The Secret to Great Leadership? It’s In Your Brand
CEOs have many ways to share their vision, but among the most powerful is a well-defined brand
A strong brand creates a concise and motivational narrative that inspires the workforce, unites external stakeholders, and supports key business priorities. By harnessing the power of brand, CEOs can help to ensure that their vision is communicated consistently … and executed effectively.
While you can’t control market trends and competitive dynamics within your category, you can control how your organization communicates with customers, prospects, employees, and the other audiences critical to its success. A brand is the sum of all expressions – verbal, visual, and experiential – that help shape the way your company is perceived in the minds of all your audiences, and how they feel about everything you say and do. As Jeff Bezos, put it, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Branding is the art and science of shaping those perceptions.
Communicating Vision through Brand
Your organization’s brand is a vehicle for your vision, and it’s one of the best ways to share that vision with a wide audience. But for your brand to be effective, it has to make a genuine statement about what your organization stands for today … and where it’s headed in the future. Think of Nike’s ubiquitous “Just Do It.” More than a slogan, this line defines a spirit of optimism, a commitment to action, and a focus on the future deigned to inspire customers and employees alike. Like Nike’s, the best brands convey a company’s identity and direction in memorable terms.
Successful brands also articulate a sense of purpose. They tell customers, investors, and especially employees what your organization stands for … and sometimes what it stands against. And as more employees seek meaning in their work and consumers shift their spending to socially conscious businesses, linking brand and purpose will become even more critical.
Not long ago, we rebranded a global consulting firm whose client base, following a significant acquisition, straddled both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. The CEO
knew that uniting two disparate employee groups – one long accustomed to serving social service and government clients, the other dedicated exclusively to the private sector – would be a challenge … and absolutely critical to the success of the acquisition. The solution was a brand based on the idea of helping clients achieve their most important objectives, whether launching a new product or a new social program. Encapsulated in a bold line, “Let’s make big things possible,” the new brand was a rallying cry for employees and a demonstration that purpose can have different meanings for different audiences. The CEO embedded this brand idea into his communications with employees and clients. As importantly, he convened groups of employees to share examples of how they made big things possible in both the public and private sectors, and shared these examples broadly across the firm. The brand became his vehicle for imprinting his vision on employees across the global organization.
By drawing from a strong, distinctive brand, CEOs will also find the purpose they communicate is truly differentiated in the market, avoiding generalizations or platitudes.
Motivating the Workforce and Building Culture
When CEOs lead with their brands, they tell their organization’s story to two key audiences: the marketplace and their employees. In many organizations, employees are the most powerful expressions of a brand, often more effective than traditional “Capital M” marketing activities like advertising or events. Every interaction with a customer or prospect, whether in person or through an email or phone call, is a brand experience. By championing the organization’s brand at the highest level, through words and actions, a CEO can ensure that employees are empowered and enthusiastic brand ambassadors.
Consider this example. In the process of rebranding a global investment bank, our research revealed that its clients wanted more from the firm than transactional execution; they wanted insights, perspectives, strategic guidance. Rather than issue a directive to his bankers to get in touch with clients more frequently, a strategy that was all but guaranteed to fail, the CEO looked to the brand to inspire his team to be more proactive about shaing their thinking. Built around a memorable line – “Real Connection. True Perspective” – the brand is a continuing rallying cry to employees to forge strong bonds with clients by sharing their insights. Follow-up research a year after the brand launch revealed a significant uptick in overall client satisfaction with the level of support they were receiving.
As this example illusrtrates, a brand can be a powerful catalyst for internal change. A strong brand can also unify colleagues and communicate your workplace culture. It lays a foundation for working with one another, overcoming obstacles, and achieving business goals.
How to Live Your Brand Living the Brand
To inspire employees with a brand, CEOs may want to consider how they can promote it as part of an ongoing dialogue within their company.
This means framing the challenges and opportunities your organization faces in terms of your brand. Is your brand about innovation? Then show how harnessing innovation will help overcome a new competitive threat. Is your brand about offering customers a supportive vision for the future? Then communicate your own vision for capitalizing on potentially disruptive changes in your marketplace. By embedding the best qualities of your brand in your company and your actions, you can ensure your messaging is authentic and resonant; your brand can speak for you, even when you can’t.
The CEO is the exemplar of their organization’s brand. As important as what they say is how they act. If your brand values include transparency, then employees will want to feel that you are open and forthright with them; if they do, they will be inspired to mirror this value. One of Bloomberg LLC’s core brand values is collaboration; it’s how the company continually reinvents itself to stay relevant in a hyper-competitive, always changing industry. Its founder, Mike Bloomberg, exemplifies this spirit of collaboration by eschewing a private office for a desk at the center of the firm’s operations. “There are no private offices at Bloomberg,” Bloomberg has said. “My desk is exactly the same size as everyone else’s.”
Using Brand to Set the CEO Agenda
As leaders, CEOs must prioritize strategically to identify areas of greatest impact and return. Still, certain urgent situations—such as times of lagging financial performance—may require them to wade through data, conversations, and politics to set those priorities. This is where the company’s brand can play a critical role.
The brand can be a consideration when making decisions about investments, marketing, , and product development. Which products and services feel true to the brand and its perception in the market, and are aligned with your brand promise? Those are the ones most likely to gain traction quickly.
Recently, we partnered with a company in the health care payments space to build a brand based on the company’s ability to help clients navigate a very uncertain and increasingly regulated space. Following the brand launch, the company’s CEO began to evaluate acquisition candidates; several met his financial criteria, but only a handful aligned with the company’s brand promise – offering clients the knowhow and technology needed to succeed in a highly uncertain landscape. With the brand as his north star, the CEO persuaded his board to authorize a major acquisition that dovetailed with the company’s new brand. Because of the brand alignment, post-acquisition integration was achieved faster than anticipated, and marketplace acceptance exceeded expectations.
The Next Chapter for Your Business
As the last few years have demonstrated, unforeseen crises can derail even the most solid of business plans. With a strong brand, leaders can give their customers, investors, and employees an element of stability, a powerful emotional anchor through uncertain times.
Successful leaders inspire others, unify teams, and build value for all stakeholders. This is also what successful brands do.
Using a well-defined, clearly articulated, and visually compelling brand can amplify the work of a CEO. It’s why the best-known CEOs seem to embody attributes of their brands, and some of the most prominent brands reflect the character of their CEOs. And if your employees, customers, and investors are all excited to tell the story of your brand, leaders—and their companies—will sustain a powerful advantage.
About the author Dan Golden is a Chief Strategy Officer at DeSantis Breindel. He works with visionary leaders across B2B industries whose companies are at critical inflection points, helping them harness the power of brand to grow their business.
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BlackRock announced last month that it was establishing a new unit within the firm “charged with creating a unified company message and spreading it within the marketplace,” according to an article in Ignites, a Financial Times publication. This unit will ensure that firm messaging was consistent across all key audiences – both internal and external.