CEOs should do more than set the vision for their companies. They should live the brand every day.
We like to think that great CEOs have steel in their veins, but there are many other qualities associated with great leaders, such as the ability to delegate and inspire confidence. Other essential qualities include trustworthiness, visionary leadership, financial acuity and the ability to communicate clearly. Of all these qualities, the most important is the ability to communicate. That, more than any other, is a CEO tool by which all other qualities are distributed. The distribution system is called “corporate branding,” and a CEO who masters that is a true leader.
A great CEO has brand foresight. While many great ideas come from below, the most famous and admirable brand strategies start at the top. Leaders of enormous vision and enthusiasm who are willing to take calculated risks and allow their brands to stand for more than utility. A brand is more than a soft drink. A brand is more than a car. A brand is more than a jet engine. It's what turns those products into a pause that refreshes, the ultimate driving machine, or imagination at work. These are not just empty slogans: They represent the core values that companies and their leaders were willing to stake out and claim.
Creating a brilliant corporate brand requires leaders with great will and courage. The CEO must have the foresight to actively communicate the brand's strengths to every key audience, including customers, employees, investors, and the board of directors. Each audience represents one facet of the brand's overall strength, and the CEO must ensure each is well managed and carefully articulated.
Resist the status quo
Without a strong sense of mission and the courage to carry it out, no CEO is equipped to handle the complexities of growth management. Leading a company to brand brilliance requires great imagination and forward thinking and a willingness to jettison an outdated philosophy and complacence from past successes. The true leader is never satisfied with the status quo. Brands constantly move, grow, adapt, and respond — or fade into mediocrity. But that inherent motivation to build a new brand needs to be balanced with an understanding and respect for the heritage where the underlying brand equity resides. That balancing act is what separates the merely good from the great leaders.
Great leaders make their brands extensions of themselves — they embody the spirit of the company and make customer satisfaction in their products a personal mission. They impart their enthusiasm for and commitment to the brand across the entire enterprise, from the boardroom to the executive suite, from the production floor to the delivery door, from the salesperson to the end user. When they do, their brands can become icons such as Coke, Apple, Virgin, Ben & Jerry's, Macy's, Ford, Amazon, Google, Starbucks, and of course, Berkshire Hathaway.
Accountability starts at the top
So how does a company move toward a superior corporate brand? Here are moves the CEO can take to lead his firm there.
The CEO must monitor the corporate brand for strength, weakness, and any opportunity for change that could positively (or negatively) affect corporate health and vitality of the company.
The board should tie the CEO's compensation to the growth of the corporate brand because it is a bellwether of the company and it impacts so many aspects of the company's performance. The CEO should report on the corporate brand to the board each quarter.
Despite the corporate brand being an intangible asset, the CEO should encourage and embrace the valuation of it to understand the financial importance of this growth generator.
The CEO should evaluate marketing communications budgets based on the potential ROI and according to the company's long-term goals and vitality of the corporate brand.
To continuously guide long-term strategic planning, the CEO must have empirical data and insights into industry, technology, and consumer preferences that affect brand strength and/or brand equity.
The CEO must hold his senior management team accountable to exhibit the same high level of commitment to the corporate brand.
Employee engagement must be assured through professional training and motivation.
Bear the flag
Like it or not, the CEO is the brand's chief flag bearer. A short-term attitude will not make for a brand of enduring strength. Brilliant brands require long-term commitment to investment and change.
Great CEOs know this and invest accordingly. They are ardent champions of constant growth and evolutionary change. They encourage operational improvement and direct corporate restructuring before outside forces such as technological advancement and consumer evolution leave them in the dust.
They are at the vanguard of industry change, not bringing up the rear — and they invest the capital and time needed to ensure that their brands remain at the forefront.
James R. Gregory is the founder and chairman of CoreBrand, a global brand strategy, communications and design firm. Gregory can be reached directly at (203) 979-7914 or [email protected]