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CEOs: Here’s why you really need a personal brand

The idea of spending time and money on developing personal branding for executives in order to up their profile is counter-​intuitive to many.

Some leaders struggle with the concept as they feel it was not necessary to bring about success for them in days gone by. Others instinctively shy away from the limelight, preferring to let their work speak for itself.

Julianne Ponan, chief executive (CEO) of ‘free-​from’ snack producer Creative Nature Superfoods, for example, did not initially buy into the notion because she believed it should be “all about the business and not about me”.

“I was worried to put my face to my brand…Surely I should ensure any budget went into getting eyes on the brand and the products? I just felt focusing on me could be a waste of valuable time and money,” she explains.

Other leaders, meanwhile, are reticent to put themselves out there because of where it could lead — especially if things go wrong.

Personal branding for executives builds trust

As Laura Giffard, founder of brand and design consultancy Perq Studio, says: “Personal branding for executives has a bad reputation because many see it as being insincere and inauthentic and just putting lipstick on a pig. But in reality, it helps to humanise the business and build trust, whether we’re talking about consumers, employees or stakeholders.”

Put another way, CEOs are actually the “personification of the brand”, which means that developing a positive profile has now become a key aspect of their role, believes Rose Bentley, director of clients and strategy at PR agency, the Propeller Group.

“The CEO is a sub-​brand of the business and one of its most influential ambassadors, so building that brand is as important as building profile for the products or services it sells,” she says – and this importance is only likely to grow as the significance of the CEO reputation continues to mount.

According to global communication firm Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, people — for the first time ever this year — trust employers around the world (75 per cent) much more highly than anyone else, which includes non-​governmental organisations (57 per cent) and governments (48 per cent).

As a result, some 71 per cent of workers now expect their leaders to act as a figurehead in terms of how they respond to challenging times. In other words, having a credible CEO at the helm is more important than ever and can act as a magnet not just for talent, but also for investors and customers too.

Using employer branding to attract talent

As to how using employer branding to attract talent works in practice, says Sam Gilpin, managing director and head of Europe at leadership consultancy YSC, the dynamics are quite simple.

“The boundaries between internal and external communications have pretty much dissolved over the last 15 years, which means that portraying a positive image of your organisation, you as a leader and what you’re trying to do feeds into how you attract, retain and motivate staff,” he explains. “As a potential new hire considering which organisation to join, if one has a negative CEO brand and the other a positive one, which one would you go for?”

But it is also vital that there is substance behind the image. As Louise Vaughan, managing director and founder of reputation management consultancy Definition, says: “You need a good, internal, personal brand to harness the purpose and mission of the business and articulate it to the workforce — but you also have to live it too.”

In other words, should you claim one of your key values is approachability and you operate an open door policy but fail to walk the floor and only communicate with others via email, the personal brand you are trying to create will not appear authentic. Indeed, such a scenario will instead call your integrity into question.

If you get your personal branding right, however, you can use it as an opportunity to ensure others understand you, your aims, values, mission and vision more effectively.

How CEO branding can help the company stand out

In terms of brand differentiation strategies in marketing, Ms Vaughan believes that developing personal branding for executives is by far the most effective in helping organisations to “punch above their weight in the industry, especially during times of commercial change in the business”.

This situation is as true in customer terms as it is in relation to anything else. Ms Ponan explains: “People really do buy from people – and these days, they will quite voluntarily talk about it. In an age when we are often networked into personal audiences on social media, even a few people talking about you, and therefore your brand, can lead to thousands of eyes looking your way.”

In her case, she built her personal brand around her own severe, life-​threatening food allergies, which were the inspiration behind the company and its products in the first place.

“When consumers start to understand your reasons for doing what you do, that creates emotion, especially from those who have something in common with you,” Ms Ponan says. “I began to realise that sharing my story in this way instils trust as people trust people and, by default, start to trust the brand.”

As a result, for her, the business case relating to personal branding for executives is clear. “The more visible you are, the more eyes will be on you and the more sales you’ll make,” she says. “While one activity on its own may be hard to quantify, what I’m looking for is the cumulative effect of strategic effort around my personal brand and that of the company.”

How to attract investors with CEO reputation

But personal branding for executives can also help to inspire confidence and provide a possible path for how to attract investors too.

As Ms Bentley points out: “Investors want to see a strong direction and they want to see confidence. More than anything, they want their CEOs to help boost share price – and building a personal brand can create that halo of confidence that benefits the balance sheet.”

Ms Ponan agrees. “A strong personal brand gives you credibility as you are in the public eye,” she says. “Doing this right makes you very visible to potential investors and it can also help attract the right staff into your business as they will see what your ethics and motivation are and may be inspired by that.”

Building a personal brand

In order to go about building a personal brand, meanwhile, the first step is to check out your existing profile on Google. The aim is to see what impression you make as a CEO and whether you believe it is either an accurate reflection or consistent with how you wish to come across.

The second stage is to think about your personal values and beliefs, what moves and motivates you, what you are good at and how you would like to be perceived. Using others as a sounding board can help here, although it is important to ensure they feel able to be honest with you.

The third step is to work with communications or brand experts to plan your themes and messaging based on your discoveries, all of which should be consistent with the picture you want to create of yourself. Possible channels here include social media, public speaking at conferences and input into ‘expert voice’ articles written by journalists.

But as Ms Giffard points out, the ultimate secret to success is being true to yourself. “Steer clear of a one-​size-​fits all approach because the point is that everyone is an individual and so personal branding is always different – what you’re after really is reflecting a positive, amplified version of you”, she concludes.