by Andrew Berthoff
Back in the late-1990s I wrote a column for Computer Dealer News in which I somewhat facetiously contended that the Pope is the world’s greatest living spokesperson for a “brand.” I still think that, and was reminded of it after the recent passing of Steve Jobs.
I say living spokesperson, because most religions have a prophet who established the doctrine. We can point to central figures in Christian, Buddhist, Mormon and other faiths whose teachings guide the religion’s beliefs.
While I don’t want to wade into the murky waters of whether Steve Jobs led a quasi religion of Apple faithful, we can use his leadership to illustrate the pros and cons of an individual being closely identified with a company, or, conversely, the identity of a company wrapped in a single person.
As a reader of ITBusiness, you are most likely working with a company of some kind. Whether a large enterprise or a SME or even as a three-person consultancy, the essential tenets and risks of branding via personality remain the same. While products and services are brought to customers by people, at the end of the day they are products and services. They work or they don’t. They live on after the people behind them move on. The sellable goods provide a guarantee of continuity.
Most companies allow the products and services on their own to be their greatest sales asset. While it’s obvious that a fleet of designers and developers are behind every Apple product, Steve Jobs carefully sought to represent his company in a personal way. He was the vision behind the products. His was the strategy for the future. He would do the talking.
Organizations like Apple, which became synonymous with the CEO, are rare. Perhaps Virgin and Richard Branson or, in years past, General Electric with Jack Welch can be cited. There are companies that are the person – Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and the like – and usually these organizations are named for their founder and leader. Unless there’s an heir with the same last name, transitioning when the time comes will be difficult or impossible.
We can see the tradition of Fords leading Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company. It can work. But ultimately there must be a secession path, and, to encourage continuity, that path needs to be mapped for customers and shareholders in advance.
Going back again to the 1990s, the perception of Microsoft was wrapped in the identity of Bill Gates. Like Steve Jobs, Gates for better or worse imbued the brand. To the company’s credit, Microsoft appeared to recognize this and did something about it by carefully and deftly transitioning to Steve Ballmer. While today Ballmer is the clearly defined leader of Microsoft, the company wraps its brand in its products and services, as it should.
When an organization becomes so closely aligned with a person, change can be a tough storm to weather. There is still not a cure for death, which, unfortunately, can strike unexpectedly and sadly. Successful companies are successful because of a collaborative effort. They also need leadership and vision, to be sure, but wrapping a company’s identity and brand and reputation around a single person is risky.
Take a look at your own company. Are there individuals who individually “own” or even hoard relationships in isolation? Are they seen as the face of your organization? Is that what you want? Are you comfortable having that person’s identity be your de facto brand with customers? What happens when (not “if,” by the way) they go away?
The information technology business world perhaps provides the best examples available of the risks of muddying company identities by allowing individuals to overshadow products and services in the minds of stakeholders and customers.
While most of us will never see this level of individualistic branding at our own companies, every organization’s identity is, to varying degrees, dependent on how its leaders and employees represent the business. We can look to, and learn from, our most iconic tech companies – and even world religions – for examples of branding-by-personality. How your own organization manages its identity should be a strategic decision based on the inevitable rewards and risks.
Andrew Berthoff is a senior vice-president with Environics Communications, a leading communications and public relations agency based in Toronto, serving, among other sectors, the Canadian technology industry. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org