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Leadership and branding

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Karen Drury from fe3 consulting looks at how senior managers can either be a significant asset to the company brand image – or a liability.


Recent newspaper articles on the woes of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia have graphically illustrated the risks of linking the brand with one person – particularly when the carefully-crafted image is cracked wide open by actions of the leader acting out of brand character.

Since Martha Stewart was indicted on nine criminal charges in June of last year, shares in the company that bears her name have plummeted – the company’s third-quarter results, released in November, showed an almost 30 per cent fall in revenue from the previous year. Contributing to this, readership of her magazine Martha Stewart Living, has dipped more than 20% down to 1.8million readers from 2.3million, and advertising revenues for the magazine were down 31% in September 2003 from the same period in 2002. Martha’s TV show has even been moved from a 9am primetime slot to entertain insomniacs at 2am.

While the repercussions have been severe, they can hardly have been unexpected. CEOs have long been regarded as the face of the culture of the organisations they lead and as such, even without brand and person being synonymous, they take a large responsibility for the brand, and for demonstrating the brand values.

To disappoint the expectations which spring from the brand, whether by accident or by design, courts disaster for one main reason – it ignores the commonalities between brands and leadership.

According to Interbrand, world class brands have a number of characteristics; clarity around mission, vision and values; consistency and leadership in terms of guiding expectations of the brand; taking the brand into new areas; social responsibility; and self-renewal.

Warren Bennis considers the components of leadership to be guiding vision, passion, integrity, trust, curiosity and daring – all of which share some space with the elements of a world class brand as defined by Interbrand. But the sharing of certain characteristics is only one angle on the relationship between brand and leaders. The key area is that of guidance – what to expect if you’re a customer or a shareholder, what is expected of you as an employee, a supplier.

If the purpose of leadership and brand are similar – to provide a guiding force, a sense of continuity and an anchor of authenticity to organisations and products, what affects the reputation of a leader is likely to affect the brand, almost regardless of whether they reside in the same person.

In the case of Martha Stewart, homemaking guru of America and previously as wholesome as apple pie and Thanksgiving, the result of the allegations of insider trading, actions completely alien to this clean, pristine image has been financially catastrophic.

But organisations whose leaders are not so high profile might use this episode to illustrate potential dangers for the future for all organisations, particularly in the light of the views coming from the Alliance for Strategic Leadership. The Institute, siding with many academics, believes that rather than requiring CEOs to have a Herculean-like list of strengths, future leaders should learn to share leadership with the rest of the senior management team.

As change consultants the world over know, employees do not believe a message that is delivered in words, and the actions of only a few of the management team – it requires ALL of the team to walk the talk, if the talk is going to be meaningful. This will apply equally to management teams who would, in addition to sharing responsibility and power, be collectively responsible for demonstrating the brand values.

This means that at the very least, the senior management team, alongside the CEO, need to be aware that their actions, whether in the spotlight of external scrutiny or under the microscope of their employees’ gaze, will send a message about the brand’s authenticity.

As a consultancy which believes that brand is defined by the experience of it (whether internal or external), and the experience is delivered mostly by people, fe3 consulting suggests five steps to help senior teams achieve the ability to act in brand character:

  • Ensure everyone has the same views of what the brand values mean in practice. Even if people can recite them off by heart, that doesn’t mean that understanding of what you do is shared

  • Once the meaning of the values is clear, reward for displaying them. This doesn’t mean just in financial terms; promotion should be on the basis of holding and displaying the values – as well as having the skills for the job

  • Train and mentor those people who don’t hold the values

  • Ensure there are consequences for not holding the values – the value statements of many organisations are so much hot air because senior managers who are brilliant at their jobs are “forgiven” the fact they ignore the values

  • Finally, stick to it. Employees can see an “initiative” a mile away, and they shrug, and wait for it to pass. Changing people’s behaviour and encouraging them to display values can take a long, long time so once your senior team has adopted a set of values (which may also be a long process) they need to give it at least two years to sink in

The benefits of senior managers holding and regularly displaying the values include a multiplication of your brand message to external audiences and the strongest possible message to employees. Given the strategic and financial importance of the organisational brand, senior managers can either be a significant asset to their organisation in their role in cultivating the brand image – or a liability.

As Martha Stewart has discovered, acting in contradiction of her company’s brand values, acting out of “brand character” may be costly in the extreme.

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