3 Steps to Creating a C-Suite and CEO Brand

Like it or not, today’s senior executives have been precast in the role of Chief Brand Ambassador—leaving many organizations wondering just how to make the CEO brand a reality.

Interested in doing business with a company and want to know a bit about its CEO and senior executive team? No need to hit the library books or write to request a corporate prospectus. In today’s wireless world, you are just a few clicks away from the cloud revealing all.

The easily obtainable (and seemingly endless) amount of information available about your company, senior executives, and CEO has given rise to a new category of branding. Smart companies have realized that that their leaders need to have polished personal brands that highlight who they are—including their expertise, knowledge, and point of view—to an audience outside of the company.

According to one Burson-Marsteller study, close to 50 percent of a company’s reputation can be attributed to the standing of its CEO. Like it or not, today’s senior executives have been precast in the role of Chief Brand Ambassador—leaving many organizations wondering just how to make the CEO brand a reality.

The path to creating a strong C-suite and CEO brand happens in parallel with the building of your business brand, and it involves three critical steps:

Step 1: Strategize First, Implement Second. Are you putting promotion ahead of planning?

I recently received a call from the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of a high-tech start-up requesting my assistance in creating a CEO brand for his boss. When I suggested starting with a sound brand strategy (before launching into promotion mode), I was met with an uncomfortable silence.

When he finally found his voice a few moments later, he said, “Well, I understand the need for that, but my CEO is a very impatient guy. He won’t want to waste his time with a strategy; he will just want to leap right into implementation.”

If I had a dollar for every client who called me complaining about the amount of money they have spent with a PR firm or agency on CEO brand promotion with little—or off-target—results, I would be lying by a pool on the Big Island of Hawaii sipping something made with coconut milk and featuring a flower.
This is not to say PR firms and agencies don’t do a good job. Many do. There is too often, however, a rush to implementation, before a well-thought-out CEO brand strategy is crafted.

There are more than 40 different key tactics one could use to build a C-suite or CEO brand, so it’s critical to begin by determining which four or five will produce the greatest return given the overall goal of the branding effort; the desired audience; the time the CEO has available; and the unique talents, expertise and abilities of the C-suite executive or CEO.

Step 2: Polish up Your Executive Presence and Online Reputation. Are you creating your C-suite or CEO brand by design or by default?

Too often, leaders have brands that seem to just have “happened.” Conscious CEO branding requires an intentional polishing up of an executive’s presence in a few key ways including:

  • Crafting a personal brand narrative and positioning the CEO brand. In the same way every product or service needs to make its case, C-suite executives and CEOs need to articulate a unique personal branding proposition and promise. What is the thought leadership you bring to your audience?
  • Creating brand identity collateral. Once you have a brand story that is both authentic and informative, the question becomes how can it be most powerfully presented to your audience? Translating the CEO brand narrative into collateral materials including headshots, media kits, LinkedIn profiles, and more is a critical part of representing the C-suite and CEO brand to the public.
  • Gaining media fluency. The typical media interview allows guests about 30 seconds to answer a question, make their case, and get their brand across. C-suite executives and CEOs must have a handle on their brand sound bites, including: statistics and specifics, trends, hot tips and how-tos, points of view, and informed insights. The strongest CEO brands have equally strong ideas about their industry and area of thought leadership.
  • Exuding personal gravitas. In the final analysis, it’s a C-suite executive’s style and substance that make for a great personal brand. In a 2013 study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), three aspects of executive presence—gravitas, communication skills, and appearance—were the most critical. But it was gravitas that carried the most weight, and it was composed of six core traits: confidence, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, vision, and reputation. The more a CEO demonstrates these qualities in real time, and real situations, the more impactful his or her personal CEO brand.

 Step 3: Engage in Thought Leadership. What is the flavor of your thought leadership?

Heads up: Just because you (or your PR firm) put out a press release claiming your CEO is a thought leader, doesn’t make it so. Rather, it happens because your audience, industry, and the media say it.

The process of getting to that point requires forethought, planning, and execution. In particular, the C-suite executive or CEO needs to determine which core activities will become part of the tactical strategy. In general, most strategies will include at least some aspects of the following:

  • PR and media outreach, including press interviews on radio, TV, magazines, newspapers, and online outlets.
  • Public speaking, including keynote presentations, podcasting, Webcasting, etc.
  • Publishing, including writing blog posts, articles, and books.
  • Community contribution, including moving beyond the boardroom to participating in local community and national issues and charity work.

Assuming you have accepted the necessity of creating a C-suite or CEO brand for the good of your organization, the above three steps will help you get there. Just remember: The next time a potential employee, client, or investor Googles your name, what shows up will be shaped by either circumstance or the intentional creation of your CEO brand.

Karen Leland is the founder of Sterling Marketing Group (www.sterlingmarketinggroup.com), where she works with CEOs, executives, and entrepreneurs on creating stronger business, team and personal brands. She is also the author of the book, “The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand.” 

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