Oreo™ cookies! What images, memories and associations immediately come to mind? The writer’s children would say they remember their dad walking around with a stack of Oreos in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. What do Oreo cookies have to do with leadership? More than you might think.
Leadership and branding strategies have a lot in common. A strong leader is like a memorable brand, and the success of any brand depends on its ability to stand out in the crowd. Branding is the main tool marketers use to distinguish their products from the competition. These same concepts can be used to build and distinguish a leader…a branded leader.
This article will approach leadership principles using a few chosen marketing/branding concepts. Although marketing and leadership concepts spring from the same social sciences, the disciplines developed their own terminologies; however, when examined, the terminologies mean very much the same thing. Therefore, the writer’s goal is to use selected marketing/branding concepts to shed additional insight into understanding leadership principles.
Consider, first, a couple of “truisms”: 1.) It takes time to build a brand, and 2.) Whether you like it or not you are a brand! The question then becomes: what do you want your brand to represent in the minds of people when your name is mentioned? Yes, we are all brands. For example, a brand is directly related to reputation. Celebrities are considered brands and are marketed accordingly. The writer believes that those wishing to be good leaders should be considerate of how they are perceived as a brand and how they might consider building their personal brand.
Branding is a marketing activity. “Meeting Needs”
Marketing is about meeting needs. A good leader and a good marketer will be able to relate to the needs of those they serve. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft Corporation once said, “We can believe that we know where the world should go. But unless we're in touch with our customers, our model of the world can diverge from reality. There's no substitute for innovation, of course, but innovation is no substitute for being in touch, either” (“Inspiring business quotes”). Ballmer’s quote demonstrates that a company must be in touch with their consumers. This is a core marketing concept.
When building a brand, the brand must focus around the needs of the consumer. If a company loses focus on the needs of its consumers, no matter how innovative its ideas, the company will not succeed. Likewise, the leader must focus on the needs of those that they are leading. A leader who never interacts with their subordinates is unable to effectively lead them towards a common goal. Staying connected, meeting follower needs, and guiding them towards a common goal is just one of the aspects of building a branded leader.
Brand Building: Building Your Personal Brand
Developing a brand or personal brand strategy involves understanding that brand’s communicate meaning. It is the result of passionate commitments to understanding the strategic framework of the brand and what it should be. When a brand strategy is developed, a firm must have a full comprehensive understanding of what that brand means to the market. They understand that it is not just the features of a brand that create consumer pull, but the benefits as well. In this way, certain brands command leadership. In the same way, leaders can create a personal brand that goes beyond position. Leadership brands and branded leaders have a lot in common.
Leadership brands are built upon a foundation that leverages brand core principles which differentiates a brand on both rational and emotional grounds and is critical to creating and maintaining a leadership position. The process of building leadership brands includes strategic decisions that serve to separate the brand from competitive offers.
As a class activity, this writer challenged a class to come up with a jeans brand that reflected core values and a brand name based on these values. The brand was called “Able.” The core values chosen were: courage, hope, durability, comfort, fashion. Then the concept of social responsibility was added. Next was added the concept of positioning the brand around motivational issues. When wearing the jeans brand, the jean customer would be “able” (able to do just about anything), which reflected the core values desired. By creating a brand based on values it was hoped a brand leadership would be established within the market built on a foundation of values. An emerging leader can do the same.
Brand Concepts: Core Values, Vision, Mission
(Who You Are and What You Stand For)
Marketers usually have a clear vision for a brand shaped around desired core values that define the brand. Another related branding term is the brand promise—all that the brand delivers. Individuals desiring to make an impact on an organization must first have a vision for themselves and how they can help others through their leadership. This promise is similar to the mission of an organization. Every person desiring to lead should have a mission for why they exist and what they stand for. The mission of an individual regulates and guides their actions and ensures that they are consistent. Stephen Covey put it this way: The most effective way I know to begin with the end in mind is to develop a personal mission statement or philosophy or creed. It focuses on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based (2004, p. 106).
Brand Equity and Brand Extension
Brand equity is all of the values attributed to a brand by those who come into contact with the brand. Brand equity can be defined as a “set of assets linked to a brand’s name and symbol that adds to the value provided by a product or service to a firm or that firm’s customers” (Keller 2007, p. 37). But more importantly, according to Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is” (2006, p. 149).
Brand extension is the brand equity power that allows the brand to cover additional products. Think of our Oreo Cookies example; next think how many different products wear the Oreo brand. We attribute the same core values of the original brand to subsequent product variations. Great leaders have the capacity to develop other leaders. Brian is a business friend of the writer with a strong work ethic and is known for super quality work and honest dealings. He owns his own yard business in Geneseo. He has more business than he can handle. Last month he mentioned he was thinking about retirement and the writer began wondering about whether or not he could sell his business. The issue is that Brian is the brand! It is all about him. Now, if he had developed others to have the same core values as himself, he would have had a business that would have transferable equity. Leaders who understand this are able through their leadership to develop an enduring leadership that covers a greater area than them, personally. Max Dupree, in his book, Leadership is an Art, put it this way: “The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers” (2004, p. 10).
