Does the CEO Dictate the Brand Experience?

In today’s world of hyper connectivity, authenticity, and transparency, a CEO certainly influences how consumers perceive the brand. But does that have any bearing on the value of the brand, or the potential value of the consumer relationship?

Consider a 2006 interview delivered in Salon magazine with Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch. Jeffries was evangelizing the aspirational nature of his brand… He wanted to let the world know that the A&F brand stood for “attractive, all-American kid(s) with a great attitude and a lot of friends.” He informed us that his commerce would not cater to anyone size 10 or higher. A&F was for skinny and popular kids. Everyone else need not shop, and need not apply!

And what about the 2012 Chik-Fil-A debacle where Dan Cathy, CEO of Chik-Fil-A, informed us that his QSR business would “operate on biblical principles”? Chik-Fil-A not only disagreed with same-sex marriage, but there were whispers that service could even be denied to the LGBT community!

We can rhyme off a series of other examples where CEOs are vocal:

  • Howard Schultz of Starbucks, taking a corporate stand on supporting same-sex marriage in the United States;
  • Richard Branson who, for all intents and purposes, is Virgin; and
  • What about good ol’ Donald? (Trump that is, not Duck.)

So, does a brand’s CEO dictate the brand experience? And more importantly, does it matter to the bottom line?

In both the A&F and Chik-Fil-A examples, the backlash was real. A media hailstorm fell upon both brands. Celebrities including Ellen and D.L. Hughley, as well as marketing professors from universities across the nation took the brands to task. In both examples however, the monetary impacts to the brand were short lived. Chik-Fil-A, in spite of their CEO’s comments, grew sales by 12% in 2012.

What about those brands with CEOs who we rarely hear about: Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola, Reid Bigland of Dodge, and Jeff Immelt of General Electric? Strong brands, right? But no major media presence for the CEO… Are these stronger brands than the ones mentioned above?

Brands with quiet CEOs have been around for 60-100 years longer than those with more vocal CEOs. Those brands attain rapid media buzz, rapid awareness (not always good), and swings in stock value.

  • A&F, as we know it today, has been in existence since 1988.
  • The first Chik-Fil-A was opened in 1967.
  • Coca-Cola, on the other hand, has been selling carbonated beverages since 1886. And,
  • Dodge has been developing engines and chassis since 1900.

This isn’t a matter of the difference in generational leadership, though there is a bit of that. But it comes down to the realization – for some CEOs – that their role is to navigate the ship through the rough seas of a market and an economy. These quiet CEOs see their position as one of business only. Run an organization to see it grow and drive business results: ROI, brand health, and so on. The more vocal CEOs, on the other hand, feel that part of their role is to help shape society and to use their position of influence to make a difference in their communities.

Issues, however, arise when the positions are so counter to the culture and to the laws in the country of operation. Despite the legalities surrounding gay marriage, for example, the American society – in large part – has a very negative view of discrimination of any kind against any group.

Will these political outbursts and extroversions have a negative impact on these brands? Only time will tell… but it is an issue that we, as marketers and communications experts, have a responsibility to be aware of.

Social media guidelines and policies are for all organizational stakeholders. If brands are truly ready to take a stand and allow their humanity to be seen, then they must be ready to accept that some consumers will appreciate their stand while others will not. Allowing a brand to become human pulls in politics in the political sense… where brands will truly see the impact of their actions and statements as consumers vote with their wallets.

While the intent of this article was meant to take a position, I think it is critical to use it as an opening salvo in what should be a lively conversation! While some CEOs are quiet and their brands have longevity, and while some positions taken by CEOs are positive for their societies (in my humble opinion), there are others, which do not sit well (i.e. A&F). But, that said, can we say that those CEOs who position themselves and their brands against our own personal values are wrong, while those who align with us are right? It is a discussion to be had: should businesses even get involved in these conversations? And, if they shouldn’t, then who is responsible for managing and/or supporting the CEO? Lots to discuss! Hopefully, the Nimble community will start the ball rolling.

Since 1996, Judi Samuels has focused on building relationships between brands and their audiences.  Judi believes that genuine audience engagement and dialogue is key to the development of emotional connections, and that it is through those connections that long term relationships and loyalty are formed. Judi has extensive experiential, social & digital marketing, communications, and brand strategy experience. More about Judi and her experiences can be found on her blog:  The Lemon Twist.