Why the best advertising in history will always be made by CEOs

The brands that outperform all competitors in their market always have one and the same thing in common: they are led by boardrooms who truly, deeply love the brand they are responsible for.

The founders – but in many cases also their successor chief executives, who cherish personal involvement in the nuts and bolts of their brand’s advertising – have invariably become outperformers themselves. That can’t be a coincidence. And it isn’t.

The best loved and admired brands in the world are just that because their leaders understand where the true power of business lies: in the most spirited, creative, mold-breaking, loveable brand advertising they can inspire their agencies to create.

Always try to write history

Think Different would never have seen the light of day without the involvement of Steve Jobs. The fun that has always surrounded Virgin advertising reflects Sir Richard Branson’s spirited personality. The way Nike was conceived and how the brand told its story was thanks to the personal involvement of founder Phil Knight. And look at the wonderful story of chief executive Michael Dubin, who posted a quirky $7,000 video in which he personally introduced his – and I quote: “fucking great” – Dollar Shave Club idea.

These are just a few examples of founders, entrepreneurs and chief executives who have made a point of getting involved in their brand’s advertising. To many this still seems odd. Don’t they have other, more important business to attend to? Why would they do that? Why would they spend valuable hours discussing something as banal as advertising strategies or campaign ideas still in the process of being created?

Well, that’s simple: because it’s their brand.

Proud brand, proud company

The best thing that can happen to a brand is when the founder’s personality is transferred to the brand itself. Brand alignment starts at the top and flows down into every corner of the organisation. Many of the most remarkable and successful brands are imprinted by the character of their founders and chief executives from top to bottom. This character seeps into all things large and small, inside and outside the company, in the way it does business and tells its story.

A brand’s personality nestles inside the people working within the company and representing it on the outside. With the great brands, it is as if the person who founded it is everywhere, sitting or standing right next to the people doing their jobs to move the brand on and up.

Even if the principal founder steps aside and hands over to an outside chief executive, the chosen successor should be selected on the basis of knowing exactly what the brand means to its founder. When he or she doesn’t, brand alignment will suffer. This will be felt everywhere, at all levels. It will damage the pride inside the company because the brand’s direction may change, its great advertising may flounder and at some point, its original spirit will quietly depart, never to return.

Passionate Renzo

Branding plays such a crucial role in a company or organisation that it can’t do without strong support from the chief executive and corporate management. Better still, replace the word “strong” with “passionate”. This is one of the most difficult aspects of brand continuity: how do you guard against wavering off course? How do you prevent the brand from seeming like a different brand this year than last year? It takes true passion at the highest level to guard the personality and heart of a brand. One of those most passionate people doing just that must be Renzo Rosso, founder and chief executive of clothing brand Diesel. He founded Diesel himself in 1979, and right off the bat it was as provocative, outspoken, boisterous and impactful as the man himself.

The Diesel brand was truly built on provocation. Despite being at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar business, Rosso still gets a thrill from good advertising. And he still has opinions on what makes good advertising. At the time, every clothing company was looking for a new way of “doing” jeans, trying to get an ownable new look that departed from the familiar Levi’s standard. Rosso had his own way of doing that: he didn’t. Instead, he just took a lot of denim jeans and added rips and scuffs with Black & Decker tools.

When he thought they looked OK, he sold them for $100 a pair, about three times as much as the normal price in those days. Since then, his unconventional way of doing things has become Diesel’s way of doing things: “At Diesel, we do-a whadda we like-a” – his Italian English added even more flavor to this outspoken conviction.

“At Diesel, we do what we like” has therefore expressed itself visibly in Diesel advertising, which has not only won Diesel numerous awards for creative advertising, but also shaped its distinctive identity. “Diesel, for successful living” became the unmissable basis on which campaigns were built, turning the Diesel brand into a multi-billion-dollar business. And today, Rosso still guides his brand’s advertising with a firm hand and a keen eye, still applying his strong opinions on what is just right and what is not.

Personality builds the brand

Brand advertising is a boardroom matter. For global brands it is just as important to decide whether to launch campaign A or campaign B as it is to build a new production facility in China, Poland or the UK. Advertising seems a trivial matter compared to giant investment decisions concerning R&D and innovation programmes, new production lines and IT systems. However, when it comes to global brands especially, there is no doubt that a deeply involved chief executive or founder brings a lot of added value to the brand’s look and feel in advertising. One Freddy Heineken personally sat down with his agency people to review new Heineken campaigns. As charming as he could be, he was just as sharp and critical in picking out the right ideas.

He was personally responsible for slanting the character e on the Heineken label so that it became, in his words, a smiling e. “Beer is fun!” He was a humorous man; he wanted Heineken to be a lighthearted brand and this always showed in the advertising, which translated Freddy’s personality into his brand. Although it can’t have been easy for his agency to work with him, together they came up with wonderful and distinctive advertising. It built up the brand consistently, continuously adding to its personality and never taking a different turn. By the time Mr Heineken passed away, his personality had been engrained in the brand and helped it grow into the leading global brand it is today.

The question is: how far can a chief executive's or founder’s personal involvement with the brand’s advertising go? Nowadays, brands are built using a comprehensive range of activities delivered by dozens of people throughout the organisation, supported by numerous specialist agencies for media, online, digital, PR, activation, corporate communication and so on. You can’t expect the very top of the company to show that much attention to detail, can you?