Just like a brand, differentiation is essential to the successful leader. The first point of differentiation is that a leader is different from a manager! On the cover of their book appropriately titled Leaders, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus offer the following distinction between managers and leaders: “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things. A leader must always seek to differentiate themselves from others in order to stand out from the crowd” (1985, p. 20). By remaining loyal to a unique set of values and having a unique set of skills, a leader can stand out from others. Skills, abilities, and values are a part of most everyone; but for a leader, the difference is in how they leverage their unique qualities to have more influence.
From a business point of view, branding in the market place is very similar to branding on the ranch. A branding program should be designed to differentiate your cow from all the other cattle on the range. Even if the all the cattle on the range look the pretty much alike (Ries, 1998, p. 7). Kevin Keller pointed out that a branded product adds other dimensions that differentiate it in some way from other products designed to satisfy the same need (Keller, 2007).
To this writer, one very clear area of differentiation is the concept of Servant Leadership. The Servant Leadership concept has been gaining ground in recent history and is espoused strongly by the Greenleaf Foundation and is supported by such leadership writers as Steven Covey and Ken Blanchard, among others. The Greenleaf Foundation points out the differentiation this way:
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant--first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (Greenleaf.org).
C. William Pollard devoted a whole chapter in his book, The Soul of the Firm, to the concept stated by the chapter title, “Servant Leadership Makes Good Things Happen” (1996, p. 127). Another author, Stephen Covey, identified other leadership core values in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The mentioned experts in their particular field point out that an outstanding leader is differentiated in some way from others. It can be because of their unique value set, strategies, skills and abilities, or vision. Therefore, a leader must have their own “brand” built on core values in order to stand out and be effective.
As mentioned earlier, another way in which a leader can be differentiated is by having a unique vision for themselves and for their organizations. A great trait of a leader is their ability to envision the future and conceptualize organizational direction.
Brand Segmentation/Demographics – (Understanding/Focus on Target Market)
As defined, a company’s target market is a specific group of consumers at which a company aims its products and services. Marketers must understand diversity and adapt to effectively target markets. Dr. Paul Hersey’s book, The Situational Leader, pointed out that “a good leader should adapt their leadership style to their followers based on a variety of factors such as ‘task and relationships’ (1992, p.33). Situational leaders, like branding strategies, change their approach depending on the audience.
Successful businesses must have loyal customers. Brand loyalty, by definition, is “the predisposition of any given customer to purchase your goods or services over comparable ones in the marketplace” (Why is Customers, 2009). Good marketers strategize to build that important item: customer brand loyalty. In the same way, leaders, in order to be successful, need the loyalty of those they serve. As Ken Blanchard and Michael O’Connor pointed out in their book, Managing By Value:To the extent that the employees in a “Fortunate” 500 organization are truly treated like its most precious resource, they become more committed to its goals that are employees in other organizations where people perceive themselves as being used like expendable commodities (1997, p. 23).
Followers want to feel they are appreciated and valued. The article, Ten Tips to Build Customer Loyalty, states that “Loyalty works from the top down. If you are loyal to your employees, they will feel positively about their jobs and pass that loyalty along to your customers” (Ten Tips to Build, n.d.).
Like brand-managers continually improving their brands, innovative leaders must continually work on improving their leadership characteristics and abilities. When a leader takes the necessary time and effort to show the ones they lead they are needed and appreciated, employee/follower loyalty will follow.
Brand Integrity/Brand authenticity
Brand integrity means that the brand delivers what it promises. Perhaps the following example can illustrate brand authenticity and brand integrity: recently, the writer went into a local Wegmans store where a huge pumpkin was on display. It was interesting how many people came over to feel the pumpkin as if to say: “is it real?” The application is: does the brand deliver what it says it will? Al and Laura Ries, in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, argue that “there is one claim that should take precedence over every other and that is the claim to authenticity” (Ries, 1998, p. 49). In James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge, they state: “This consistent living out of values is a behavioral way of demonstrating honesty and trustworthiness. We trust leaders when their deeds and words match” (2002, p. 38).
This article examined the ways in which a leader’s development may be compared to brand development. An up-and-coming leader can develop a strategy to build a personal brand relevant and effective to those they serve. As Tom Peters, most famous for his work In Search of Excellence, wrote in his article The Brand Called You, “It's this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else” (1997, p. 83). Okay, time to go get the Oreos.
William (Bill) Todd is Associate Professor of Business and Lead Professor of the Marketing Major at Roberts Wesleyan College (RWC). He is certified as a Professional Certified Marketer (PCM) by the American Marketing Association. Bill has extensive practical business experience with Eastman Kodak Company and Conoco-Phillips, among his previous employers. Currently, he oversees the Undergraduate Business Internship Program at RWC and is an ongoing marketing consultant for non-profit and for profit organizations. In addition, Bill teaches in the newly-launched Master of Strategic Marketing program. Contact him at email@example.com.