The Hand on the Helm

03 Jul 2014|James Lynden

Financial corporations, shareholders and journalists notice when CEOs pack up their bags. Consumers, normally, don’t. What matters is the incoming CEOs marketing leadership and how that impacts on the delivery of brand experience.

The last 12 months has seen several CEOs of well-known consumer brands move on to pastures new, for example, Burberry’s CEO, Angela Ahrendts and Superdrug boss, Joey Wat. Following the announcement of a CEO’s departure, often, concerns are voiced that the change will impact on the brand, especially when the former CEOs role has been transformative, such as the case with Justin King, soon to be former CEO of Sainsbury’s.
Nevertheless, consumers probably aren’t particularly conscious of which executive is at the apex of a company’s management structure. Test it by trying to name ten CEOs. It’s not so easy. Frankly, of the hundreds of brands that make up a consumer’s everyday life, many will only be able to name a handful of CEOs at best. So in most cases, a change of management will have no major public impact on perception beyond the world of journalists, shareholders and employees.

What really matters to consumers is their experience of the brand. So what really matters with the change in CEO is how the new leader directs delivery of the brand experience. It’s a question of brand leadership.
At the helm of the company, new leaders are in a position to be champions of the brand and its vision, whether that’s one that they have chosen to amplify and conserve, or, taken a new direction and repositioned. Crucially, in doing so, great brand leadership means becoming a channel of the brand.

And what about those CEOs you can name off hand? Normally, these are cases where the brand itself is more inherently tied to a person, be it a headline grabbing businesswoman like Burberry’s exiting CEO Angela Ahrendts, The Body Shop’s founder and CEO, the late Dame Anita Roddick or a famous music icon like Dr Dre, founder of Beats. The visionary inventor, James Dyson, the eponymous head of Dyson and Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook are also fundamentally tied to their brands. In fact, some CEOs are entirely synonymous with their brand’s identity, Richard Branson seems to be increasingly prominent as the face of Virgin, despite the inevitable risk that over-focus on the brand founder CEO may create.

In these special cases, consumers are likely to be more conscious of the change in leadership. Fans will be on edge, looking for a change in brand experience which can then be tied back to the new leader. This is certainly what is happening right now in the case of post-Jobs Apple. To avoid this situation, it’s important that marketing teams establish the key moments in the brand’s delivery that its customers know and love, and conserve those moments regardless of the change in leader. Equally, brand building leaders should take care not to make themselves too integral to the heart of the brand. They should be a voice of it, not it a voice of them.
Nevertheless, most great brand-leading CEOs are not household names. Nobody can deny that Justin King’s decade as CEO has had a significant impact on Sainsbury’s. He revitalised a struggling retail brand, firing the supermarket forward to reclaim its position as the second largest retailer in the UK – now conversely mirrored with share prices dropping over 5% following his departure announcement. But very few consumers will notice King’s departure, as long as the vision lives on and keeps on evolving to meet their needs.

And it works both ways, if a brand is failing to meet expectations in the eyes of the shareholders, they will be the first to communicate that the CEO should be brought down, like Philip Clarke, chief executive of Tesco, now facing calls from Tesco’s shareholders to step down, following the recent announcement of falling sales.

If that brand experience stays the same or improves, the departure of a CEO, celebrity or not, will not be a big deal to consumers. Crucially, what matters is a new CEOs ability to champion a brand’s mission, whether conserving it or evolving it, directing the delivery of a great brand experience. Martin Glenn, CEO of United Biscuits (owner of McVitie’s & Jacob’s snack brands), is a good example of championing a brand’s mission. He aims to make McVitie’s a half billion pound brand within the next three years and commissioned a £12 million advertising campaign re-launching the McVities brand earlier this year; “Our masterbrand campaign for McVitie’s is the result of 12 months of extensive customer research in which we aimed to get to the heart of the emotional role biscuits play in our lives”. It’s the biggest campaign of its kind for United Biscuits to date. All of the company’s sweet products now sit under the McVitie’s brand as part an overarching masterbrand strategy to help simplify the shopping experience.
Being willing to subsume your own ego in the passionate pursuit of a consumer-focused brand experience – now that really takes the biscuit.


Written by James Lynden, Added Value UK


Picture source: Thinkstock photos

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