In the 1970s, he took his industry by storm with a brash campaign featuring him, the CEO, as chief spokesperson. In a squeaky voice and quirky demeanor, he repeatedly listed the reasons why his product was superior and worth more than those from dozens of other companies in the category. His company soon grew to be the first real brand in the field and was far more profitable than any of his competitors.
It didn’t hurt, some people said, that he even looked a little like a chicken. I’m referring, of course, to one of the great brand pitchmen of all time, Frank Perdue, who lent several elements of his own personality to his company’s brand and built an empire out of chicken drums, thighs and breasts (“If your husband is a breast or leg man, ask for my chicken parts,” was an infamous headline.)
Frank Perdue was one of the first CEOs to effectively front his company and build its brand, but many have followed in his footsteps. All-stars in the man-behind-the-brand category include Phil Knight of Nike, Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Richard Branson of Virgin. Of this group, Jobs and Branson are still walking, talking PR juggernauts, with the media reporting their every move and stock prices moving up and down with their exploits.
Like a Virgin
Branson is particularly visionary. His started the Virgin brand with a used records store, which became a recording studio and has since morphed into literally hundreds of different Virgin companies in as many categories. The Virgin brand is beautifully focused on being first and innovative in whatever they do. And Richard Branson lives the brand as the dashing adventurist who starts companies, sets aviation records, announces plans to do the impossible and then completes them. His companies and brands are far more than manifestations of his personality, but they each draw energy and a sense of being fresh and different from his far-larger-than life personality.
Apples and oranges
Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer with Steve Wozniak in 1976, and through various twists and turns of his career has persevered as the charismatic, hip, and irreverent face of the company (now Apple, Inc.). Jobs’ vision has been to combine innovation and leading-edge design in a category that often leans toward function over form. He is particularly adept at staging major product introductions and his presence invariably adds tremendous anticipation and hype for what’s next.
Unfortunately, the downside is that the opposite is also true.
When Jobs’ health took priority over his ability to lead Apple and he was unable to appear at the annual Macworld conference in December, Apple devotees shuddered and the company’s stock slipped. Fronting a brand can add great marketing power, but it carries with it the risk of being too dependent on the person as well. Apple has escaped significant damage from his absence (he is expected to return shortly), but still faces the risk of losing a dynamic part of their brand in the future.
A man, a plan, a brand…
As a brand strategy, putting the CEO in the spotlight can add valuable dimension to a brand, but it is rarely the best option. Jobs and Branson both developed their companies from humble beginnings and are natural-born PR men. Frank Perdue took over his father’s company, but was persuaded by his ad agency to be the focal point of the advertising. All three were steeped in the authenticity of being at their companies for decades and standing by their vision. Most CEOs of larger firms can’t claim this kind of longevity.
And while CEOs as the face of the brand can be very effective, any significant changes to their status can reverberate loudly as well, as we saw with Jobs, and closer to home with Capital Blue Cross and the abrupt departure of CEO Anita Smith, who had appeared in numerous commercials and had greatly humanized the insurance company’s brand. (That Capital had kept the Blue Man and some general image advertising in place during her reign may have helped cushion her disappearance from the media campaign.)
So for companies tempted to put their leaders in the public eye, be careful. If it isn’t in the DNA of the CEO to take on the challenge of the media and the scrutiny of his or her personal life, in addition to every success and failure of the company, it is probably not the right decision. Adding a human element can vault a brand to a new position in its market, but it had better be genuine, because the whole world is watching.