Revolutionary Measures

Elon Musk and brand safety – a cautionary tale

Consumers increasingly want to engage with genuine brands with a personality. And in many cases this goes back to the founder and CEO. Think of Apple and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Bill Gates, Burt’s Bees and Burt. Or, as I heard yesterday on Radio 4, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.

battle black blur board game

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In a world where consumers are bombarded with slogans from faceless corporations, having a figurehead that they can relate to should be an excellent shortcut to drive success. And, in many ways it often is. However, one of the key factors that drives people to found and grow businesses is self-belief that whatever they do is right, and that they need to battle the world to maintain their success. Add in that the more success they have, the fewer people there are around them who are willing to tell them when they are wrong and you can see a recipe for potential reputational disasters.

Elon Musk is a classic case in point. He’s built Tesla into one of the most recognised car brands on the planet, from scratch, and helped accelerate the spread of electric vehicles. Earlier in the year the company had a stock valuation of $50 billion – larger than Ford, despite its much smaller size (and profitability).

Of course, the key phrase is “had a stock valuation of $50 billion”. Musk announced in a tweet that he had the funding in place to take the company private at $420 per share. When it turned out he didn’t he was sued by both investors and regulators. A further tweet after he was fined for this saw the stock fall further, knocking $10 billion off its value. And don’t forget this is the man that called a British diver involved in the Thai cave rescue a ‘pedo’ and was recorded smoking pot on a podcast.

So how can organisations combine the creativity, drive and charisma of a founder with brand safety? There are four ways to achieve this:

1          Trust the CEO
You could, of course, just let the CEO do what they like, Richard Branson style, but that’s assuming that they understand that there are limits to their behaviour. In the case of true loose cannons (like Musk), this isn’t going to work. In the case of public companies it is also going to make the share price gyrate on a daily basis.

2          Focus on the product
A longer term strategy is to shift the focus from the founder to the product. So while the CEO might be introducing what the company makes, they are talking about what goes into it and what makes the company special, beyond their own personality. Bring in outsiders such as celebrities to subtly shift away from a single founder – a good example is the Virgin Media ads featuring Usain Bolt alongside Branson.

3          Build a team
No one person can run a multi-million pound company successfully. Leaders need help, so build a team and make sure that they are increasingly seen in the media. They are never going to have the same appeal as the founder – for example compare Tim Cook with Steve Jobs at Apple. But creating a wider team will deflect some of the attention over time and prepare for the point when the founder is no longer around.

4          Have people who can say no
Probably the hardest thing for an underling to do is to disagree with their boss, particularly if they have built the company from the ground up. Not many employees would embrace such an almost certain career-limiting move. That means telling founders that they are on the wrong track has to come from boards, independent mentors and from creating a culture where messengers are not shot, but encouraged. This is another long-term process, but one that needs to be thought of early in the process.

Balancing the marketing value of a charismatic figurehead with their wayward side is never easy – just ask Ryanair – but if brands want to stay around for the long-term they need to be ready to outlive their founder and put in place a framework and culture that turns ‘me’ into ‘we’ without losing the brand essence and magic they bring.

 

 

October 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

PR – where are the role models?

There was a fascinating item on the Today programme this morning about how London-based PR and Public Affairs agencies are helping ‘spin’ the reputations of morally dubious states, particularly in the Middle East. While the news hook for the piece was ostensibly a new code of conduct being put in place by the industry this didn’t really get much airplay against the juicier story of London PRs allegedly supporting corrupt regimes.

And this type of story is typical of how the mainstream media covers PR – and it comes down to a lack of positive stories put out by the industry itself. We don’t have a lot of strong, admired role models – in fact here’s a top 5 that pop into most people’s heads when you mention PR:

1          Edina from Absolutely Fabulous
Still the most famous fictional PR person and a monument to slapdash excess. However, her response when asked what she does – “I PR people, things, Lulu,” is probably more coherent than some industry luminaries. Amazingly, and without an ounce of irony, someone actually opened an agency called Absolutely Fabulous.

2          Max Clifford
Don’t get me wrong – Clifford is a smart operator and does what he does extremely well. But he operates in a tiny niche of the PR market, yet is rolled out as the archetypal PR consultant whatever the topic.

3          Alastair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker
Foul-mouthed, combative, bullying and using spin to pull the wool over the electorate’s eyes. That’s obviously the fictional Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, rather than Mr Campbell. Although Alastair has been known to get into a fight or too, as evidenced by this spat with Adam Boulton of Sky News.

4          Lord Tim Bell
If the Saatchis got Thatcher elected, Lord Bell is the man that kept her there. Since then the Bell Pottinger empire has grown and grown and was pinpointed today as first choice PR to the rulers of a number of Middle Eastern countries.

5          Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors
OK, so I don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. But still, her character in the film Sliding Doors is flaky, unbusinesslike and shallow – being sacked for ‘borrowing’ the office bottle of vodka. Hardly advising captains of industry on building brand leadership is it?

I think it is time for industry bodies like the CIPR to fight back and get some positive role models out there, highlighting the work they do to help communities, brands and causes. After all, PR is what we’re meant to do, isn’t it?

 

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March 1, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments