stake in that tale. Something we can relate to. Something we want for ourselves. Wouldn’t you rather buy Paul Newman salad dressing than Wish-Bone? Who is this guy, Wish-Bone, anyway?
Lastly, employees feel good when they are working for a person, not a concept. Stories about Walt Disney and Steve Jobs still energize the workforce of their companies, outliving them and giving employees a real sense of purpose in their jobs. During a trip to Disneyworld years after Walt’s death, I was taken aback to hear the tour guide say, “Well, Mr. Disney says….” Not “said”; says like he was present and accounted for right there gazing down on us from atop Cinderella’s castle at that very moment.
Clearly, though, the CEO as brand ambassador has its ups and downs as the Paula Deen public flaying proves to us. Over the last few weeks, the woman who Forbes ranked as the fourth highest-earning celebrity chef last year, has lost an estimated $12.5 million in earnings. Like Martha Stewart, her troubles became the company’s troubles. When Stewart chose to make herself the face of the brand, her “small personal matter” put the whole company at risk. In addition, the personal relationship her employees felt with the brand was shattered. When company leaders get in trouble, employees feel like they have identified themselves with someone who let them down. They feel it as a personal betrayal.
Even leaders who don’t mess up create a brand problem when they are no longer part of the company. That’s because most leaders who feel comfortable as brand ambassadors don’t entertain the idea of succession planning well. But employees, customers and investors want the company to outlive the founder. In fact, they expect it. The problem comes about because many strong leaders like their roles. They live those roles and they don’t give them up willingly. And they often resist grooming a successor because of this. They love the company, but they don’t love the idea of it moving on without them. We see that at Apple today. Many question the company’s ability to continue as the “cool kids” now that the Cool Kid isn’t there to innovate. While Tim Cook is a most able leader, his personal story doesn’t resonate with employees, consumers or investors.
Certainly many companies can and do outlive strong CEO brand ambassadors. Toyota seems to be doing alright. No one’s feeling sorry for The Walt Disney Company. And Walmart still ranks #1 in the Fortune 500. All stumbled after their founders were no longer at the tiller, but they did regain their footings.
The CEO as brand has its place in today’s business environment, but it can’t be all a company has. It’s not a short-cut to long-term success. Like all aspects of a company’s reputation, it needs to be consciously built, enhanced and defended. If an organization wants to outlive a high profile leader, its reputation has to be based on more than just that one person’s personality. It has to be based on foresight, sensitivity to the market, an ability to entertain and respond to change and an understanding that what worked yesterday may not be the answer for tomorrow. CEOs can be the face of a company, but not its entire heart and soul.