Behind the brand or next to it? On positioning the CEO

CEOs don’t have it easy today. Whereas the MDs of the old school genuinely ‘pre-sided’ their brand or company, CEOs these days frequently step back behind it. As the Germany weekly DIE ZEIT found: „Company directors are being replaced by company brands”.

So what? Doesn’t that even make sense? In many ways, CEOs today are a company’s “top supporter” rather than “top figure-head”, and the relationship between management and company has been transformed into one of identification rather than representation. It is widely agreed that a CEO should not just be a spokesperson for a company’s key messages; he or she should actually embody the company’s values and personify the organisation. A number of experts even go as far as demanding that the CEO’s personality and the company’s brand should come together in some form of symbiosis in which person and brand provide mutual benefit.

Whatever of these CEO models you prefer – spokesperson, personifyer or integrated benefactor – they all have in common that the CEO is seen as servant rather than regent of the company and brand.

It is time then to challenge the total reciprocity between CEO and brand, which was strongly embodied, for instance, by former Apple-leader Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was Apple, and Apple was Steve Jobs. It remains to be seen to what extent his successor Tim Cook will succeed in representing Apple’s brand without emulating Steve Jobs in one way or another. So far, Cook seems to be remarkably successful in beating his own path – an indication maybe that the match between brand and CEO does not need to be a total one after all.


Constructing the authentic

‘Authenticity’ usually involves a process of radical selection – at least when it is applied as a marketing concept. As Cindy Crawford once said:  ”Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford early in the morning“.  For obvious reasons, she has also kept any such early morning pictures to herself as they would undermine the “Cindy Crawford” brand.  In a similar vein, the authenticity of Steve Jobs will have been a result of a particular positioning process which Jobs underwent as Apple’s CEO .

Depending on whether a CEO sees himself as a spokesperson, personifyer, benefactor or even servant of his company, his appearances and communication tend to be carefully staged in accordance with the role he prefers. As CEOs step behind their brands, they also strive to avoid anything that could shift the spotlight onto themselves and away from the brand. That sounds logical, doesn’t it? But is it also clever?

The CEO and the brand environment

According to a Burson-Marsteller study on CEO positioning, opinion leaders firmly believe that a CEO shape the public image of his company to more than 50 per cent:

Did you know that opinion leaders attribute more than 50% of a company’s image to the way they perceive the CEO? This is confirmed by numerous global – and also Swiss – CEO surveys.

There is certainly widespread agreement that a CEO’s reputation impacts directly on the stock value of his or her company. However, analysts and other stakeholders expect a CEO to create and maintain value. He is required to understand a brand, but not meant to disappear into its shadow. It is worth considering also that, at times, a brand identity offers very limited scope. A CEO is expected to lead a company and its brand, not vice versa.

As the current example of a large mail-order company shows, a CEO’s total ‘fusion’ with his brand carries an inherent risk: A brand as such does not speak on management matters like, for instance, criteria and conditions of employment. A brand value may be described in terms such as “fast, flexible, cost-efficient, simple, or service-oriented”. However, it is still down to a particular management to ensure that these values are not produced at the expense of others.

In order words: Management and the CEO require a meta-perspective which perceives a brand and its requirements in context, questions the surrounding conditions and shapes the brand based on the analysis of these factors. In doing so, a CEO does and must not converge with his brand. Instead, he is asked to support it. He poses questions, and by questioning, he leads. And in doing so, he leaves the shadow of his brand.

This post was first published in German in my blog


Im Markenhintergrund? Zum richtigen Standort des CEO