As true as that may be, what matters is that because of this complex web of brand communication activities, boardrooms and chief executives must take charge. They must have their hands on the brand strategy. They should lead the brand development, manage its implementation and be fully involved in how the brand performs in general and even how it performs against benchmarks in specific markets. Branding, and global branding especially, is such a demanding and ongoing process that it really needs the very top people in the company to buy into it and support it with the resources needed to make it work.

Although there is always the risk that the people in marketing fear their jobs are at risk, for the brand as a whole it is preferable to have a chief executive at the helm who has great affinity with branding and at the same time the holistic perspective needed to keep the brand’s advertising from taking an unwanted turn somewhere down the road. In human terms: a chief executive with a feel for what makes great advertising is a gift for any brand.

Personal branding for the brand

What has become clear over the course of the last decade is that the future of branding is personal. There is no two ways about it: the chief executive needs to become the face of the company and, literally or figuratively, the spokesperson of the brand. People are rapidly becoming much more interested in what is behind the glitzy image building of companies and brands. The call for authenticity is getting louder by the day, and no one is better equipped to radiate that particular kind of brand personality than a chief executive who is not afraid to tell the story in all kinds of media, and who has a definite say in how the brand’s advertising conveys its message. Truth in advertising is back with a vengeance, you might say.

Of the global 500 companies, most of them are led by chief executives have more followers on social media than the company itself. And in many cases chief execs have indeed risen to the challenge of getting personally involved with the development of key campaigns. There is growing understanding of the importance of personal involvement as a means of authenticating the brand for a broad audience, be it stakeholders, press and media, or consumers and clients. The need to control the brand’s message and image has become clearer in a time full of insecurity, fake news, social media rumors and hearsay, public rankings, influencers and more media owned, earned or otherwise than ever before.

The irony is that long before this world of ours, there were already chief execs who intuitively stepped up to the plate to talk about their brand and company. A well-known example is Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, appearing in memorable ads in the 1980s asking shoppers to give the embattled brand another chance. Which they did. Hamburger chain Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas appeared in a few TV commercials, because he and his marketing executives thought that no one could speak more convincingly about Wendy’s than Dave himself. They were right: consumers loved the spots, they loved Dave and restaurant sales increased. “Food made fresh tastes best” was Dave’s simple message, proudly but modestly and authentically told, and it was all people needed to hear to make them visit Wendy’s.

Authentic CEOs win every time

What people are looking for is a chief executive who is likeable, someone you feel you can trust, someone you can relate to. If it is at all possible for the chief executive to carry the brand’s message personally as part of the brand advertising, it is well worth considering. Although the younger generation of marketers and agency creatives will frown or balk at the very thought, there is really nothing old-fashioned about it. If anything, this is the time to show what’s what and who’s who.

The effect of personal involvement by top chiefs has even been acknowledged by Walmart. The world’s biggest retailer has always shied away from any kind of personal involvement with its brand advertising. Walmart cast chief executive Doug McMillon in a commercial that aired on social media and TV – not to sell the company’s brand as such, or any of its products, but to talk about the company's treatment of and commitment to employees, an aspect of the firm’s management policy that had been under a lot of scrutiny and had received a lot of critical press and comments. McMillon has gone on to raise his public profile, now also posting regularly to his Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Putting chief execs in campaigns can give a considerable boost to the company and brand. There is quite a lot of research stating that ads featuring CEOs score considerably higher on perceived truth, authenticity and quality of information. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand where this comes from. The simple fact is that most CEOs know their business and their products better than any actor ever could, and that makes them more natural storytellers. It is not hard for them to come across as genuinely enthusiastic, which is something viewers and consumers notice straight away. Although many of them are well trained in how to behave on camera, the funny thing is that this is not always to their advantage when appearing in a commercial. The chief executive that comes across all polished and smooth runs the risk of coming across as, well, too polished and too smooth to radiate the authenticity people would like to see.

Go for it

CEO involvement with brand advertising will undoubtedly gain more ground in the near future. The pros outperform the cons, especially in a world where people are increasingly attracted to advertising, content and storytelling that quite literally speaks out to them. Here are a few reasons why.

1. The spirit of the CEO. The man or woman who started the brand and company will practically have the brand tattooed on his or her heart. He or she had the idea and the courage to get it out there. That takes great personality and nine times out of 10 that personality will be able to lift the brand’s advertising above anything else from the word go.

2. The creative decisionmaker. Maybe the founder of the brand is not the world’s greatest marketer or doesn’t know about creativity in advertising. No matter; the very fact that he or she is one with the brand – is the brand – will always shine through in talks with creative professionals, as well as in the intuitive choice of the right idea for the brand.

3. The inspiring voice of the brand. The most brilliant campaigns in the world have always had a CEO behind them who inspired the creative minds working on it. The unbridled enthusiasm of someone as deeply involved in the brand as the founder/CEO will lift the commitment of anyone who matters to the brand’s advertising. It is so much more fun and satisfying to develop brand ideas for someone who is literally Mister Brand himself than for a board of faceless executives.

4. Trust in the main man or woman. Today, trust is right up there on the list of consumer demands. They love to see and hear the one man or woman who actually started the company or invented that brilliant key product or both. In a world of too many me-too propositions, this one person can make all the difference for the brand. Dyson is not just a vacuum cleaner; it is this guy Dyson’s brilliant idea that he tried to pitch for 14 years before someone finally got it. Now him, I can believe, admire, relate to and buy into.

5. A famous CEO can’t hurt. Say what you like about Elon Musk, but you’ve got to admire the man for his persistence, inspiration and courage. That he is not always the easiest man to follow doesn’t harm him or his brand very much. Famous entrepreneurs are allowed to be a little eccentric as long as what they stand for is sound enough and genuine enough to believe.

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