Vegas was a nicer place when the Mob ran it. Or, anyway, that’s what a cab driver there told me, and cabbies are surely unimpeachable sources of insight about the life of a city. The place is all corporate now, he said—all about the money. It’s got no heart anymore.
Apparently, that’s what happens when a business is no longer family run. As soon as the people in power aren’t putting their own reputations on the line, companies get short-sighted and greedy. Under the cover of someone else’s name, the main constraint on a leader’s behaviour is no longer personal pride but simply the limit of customers’ endurance, and a brand is just an abstraction for the marketing department to fuss about.
Inspiration is where you find it, I guess, but as our grumpy culture puts corporations under ever-less-generous scrutiny, there really is something unsettling about faceless CEOs who keep their distance from the brands that feed them. When bosses aren’t taking the corporate reputation personally, it’s hard not to see them as carpet-baggers.
While I don’t think being an old-school, mobbed-up casino operator is much of a model for leadership, that cabbie had this much right: The world might be a better place if CEOs treated their companies’ brands as if they were their own.
The practical argument for CEOs being chief brand officers is compelling all by itself. As marketing platforms have proliferated, the job of defining and protecting brands has inevitably drifted from creative agencies back to brand owners. Outsourcing this gooey aspect of marketing to an agency of record was easy when there was just one to keep an eye on; it became impossible when there were many, all of them specialists and all of them seeking rather than providing strategic leadership. Chief marketing officers will vigorously insist they’ve always been stewards of their brands, of course, but that has never been as pointedly true as it is today.
And that, it turns out, might be the problem. According to one study, CMO turnover is the “highest on record,” with nearly half of CMOs in the retail sector, for example, having changed jobs in the previous 12 months alone. When your tenure is that short and the pressure to perform is that intense, a brand isn’t a garden to be tended—it’s a resource to be plundered. Not only are CMOs unlikely to take a long view of brand health, but it’s probably not even reasonable to expect them to. In the boardroom and in their careers, they’re going to be rewarded for instant results and tactical novelty, not vision. Asking them to protect your brand is like asking a cat to babysit your gerbil.
But there’s another reason CEOs should be personally responsible for their brands, and it might actually be more important. Consider Volkswagen, a company still struggling to recover from bad management behaviour shattering its brand’s charming facade. The company’s diesel emissions scandal not only cost it billions but also reduced consumers’ purchase intent by as much as a third in some markets. Or take Wells Fargo, which has just begun to count the cost of opening bogus accounts to inflate its numbers, even as the brand claimed to “[go] the extra mile to do what’s right.” The damage these episodes did was amplified by the contradiction between what those companies professed to stand for and how they actually behaved. In other words, they ended up looking not just like cheats, but like liars, too.
That doesn’t happen so easily when betraying the brand means crossing the boss. Chief marketing officers use brands to get results, but nobody’s going to thank them for protecting their companies’ long-term credibility, and they won’t be around long enough to enjoy the praise anyway. With consumer products, at least, brand health is about as reliable a predictor of sustainable growth as you can get, and if that’s not a CEO’s job, I don’t know what is. A smart leader wants everyone on the team to factor that into every choice they make, which they will only do if their careers depend on it. When it comes to brands, I can’t imagine how the buck could stop anywhere else but at the top.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.
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