All companies strive to build recognizable brands that eventually become iconic. But sadly, very few companies get to experience the iconic status of being a leader among their competitors. “The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” Heraclitus, certainly rings true with any company trying to build iconic brands.
When the CEO and corporate leaders understand branding, this enhances shareholder value, and helps to unite the vision and core values of the organization.
Well-known brands such as Apple, GE, Coca-Cola, Ford, Disney, Nike, McDonald’s, and Harley Davidson all share a common vision that branding enhances shareholder value and helps stand the test of time. They also share a common goal to build an emotional connection between their customers and stakeholders. This emotional connection is the key to building an iconic brand.
Without an emotional connection, we may not be compelled to buy a Coke, even knowing drinking soda is not so good for us. We see the commercials and the ads on all marketing channels. Prior to the movie starting in the theater, we see the ad where someone drinks a cold glass of very carbonated soda, and then the camera cuts to the expression of the person drinking. You then feel the urge to drink a soda to get the thirst quenching feeling of satisfaction that the commercial conveyed.
Strong brands have a unique brand promise and they deliver on that promise time and time again. McDonald’s works very hard to deliver the same taste from one restaurant to the next. McDonald’s tagline is “I’m Lovin’ It”, and they often use young, hip millennials in their commercials that all appear to be loving the food, even though we all know fast food is not good for us. You know you will get your food fast, save time by not going to the grocery store and having to make your own dinner from scratch. That convenience and reliable good taste is what has people come back time and time again.
The shared brand vision must be accepted and acted upon by the entire company for all of the actions and activities. Everyone in the organization needs to have a servant mindset to the customers and create great customer value, and this builds a synergy between all levels of the organization, in which everyone is working toward the shared brand vision. When guests visit Disney World in Florida, they are greeted with smiles and happiness. Can you imagine if they were greeted with the same look you get at the fast food drive-thru window at some fast food chains? Nobody would ever go back.
A shared vision is vital, but it all starts at the top of the organization. The CEO is the most important leadership role of the organization. Much like a great football team needs a great coach and quarterback, an organization needs a leader as the CEO. CEOs become highly visible representatives of their brands. Apple, of course, was well lead by the dynamic and charismatic Steve Jobs.
When an organization has a strong leader as the CEO, it provides a competitive advantage. It also conveys significant investment in the brand as a whole, and sends a strong message as to the quality of the product and/or service.
What happens when the CEO steps down?
Steve Jobs had to break with Apple on a number of occasions including having to step down for health reasons. After he stepped down, stock prices dropped, and the iconic leader of the company was no longer there to steer the ship to the next technologically-advanced destination. Since the death of Steve Jobs, CEO Tim Cook has embraced a friendlier brand image than that of Steve Jobs. The most famous example is Jobs’ threat of going “thermonuclear” on smartphone rival Google. Apple is showing more of a willingness to donate money to charity and stand up for political, environmental and social causes. In addition, it’s more open with developers and the press. This is maybe not what Steve Jobs would have done, but times change and as long as Apple stays true to their brand promise and core vision, they will continue moving the brand forward.
It is vital for companies and their top level leadership to develop strategies to protect the brand independent of the acting CEO, in addition to ensuring the brand is not overly tied to the charisma and personality of the CEO. Companies should balance the visibility of the CEO with other visible brand ambassadors in case the CEO ever steps down. This puts the focus back on the brand itself. Companies need to develop a strong internal brand culture where all corporate activities are centered around the core brand promise, which makes the transition between iconic leaders more manageable. The brand promise and identity should speak louder than the personality of the CEO.
Jack Welch was the chairman and CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. In the last ten years, GE has been left in turmoil by years of poor deal-making, over complexity,and questionable accounting and as a result, the stock has been down more than 50 percent. John Flannery is now the new CEO of GE, replacing Jeff Immelt. Recently, Mr. Flannery provided a detailed road map of needed changes at GE that went well beyond an investor update. He pointed out that nearly 40 percent of the executives under him are new, and that echoed a very similar leadership strategy that Jack Welch employed in his first year as CEO back in 1981. These newbie executives are highly motivated to work extra hard in order to keep their jobs and higher paychecks. Mr. Flannery made it clear that he wants to measure results with verifiable and quantitative methods and less micro managing, and he expects each division to improve its operating performance.
The transition of leadership is an essential part of the succession plan of any organization. Most companies do not have an active succession plan. It is imperative that companies invest in their top leaders to insure the brands future development and growth are on the rise, satisfying shareholders, stakeholders and customers. The new leadership needs to gain a company wide acceptance of the mission and vision of the brand promise and identity in order to transition from one leader to the next. The leaders do not have to be the same with regard to personality, but they do need to share the same common goal of moving the organization forward.