CEO Branding, A Risky Proposition

One word: jail.

I am old enough to remember when Martha Stewart went there for a relatively minor financial crime -- one that branded her in a major, major way for all time.

I am also old enough to remember how Martha Stewart was a household name and how, as a young wife and mom, I aspired to be just as perfect-seeming as her.

She was the prototypical CEO brand, and her one-word mantra easily could have been "perfection."

So with respect, I disagree with Raoul Davis, who says, writing in Forbes, that you should use "CEO Branding" to promote your organization.

Here's his logic:

1. The CEO embodies the brand's attributes and is a subject matter expert on the organization. Who better to represent the organization to its key stakeholders?

2. Using the CEO instead of paid ad campaigns saves money.

3. Today's business is done on a "human-to-human" basis, not an impersonal one.  Obviously the CEO -- who lives, eats and breathes the brand constantly -- can personify it in a way that nobody else can.

All of this sounds very good, and clearly there are many examples to bolster his point that nobody works as well to build a brand as a human being.

The problem, however is that if you put too many eggs in the CEO basket, and their reputation takes a hit, the value of the company can dive so deeply that it literally has to be completely rebranded from scratch.

A good example of this happening, recently, is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, as reported on 60 Minutes last night (May 20, 2018). Holmes wasn't even 20 years old when she dazzled the world with the promise that she could revolutionize the world of lab testing.

At its peak, the company was worth $10 billion. But eventually, as the report notes, "the Theranos deception hoodwinked gullible investors and worse, endangered unsuspecting patients."

And just like that, one day, Forbes estimated its total worth at zero.

Mario Battali, the celebrity chef, also became a kind of CEO brand. But as 60 Minutes also reported last night, in a separate segment, he had to leave the company he founded due to numerous reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault by women who worked for him:
"When chef Mario Batali stepped away from his business empire this past winter, after nine women made accusations against him, it may have surprised his fans, but it did not come as a shock to many of the people who'd worked for him....And tonight some of them are speaking out -- we want to warn you, in sometimes graphic detail -- about what they experienced or witnessed in a work environment where they say putting up with incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault were required if you wanted to keep your job."
The report ended by noting that Battali is now under criminal investigation as well.

So betting your brand on the CEO is risky. Extremely risky:

So don't put your brand in the hands of the CEO -- at least not more than you need to.  Otherwise you may find a good organization, and good people, compromised by by the damage their egos and irresponsibility frequently cause.

If you want to build your brand in a steadier and more reliable way, focus instead on building the competencies of your employees. Mentor them, help them learn, engage them as partners and carefully distinguish between their contributions at work and their private lives. It is when they are respected, and compensated fairly, that your products and services will display the kind of quality that builds a brand genuinely.

Also, as I have mentioned a couple of times before, conflating one's personal life and personality with the professional brand they serve causes all sorts of issues and problems.

This problem is best avoided by keeping work professional, and respecting employees' privacy when they are off duty.
Copyright 2017 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. All rights reserved. Creative Commons photo by Raghavendra69 via Pixabay.