Corporate leaders that are identified with brands are usually the ones who share the brand’s nomenclature, such as Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, and Michael Dell. Seems logical, no? But, there is also a small club of founders, CEOs and/or Board Chairs who are equally synonymous with some well-known trademarks that do not bear their names. These leaders earned their branding reputations by establishing themselves as the driving force behind creating, building and guiding the success of their companies and brands. Within their particular markets (and in some cases on a much more pervasive basis), these leaders are the brand.
This phenomenon goes far beyond the Colonel Harland Saunders (KFC) or Juan Valdez (Columbia Coffee Growers) spokesman role. Sure, some of the members of the club are colorful celebrities, but more importantly, they continue to be active advocates of nurturing and protecting the DNA of their company’s most valued asset. Within their own DNA is a passion to ensure that brand strategy and execution is congruent with the strategic intentions and cultural values of their vision. In my view, these 10 do a great job being the brand:
- Richard Branson, Virgin. The fun-loving, entrepreneur has built the Virgin brand around his reputation like no other. Virgin’s ability to enter so many categories is the proof, albeit a corporate strategy I personally disfavor.
- Phil Knight, Nike. Now Chair of Nike, Phil Knight is best known for linking the spirit of American pop culture to sports by capturing the public’s idolization of athletic heroes.
- Larry Ellison, Oracle. The flamboyant Ellison is synonymous with the database software that is almost universal in helping companies manage operations.
- Howard Schultz, Starbucks. Schultz is the man who revolutionized coffee in America. Recently, he returned from the sidelines to again guide a brand that exemplifies style, elegance, and status.
- Jeff Bezos, Amazon. Jeff Bezos treats the Amazon brand as though it were a person. As such, he is a strong proponent and guardian of Amazon’s reputation.
- Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull. Not as well-known as the others on this list, Mateschitz has an intimate knowledge of what Red Bull is and what it is not. Stated simply, Red Bull gives its consumer, wings.
- Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil. Starting out busking as an accordian player, stilt-walker and fire-eater, Laliberté founded the amazing Cirque du Soleil circus company.
- John Mackey, Whole Foods. Mackey is synonymous with natural foods and conscious capitalism, the philosophy of operating a business with a social purpose.
- Tony Hsieh, Zappos. Hsieh believes that the culture is the brand. This explains his strong conviction for hiring the right people. Though Zappos has been acquired by Amazon, Hsieh remains Zappos chief executive.
- Robert Kraft, New England Patriots. The owner of the Patriots has instilled a brand culture and modus operandi that is in a class by itself within the world of professional sports.
There are scads of CEOs who value branding, but few who inject themselves into the brand and leave a legacy anywhere close to these remarkable leaders and visionaries.