By Irene Silber, journalist and communications strategist
Michael Watras and Ken Banta have collaborated on major brand building projects -- Ken as a senior executive, and Michael as leader of the strategic branding consultancy Straightline International.
Ken founded and leads The Vanguard Network, which works directly with CEOs and develops senior executives through Vanguard Forums. In advance of the next Forum for Healthcare Leaders on November 28 and 29 in New York City, where Michael will be on the faculty, they discussed the critical role of leadership in building the company brand and transforming organizations.
Why is the brand of a company so important? What is the role of the CEO in building the brand?
Michael: The brand is what the company stands for. It includes the sense of purpose of the organization. Look to the CEO, who is the ultimate steward of the brand. Any successful transformation has to be owned by the CEO, surrounded by the C-suite. There have been instances when we were asked to work at a different level in an organization. We decided not to do that. It would not turn out well.
Ken: It’s good to know what the brand is, and is not. It is the essence of the organization. It is not simply a logo, or visual identity.
Defining the brand begins with the CEO, but not in a vacuum. The other group that is tremendously important is front line employees and their direct supervisors. They are closest to the customers. They are the people actually getting things done. They know what the organization should stand for – and also what is inauthentic. The CEO can tap into that group and it’s a powerful combination.
Michael: The brand begins with the inside – employees carry the flag. Without staff onboard, the brand will fail.
How can the CEO make this happen?
Ken: There are different ways to achieve the goal of high performance through an authentic brand. For a top leader, defining a sense of purpose for an organization is fundamental. People need to be aligned with something bigger than themselves. Otherwise they will just be doing a job.
Traditional mission and vision statements can be intellectually sensible but abstract and hard to understand. A sense of purpose is a simple, more action-oriented way to frame the concept.
Michael: I go back to the Johnson & Johnson credo. They live by that. It’s clear what they stand for and what they aspire to be and a very important touch point.
There is always a difference between how organizations perceive themselves and how external audiences see them. How can that be overcome?
Michael: Organizations have multiple stakeholders, especially publicly traded companies. They also have partners with whom they share risk. They even need to consider the media who cover them. It’s a matter of getting the voice and message aligned to all these stakeholder groups. Many companies don’t do this very well. Unfortunately, the healthcare and life sciences sector is one of the laggards. But they are realizing the importance and starting to come along.
Ken: The risk in top management positions is becoming out of touch. As a CEO, people tell you what you want to hear or what they think you want to hear. So CEOs should ride with the sales force, get in tune with the customer environment. Test the sense of purpose – it may sound good internally, but ridiculous outside. Or so general that it lacks meaning.
Michael: Meaningless rhetoric or language really damages an organization. It may be harsh but there have been challenges of trust and reputation in the healthcare sector. It used to be that Pharma only cared about connecting product to doctors. The person on street was at one point at war with these companies, feeling that they were making too much money. That perception has come a long way, but this shows how important it is to communicate in language that resonates with stakeholders.
A brand is generally perceived as external facing. How can it become part of the fabric of the organization?
Michael: It is listening to the employees’ voice, hearing what they think. On a recent project, we talked to 150 employees one-on-one. Sadly, most organizations believe they can tell employees what to think and say.
Ken: The most disappointing executive decision is to say, “let’s create something external and maybe think about inside later.”
Branding and corporate culture generally belong to different functions. What should a CEO do to ensure that a brand be embraced as a corporate culture?
Michael: We set up a brand committee and have many parts of the organization be part of it. HR, legal and communications and marketing are all involved to ensure that everyone is on the same page with the same agenda. I hate to call out HR, but they are generally the most difficult because they want to have their own brand within the larger brand. That’s not a good solution.
Ken: The CEO must be the owner of this activity. We’ve all heard that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Senior leaders may say that, but they don’t take it to heart. Only the CEO can break down the silos and get different functions to work together for a higher purpose.
Finally, some would say that these activities are “nice to have” rather than a critical priority. How would you advise a leadership team focused on the bottom line, that branding and culture change are worthy of their time?
Michael: The ultimate savings can be huge. For one client, we took several hundred websites and merged them into just four. The ROI on this activity was in excess of $150 million.
Ken: The point is that people are not machines. The difference between companies that slouch along and those who consistently exceed their objectives is high performance employees. To achieve that, leadership must rally their people to a cause, and build a winning spirit. If you do that, the ROI is greater than on virtually any other investment you can make.