Branded CEO: The power of the personal

We speak with the founders of leading Australian brands to find out the pros and cons of personality on company growth


Janine Allis never set out to become one of the most recognised faces in Australian business. It was more just a matter of necessity.

“When you are starting a business and you literally have no money to market, and you want to get your brand out there, it is really ‘whatever it takes’,” Allis tells CMO. “I knew who my target market was, so how could I get my target to hear and know the word Boost as much as I physically could?”

Today, Boost Juice Bars is an international business with more than 450 outlets, and Allis is highly recognisable through the brand’s marketing activity, from being out on the speakers’ circuit, to her regular gig as a ‘shark’ on Channel Ten’s Shark Tank series.

But back in 2000 when she founded Boost, female company founders were rare. Allis knew her story was one that could generate interest, so she started telling it to anyone who would listen.

“You ask, ‘what is your point of difference, what would stand out, and what would the media want to talk about?’,” she says. “Having a background in publicity, I knew that when trying to pitch your business, there are all sorts of angles you can use. I was the vehicle to get the business out there. So really, the media created it.”

Allis is by no means the first business leader to use herself as the vehicle to promote the organisation she leads. Gerry Harvey partnered up with Ian Norman back in 1961, Dick Smith got started with his first electronics business in 1968, and ‘Aussie John’ Symond founded his home loan business in 1992.

Each leader is an example of how a personal brand is a strategy that can pay off handsomely for an organisation. But equally, it’s one that is also fraught with dangers for both the brand and the individual.

Personal and professional reflections

Allis believes the essential requirement is for the leader’s personality to reflect that of the brand, and vice versa.

“You can’t fake it,” she says. “You either are that person or you’re not. And your brand has that essence, or not. And that is what we thought about when we were building this brand. We wanted the brand to have a personality, and the way to have a personality is to take the personality of a founder into the business.”

As the Boost Juice business has grown, keeping Allis as its public face has also helped to maintain its identity with customers.

“You know as a consumer, not that you would give it much thought, there is someone who is really giving a shit and has got your back and is doing their best to continue to create great products,” she adds. “It is easier to trust a person than it is to trust an entity.”

It is this point that Steve Spurr, chief executive officer at PR firm Edelman Australia, believes is critical to the success of CEO branding – a result reflected in the findings of this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer report.

“There is a finding across all of our data for the last three years which suggested that Australians trust individuals more than institutions, and that is aligned to the individuals of the institutions,” Spurr says. “Last year, we were trusting rank and file employees, we were trusting people like us to give us opinion on people and government. This year we have had a substantial uplift in trusting the individuals of a company – so the CEOs, and the board and directors as well.

“And that is all to do with showing your values. Australians don’t like trusting things unless they can see the values and of beliefs of that thing and decide whether they are in agreement with them.”

For Spurr, Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, is an exemplar of this behaviour, having been willing to use his profile as chief of a major corporation to promote issues he believes are in line with the thoughts of Qantas employees and customers – particularly same-sex marriage.

“What that showed was we can push government to do things that society wants, and you can stand for something more than just the bottom line of your business,” Spurr says. “And I think Qantas’ bottom line will be better because of it.”

Social impact

While television advertising and media appearances have been the mainstay of CEO brand building for the likes of Norman, Smith and Symond, the last decade has also seen social media adopted as the tool of choice for many – particularly LinkedIn.

Allis ranks among the top 10 most viewed CEOs and founders on that service now, alongside Atlassian CEO and co-founder, Scott Farquhar, and RedBalloon co-founder (and fellow Shark Tank shark), Naomi Simson.

Simson regularly posts to LinkedIn as a means of connecting with people interested in her current work with Big Red Group. Like Allis, she believes authenticity is critical.

“You can’t fake it till you make it,” Simson says. “You either want to do it or you don’t, and you have to be absolutely prepared to stand up in the good times and the bad times. You can’t hide if something isn’t going to plan either. And you really have to trust yourself. I do trust myself to say the right thing and be who I need to be.”

Simson says there is more to building an effective social media profile than just self-promotion.

“You can’t just talk about yourself,” she argues. “It has to be about how you are contributing. You also need to have an opinion, and be prepared to stand up as well as be knocked down, otherwise don’t do it.

“Social media is a brutal place, so you also need to have a thick skin. You’ve got to really know why you are doing it and how you want to contribute, because people really smell inauthenticity. And for me it was about building trust for the brand in the first instance, but I very quickly realised people were far more interested in what they could learn from me and how I could be a role model. And I was happy to share everything we’ve learned.”

A strong social media profile can also help with recruitment. Managing director of LinkedIn for Australia, Matt Tindale, believes that now more than ever people are seeking to work for organisations with purpose and trust, and for CEOs and leaders that exude that.

“It’s about demonstrating your leadership, both from a commercial perspective and a values perspective,” he says.

“Naomi has done it really well, with more than 2 million followers and over 170 articles. She’s very authentic and shares her experiences and expertise with small and medium businesses. It is not self-centred, she wants to share her expertise in a very authentic way.”

The connection between a leader’s reputation and that of its brand can however also pose a significant risk, such as what happens should the leaders leaves the organisation – either voluntarily or not.

While Simson has stepped away from the running of RedBalloon specifically, she maintains a strong attachment through her involvement in parent organisation, Big Red Group. She says the important thing for any founder or CEO who wants to move on is to actually have somewhere to go.

“What is the next thing that you want to do?” she asks. “I was 10 years as CEO at RedBalloon and there were other things I wanted to do as well, which didn’t negate my passion and my contribution to the business.

“However, on a personal level I had also done it for 10 years. So I had somewhere to go, and the Shark Tank arrived, and I’d written books and been blogging, so I saw myself of going into a new world of supporting our community in a different sort of way.”

The wrong persona

History is of course also littered with examples of founders and CEOs whose behaviour has negatively impacted on their organisation’s brand. Just look at Martha Stewart, who was incarcerated on charges of conspiracy and obstruction back in 2004.

According to Ujwal Kayande, professor of marketing and director for the Centre for Business Analytics at the Melbourne Business School, Stewart’s fall represents the extreme end of the spectrum.

“Martha Stewart’s identity was completely emmeshed with the company, so it was difficult to separate the identity across these three players,” he claims. “Martha Stewart represents the greatest return and the greatest risk, because everything is about that one person, and if that one person does something problematic or exits, things blow up.”

Hence Kayande says that building a CEO’s personal brand is something that merits serious consideration.

“If it is this a category in which consumers will very easily adopt the brand and identity of the CEO, then the board of the company should consider if this raises the risks,” Kayande says. “Because there are massive category effects in this context.”

Once again, authenticity helps. Allis is highly conscious of the impact poor behaviour might have on the Boost brand, but significantly concerned by the chances of her doing so.

“You make sure you don’t do anything stupid,” she says. “But I have a pretty simple life. You’ll rarely see me in any society pictures. My idea of fun is having family time at the beach.

“So I think I’m a little bit boring to have that as a concern – I don’t do anything that’s ‘out there’. I’m so bloody normal it’s not funny.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu  

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