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CEO: the soul of today's brands.

To be a CEO today is to worry--worry about profit and loss, worry about the productivity of R&D, worry about balancing fixed costs and expansion strategies against quarterly market expectations. Although difficult, these are tangible problems with tangible solutions.

Here's what's more difficult. Today's CEOs must now worry most about the thing that is the least tangible, least black and white, and most vulnerable to any misstep on their part: the brand.

Today's CEOs have to deal with brand management in a way that past generations never did. This is no longer a task that can be handed down to the marketing director or the head of advertising. In the evolution of business the brand has become the single most important asset the CEO has to manage. It influences everything from sales to hiring to retention. It is the emotional connection customers have with any enterprise. And, above all, it is often the only proprietary equity a company has in a world where the competition can, on average, match any product advantage in the space of six months.

Managing the business as a branded equity presents both a tremendous personal responsibility and a great opportunity. Let's consider the personal liability first, because it is an ugly and surprising new aspect to brand management. Today's brands are, rightly or not, inextricably linked to the CEO's image and behavior. Just as positive behavior has the potential to halo a brand, every CEO misstep is a potential blight oil the brand, because consumers have a near impossible time distinguishing between the two.

And how can they help it? We live in a different world today. Business news has become general news. People have developed a voracious appetite for information about companies and their leaders. All business news, all the time. And thanks to cable and the Internet, if you've got a product problem, the news is instantaneous, and the CEO better be there with an answer. Worse still, if the CEO is the problem--indictments always get good ratings--the brand will take a pounding along with your stock.

Labor issues, for example, aren't just labor issues anymore; they're brand issues. Take the potential class-action lawsuit that Wal-Mart now faces, which alleges the retailing giant discriminates against its female employees. That is a profound brand issue and has broad implications for a brand as respected and beloved as Wal-Mart is by so many women. It's the kind of problem a CEO cannot just pass on to lawyers and HR directors.

In the best-managed companies, the CEOs take full responsibility for the brand. You can see it in their actions. American Express, for example, is a brand delivered through the everyday experience between the company and its cardmembers. Ken Chenault recognized that all the great advertising in the world wouldn't mean anything unless the people who actually talk to cardmembers understand the American Express brand. So he goes out and talks to telephone supervisors. He makes sure they understand the American Express brand, that it's a promise they must deliver. It's interesting that while a lot of CEOs get personally involved in the advertising, very few get down and rub shoulders with the people who actually deliver the brand.

Having a clear brand message can also be an effective way to create coherence around a complex set of ideas, and it can create a common bond that can give any company a truly competitive advantage. Lord John Browne of BP, for one, is using his brand brilliantly to get his people focused on the next chapter for his company. In a world where energy will always be needed, BP is moving Beyond Petroleum to meet that need. Two small words define the brand and tell the world, and BP's own people, where the future lies.

Having a coherent brand message and strategy will also help U.S. CEOs make a successful go of it in other regions. Becoming a successful global brand is not about taking a product and simply exporting it to another country. It's about understanding the core truths of any brand, and then making that brand relevant to local markets.

In developing countries this is extremely important. KFC has been successful in China because the company recognized that the KFC brand is more than just a chicken dinner. It's about quality food experience in a quality environment, so they can offer rice on the menu without changing the brand. They've taken the core of the brand--you could argue, the Colonel's values--and applied it to local food. A thousand stores later say that's the right strategy.

Without that strong brand, I don't know how it's possible to fight in today's environment. There are very few other barriers to competition. The best CEOs will take ownership of their brands and will spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about them, nurturing them and proselytizing about them. And they will reap the rewards of a knowledgeable, dedicated workforce who can deliver the brand, and a loyal, happy base of consumers who in turn do the brand advertising for them.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:CEO Agenda 2004
Author:Lazarus, Shelly
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:844
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