By Benezra, Karen; Gilbert, Jennifer
Chief Executive (U.S.) , No. 174
Their names are synonymous with their companies' products-and that presents a stew of unique challenges. Can a balding, middle-aged man with a big nose and goofy grin really sell chicken? No, not alone, says Jim Perdue. His mug helps to market tender birds, but the 51-year-old poultry company scion refuses to take sole credit for the success of a national TV advertising campaign that features his smiling face peering through the window of a warm oven. Consumer tests have shown the advertisement has sparked above-average brand recognition and interest among non-Perdue buyers.
Perdue attributes the success of his company's branding efforts to the quality of its product-- chicken, in all its golden, plump glory-also featured in the ad. If the product wasn't excellent, no ad campaign, no matter how good, would salvage the Perdue brand image, he points out.
But Perdue is wrong to discount the weight of his name when it comes to building the corporate image and its most famous products. After all, his ie the company's name; his father Frank spent years on TV telling consumers, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." As a result, Perdue, as CEO of Perdue Farms Inc., shoulders a special responsibility: to serve as the fresh face behind the name and to represent the brand's renewed message.
Signing on to be the company's spokesperson isn't the only path to brand CEO status, though nor is it the only requirement. Brand CEOs are those who have come to personify their companies' trademarks, whether through family ties, a strong personality, or high visibility.
Think Martha, Oprah, Jack, Bill, and "Chainsaw" Al. These power executives play-or played-such an integral role in defining their companies, that employees, customers, and investors refer to them on a first-name basis. They gladhand dignitaries. They testify before Congress. They withstand pitched battles with shareholders. In effect, these captains of industry are brand icons inexorably linked to the reputations of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Harpo, General Electric, Microsoft, and Sunbeam.
Such a role assumes greater challenges and, perhaps, yields greater benefits than those experienced by lesserknown bosses. The lasting impressions these CEOs have bestowed upon their businesses-and the corporate cultures they have uniquely defined-set them apart from the pack. Through their strong leadership styles, corporate vision is communicated loudly and clearly, and brand images are carved out for years to come.
Who could better sell a turnaround story for Remington shavers than Victor Kiam? Or Lee Iacocca's "the buck stops here" approach for Chrysler? Witness folksy Dave Thomas hawking burgers in more than 500 ads for Wendy's International. Or Frank Perdue, and later, son Jim, talking tough about tender chickens.
Richard Branson's irreverence and zeal for life have personified Virgin's empire of record stores, airlines, and soft drinks. Iconoclastic, hard-driving Steve Jobs, whose anti-establishment approach permeates Apple Computer Inc., created a lasting impression of the brand that trickles down to users who identify themselves as Mac devotees. "The company becomes about the person, and it has a personality to it," says Robert Kahn, executive director at global brand consulting firm Enterprise IG. "The CEO is the absolute bottom line for a company. There's a lot of power in that."
Iacocca, by going on TV and making a personal statement, assured wary Americans that Chrysler was committed to delivering high-quality automobiles. And if a consumer could find a better car, he urged them to buy it. It was a rare but perfect fit of strategy and personality, says Brendan Ryan, CEO of ad agency FCB Worldwide and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "That moment demanded a personality to epitomize what Chrysler was all about and why it was worth saving," he says. "He got out and owned the problem. …