By Marian Salzman, Monday, July 16, 2012, at 9:00 am.
This is the first in a series of 10 posts about different aspects of CEO branding.
“If Acme Widgets Corporation were a person, what sort of person would it be? How would you describe the looks, the personality and the style of that person?” Anyone who has attended consumer focus groups has probably heard variations on this sort of projective technique that’s designed to reveal people’s subconscious perceptions.
Consumers might not have had any clear thoughts about the brand until they were asked. Yet they soon find themselves translating their feelings into detailed personality descriptions: “I see Acme as a heavy-set guy in his late 50s, drives a silver Lexus. Big smile, laughs a lot, but you wonder whether he means it.” People can’t help but form impressions of brands from what they see and hear in stores and what they pick up in the media.
It’s not just market researchers and focus group respondents who think about brands as people. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, reaffirming a 19th-century ruling that has been a hot topic for more than a decade now. This raises the same question that gets asked in focus groups: What kind of people are corporations?
One influential answer came in the 2003 Canadian documentary The Corporation. Following the scandals of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, the movie evaluated the behavior of corporations as if they were people. It came to the conclusion that corporations act like psychopaths. “The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality,’” according to a synopsis from the filmmakers. “It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.”
A lot more people have taken this notion seriously since the economic bust of 2007-08. If you work in business, this adds an interesting dimension to marketing-savvy consumers’ possible perceptions of brands and corporations. (“I don’t see Acme as a psychopath—just more of a selfish windbag.”) Maybe there are a few high-profile businesses that might fit the psychopath description, but most that I know of are decent people. They’re trying to do things right while balancing a stack of conflicting demands, and that’s a tough task. Adding to the balancing act is the risk of being tarred with the same brush as the so-called psychopaths.
From a PR perspective, this situation offers a great opportunity for ethical businesspeople to stand out by showing their true colors, to connect with their employees, their customers and their communities. In an environment in which business leaders can be caricatured as heartless automatons, the key message for any CEO with an active conscience is simple: Have a heart. Americans have a deep belief in business, but their faith has been sorely tested over the past decade. They’re longing for business leaders who are not only competent but also trustworthy, leaders with whom they can identify and feel a sense of connection.
The business environment is turning favorable for CEOs who show ethical leadership with a heart.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is one of the most celebrated examples of this new style. Whereas the celebrity CEOs of the ’90s and early 2000s intoned the mantra of “creating shareholder value” (i.e., keeping the share price moving up), Hsieh’s mission has been “delivering happiness” (also the title of his book). It’s what he does daily to the delight of not only shoe fetishists but also his loyal employees, who enjoy some of the best perks and one of the friendliest working environments around. Whether you are into shoes and a feel-good workplace or not, it’s hard to argue with the stellar business results and constant stream of great PR that Hsieh and Zappos have.
It’s not just consumers who are longing for leaders with a heart; many heads of business themselves yearn to be the sort of leaders whom others admire—more like George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) than Gordon Gekko (Wall Street).
In my work, I’m hearing this desire expressed more and more often. It’s part of the motivation behind setting up One Young World, an annual global forum for young people of leadership caliber. It has proved to be an effective way for our agency and a great range of corporate leaders to show how business can be a powerful force for positive change.
David Jones, co-founder of the forum and global CEO for Euro RSCG Worldwide, has written the book on the business and social benefits of having a heart. In Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business Is Better Business, Jones explains how the economic crisis and the movement toward radical transparency only accelerated the trend toward corporate social responsibility—and why it’s nothing but good news for all of us.
This changing business environment not only makes it possible for business leaders to do the right thing; it also increasingly encourages and rewards them.
This entry was posted on Monday, July 16th, 2012 at 9:00 am. It is filed under Brands, CSR, Features, PR and tagged with business leaders, CEO branding, CEOs, connection, conscience, consumers, corporate social responsibility, corporations, CSR, David Jones, Enron, Euro RSCG Worldwide, focus groups, happiness, market research, One Young World, perception, recession, Supreme Court, Tony Hsieh, transparency, Tyco, Who Cares Wins, WorldCom, Zappos. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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