The CEO’s role in driving successful corporate brand programs

Getting employees to both understand the brand story and change their behavior is a marathon, not a sprint-and-done approach.

Most corporate brand programs fail because leadership fails to embrace the brand program, seeing it as marketing fluff. However, the most successful brand programs are not just sponsored by the CEO and executed by marketing but are owned and driven by the CEO. This is because the brand needs to be grounded in every aspect of the company, from its core operating philosophy to the daily actions of every employee.

Brand programs take a long time to develop and refine but are quickly launched, often with relatively easy tactics. A brand video, an ad campaign, a revamped website with a new look and tagline, and a CEO talk on day one are common elements of a brand launch. However, effective brand programs are launched inside out, first with employees and then with changes to how the company operates with all audiences and all touch points. That includes the company’s board of directors, which will ultimately judge the CEO in part by the effectiveness of the brand.

Getting employees to both understand the brand “story” and change their behavior is a marathon, not a sprint-and-done approach. It’s easy to make a few videos, but it’s very difficult to change people and how they behave. This is why if the brand program is not owned by the CEO, activation is typically a short-term, comms-driven effort that fails to create lasting change.

But the concept of ownership is not enough. The CEO must:

  1. Lead by example. They must use the brand as a lens to frame all their actions.
  2. Communicate relentlessly. Everyone inside needs to hear it and understand the brand, why it matters, and how it will focus business strategy.
  3. Drive it into all aspects of the business and link it to “this is how and why we do things.”
  4. Hold the leadership team accountable for delivering on the brand and cascading it through their organizations.
  5. Plan to run a marathon, not a short race.

When Federal Express rebranded to FedEx, CEO Fred Smith personally owned the program. The brand was inextricably linked to FedEx’s core operating philosophy, known as “The Purple Promise.” This promise became the guiding principle for why every employee lives the brand and every customer understands the brand promise of “absolute certainty.” Smith’s direct involvement ensured that the brand was not just a superficial change, but a fundamental shift in how the company operated and delivered value to its customers.

Similarly, Delta’s “Keep Rising” brand focus, championed by CEO Ed Bastian, drives the core strategy of making sure everyone at Delta is focused on doing more to deliver extraordinary customer experiences. Bastian’s personal commitment to the brand ensures that it remains at the forefront of every decision and action taken by the company.

Like any corporate initiative, a successful brand program requires focus and brilliant execution. Most brand programs look great in the PowerPoint presentation and kick-off announcement but fail to go beyond a bit of short-term spin. This is where the CEO’s ownership and drive become critical. By consistently communicating the importance of the brand, aligning it with the company’s strategy, and holding everyone accountable for living the brand, the CEO can ensure that the program maintains momentum and delivers lasting results.

When the CEO fully embraces the brand program, it becomes a rallying cry and sends a powerful message to the entire organization. It demonstrates that the brand is not just a marketing initiative, but a strategic imperative that is central to the company’s success. This, in turn, inspires employees to take ownership of the brand and to embody its values in their daily work.

Moreover, when the CEO is actively involved in the brand program, it helps ensure that the brand remains consistent across all touchpoints. From product development to customer service, from internal communications to external marketing, the brand should be consistently expressed and reinforced. This consistency is essential for building trust and loyalty among customers, as well as for creating a strong, unified corporate culture.

Every effort to communicate externally should be viewed as an opportunity to frame the company’s performance within the context of the brand. Speeches, interviews, websites, and publications should all reflect the brand as the company’s inspiration.

Brands fail at companies that adopt a check-the-box, “did that, now on to the next item on the to-do list” mentality. Brands succeed when the CEO shows unwavering focus and commitment to executing the brand program as a core strategic initiative. When the CEO leads by example, communicates relentlessly, drives the brand into all aspects of the business, and plans for a marathon, not a short race, the brand becomes a powerful force for driving long-term success and creating a truly customer-centric organization.

Jon Pepper is the president of Indelable LLC, a strategic communications firm based in New York, and the author of four novels, most recently, “Missy’s Twitch.” 

Allen Adamson is the co-founder and managing partner of elite marketing collective Metaforce, and the author of five books, most recently, “Seeing The How.”

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