CEOs Gone Wild: Why Baring Execs' Opinions Is Smart Branding

Marketers Need to Coach CEOs on Portraying Brand Values

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CEOs are stripping off the stiff, country club personas, and in their place we're seeing raw, uncensored CEOs baring it all -- all their views, that is.

Today, when consumers ask, "What does this brand stand for?," the CEO provides the clearest answer. Their random quotes, sounds bites, videos, political donations and personal choices make or break a brand's reputation. In an era of belief-based consumption, words can create or destroy billions of dollars.

The evidence suggests that CEOs, brands, shareholders and consumers stand to benefit if CEOs openly declare their beliefs and values. There are, however, better and worse ways to do this, and marketing leaders would do well to help their CEOs carry the brand message tactfully.

Wild and reckless vs. wild and courageous

To begin, let's look at three executives who have gone "wild:"

1. In response to complaints that Lululemon yoga pants were 'piling' on some women, former CEO Chip Wilson claimed on Bloomberg TV that "Frankly, some women's bodies just don't actually work for it." He insisted that some women's thighs rub together too much.

2. On "The Ken Coleman Show," Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy sparked enormous backlash when he stated, '"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage'..."

3. After receiving flak about Apple's investments in renewable energy at the annual shareholder meeting in March, CEO Tim Cook said: "We do things because they are right and just and that is who we are. That's who we are as a company. When I think about human rights, I don't think about an ROI. When I think about making our products accessible for the people that can't see or to help a kid with autism, I don't think about a bloody ROI, and by the same token, I don't think about helping our environment from an ROI point of view…If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock."

Some offensive comments live up to the old adage, "There is no such thing as bad publicity." Some don't. After Dan Cathy's remarks created a firestorm in June 2012, Chick-fil-A revenues soared. Despite threats from Chicago and San Francisco to ban Chick-fil-A restaurants, and despite nationwide boycotts and protests, sales increased 12% in 2012. On the other hand, Lululemon CFO John Currie has openly admitted that the bad PR from Chip's comment hurt Lululemon. Indeed, Chip stepped down as chairman in December 2013 under heavy pressure from customers and investors.

Of the three examples, Tim Cook's comment was the only one that received a warm reception in mainstream media. He managed to stake out Apple's values without insulting or offending anyone. His response was portrayed as courageous rather than incendiary or misguided.

From wild to wildly courageous

Brands cannot align their values with every potential customer. At the same time, CEOs don't have to insult or antagonize people outside their core demographic. CEOs should own their brand's beliefs, and, like Tim Cook, have the courage to just say what they stand for.

Today, customers are moral agents who buy according to their values, ethics and political opinions. If you wish to take care of your shareholders, it is a mistake to not have a point of view. Thus, companies need to ensure that they have clearly stated beliefs and values. They also need to make sure that those values line up with the CEO.

Marketers should figure out what their best customers believe and shape the values of their brand accordingly. This is not deceptive or inauthentic. By consciously shaping the values of a brand and coaching the CEO, marketing strategists can help executives make a deliberate decision about what employees, consumers, board members and partners they will attract.

CEOs are not replacing CMOs as brand ambassadors. Rather, every executive, and arguably, every public facing employee, is becoming a brand ambassador. From community managers up through the CEO, governance and training programs are now essential. Employees must be coached to thrive in an environment where the public judges every word. That said, CEOs attract the most publicity with their words and actions.

Some CEOs get plain wild. Some, like Tim Cook, get wildly courageous. The most influential brands of the future will have CEOs who do the latter.

Note:

In December 2013, Chip Wilson announced his resignation as Chairman of Lululemon, but his resignation was not effective until the company's next annual general meeting in June 2014. Mr. Wilson states that his decision to resign was unrelated to his Bloomberg TV interview and was not due to heavy pressure from investors and customers.

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