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Boardroom through to frontline: the CEO as brand manager

For a business to be successful it needs a strong brand that is consistent and relevant across every touch-point.  For this to be sustained, the brand needs to be important at a senior level and - crucially - responsibility for the brand experience needs to sit not with the marketing department, but with the CEO. 

This is because the brand experience isn’t defined, or even delivered, by marketing.  If you split up where a brand lives into expressions and experiences, the expression of the brand will largely be the role of marketing. The experience, however, will be defined not only by marketing, but customer services, call centres, sales people and the product itself. 

The brand experience is also affected by a number of operational factors that don’t generally have anything to do with the marketing department whatsoever - IT systems, finance capabilities and logistics, such as delivery on time and online systems crashing. 

With this in mind, the only person who can influence and align all of these areas - and who has the ultimate authority and remit to implement change - is the CEO.  This is why they need to take responsibility for the brand. 

If the brand is used as an organising principle of a business (as it should be), this enables the CEO to use the brand as a management tool.  It lives and breathes in the organisation and is a short hand way of communicating the standards and expectations set by the brand, which must always be delivered upon.

A great example of this is Rolls Royce; timely too, given the man who’s been leading the business for 15 years, Sir John Rose, has just stepped down. Rolls Royce is rightly praised for being the outstanding success story of British manufacturing during Rose’s tenure and the commercial performance more than supports this. Pre-tax profits up from £175mn to over £900mn, order book up from £7.6bn to £60bn, share price up from 188p to over 600p.

Interestingly it is also the Number One Business Superbrand in 2011. If you read the “Our Brand” section of the website you’ll see what’s behind all this; the brand “guides our actions and behaviours… It is at the heart of everything we do and everything we say”.

This isn’t a business that thinks a brand is a logo; they understand what it is that can make them great and have committed to becoming that company. They’ve done this by internalising the brand and making it, in their own words, “a powerful central organising thought”.

Rose is famously tight-lipped about most things but the descriptions of him by those that know say he’s “ruthlessly efficient and detailed”. He describes himself as “boringly consistent”. Interestingly, these are all things I want from a brand I rely on to stop me falling out of the sky. So despite being the antithesis of the ‘personality CEO’, it would appear that he has quietly and brilliantly used his brand to build a very successful company.

Using the brand in this way should also mean that the role it plays can continue long after a CEO has left. That said, there are two things that complicate this. Firstly, not all CEOs embrace their brand and use it in this manner. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that most don’t understand their brand or its value as a management tool. Secondly, some CEOs are the brand. This is a criticism often levelled at Steve Jobs, with the rise and fall in Apple’s share price dependant on his presence in the business offered as proof. This may be unfair but his personification of the Apple brand is definitely a big part of what makes him irreplaceable.

In their very different ways both Sir John Rose and Steve Jobs are great examples of the CEO as the ultimate brand manager. In each case, their brand leadership filters down into the values and behaviours of every aspect of the businesses they run. From jet engines to iPods, this is what makes their brands so powerful and their businesses so successful.