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CEOs be warned: think about your values as brands begin to express themselves

22nd January 2019


Written by Billy Partridge, Director and reputation management expert at Grayling

Companies of all sizes are cottoning on to the fact that having values matters to customers.

For some, values will be easy to articulate. Most Innocent customers know they're drinking a product without additives and sustainably sourced.

For others, there has been much soul-searching. Gillette has reinvented "the best a man can get" for this very reason. The strapline felt behind the times.

While this trend plays out amongst brands, spare a thought for how CEOs might adjust. The role requires personal and company brand to merge, somewhat.

CEOs will feel this acutely. Personal brand is typically low on the list of priorities for CEOs. In the last year, those I have met speak of a selfless commitment to their employees, their Board and their company - the link to personal reputation is hard to prioritise, despite what I believe are clear company benefits.

The values of a CEO run through a business like no other. Not strategy. Values. This is why the trend we are seeing of companies taking a stand on key issues should matter to CEOs. It is a short leap to expect the CEO to be an exponent of the company mission.

But personal brands are more complicated than that. You have to be able to transfer your personal brand and values from one company to the next. In reverse, a company brand has to be able to thrive in spite of the CEO. So the personal brand of a CEO cannot - must not - directly lift from the latest ad campaign. It has to run deeper.

It is right to clarify what you believe in. This is not as easy as it sounds if you have spent your career putting others first.

One CEO I spoke to recently told me how their career had been built on helping others. Another spoke of the importance of nurturing talent and putting staff first.

These are values, aren't they? In fact, both those examples also include deeper rooted intentions, hopes and belief systems that come naturally in conversation but are rarely articulated in a more deliberate forum.

Business leaders would be ill advised to feel they are immune to, or sheltered from, what is a growing expectation to take a stand.

Our place in the world is under constant debate now and while that takes many forms, our larger employers face a real challenge to attract talent and develop new growth opportunities.

This isn’t about being political – it is about acknowledging the real connection between company and character; between product and person. There is only one role in any business for whom this really matters.

Let this be a warning to CEOs: the trend is coming your way. Brands are demonstrably bolder in speaking out on key issues and, by virtue of this, brands are riskier: taking a stand invites critique. It polarises. From Brexit to sexism via patriotism, race relations and sustainability, there are countless examples of issues now being addressed openly by companies.

CEOs aren't used to polarising audiences. Yes, some have done so for years, and the recent spate of referenda has certainly encouraged that, but the majority exist to serve their companies and make a difference. The idea of alienating any audience is anathema to most.

Key to the process is honesty and introspection. It is easy to tell someone what they want to hear but far harder to tell someone what you truly believe. CEOs are used to speaking their minds but mostly in the context of objective, commercial logic.

Being a CEO is isolating and stressful. This is not an easy subject to address. More time must be spent understanding and articulating personal brand just as greater efforts are now being expended by company brands to stand up for something.

CEOs who feel they can avoid this challenge must remember how frequently they represent their colleagues and customers. Most do not have (or want) a mainstream, public platform to make a point. But all share more connections to, and relationships with, key company stakeholders than any other employee.

Those interactions are just as important as any advert or PR campaign. So be prepared, because the questions are coming.

Contact us: uk@grayling.com


Grayling Team

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