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Michael Eisner, CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005 and recognised for revitalising that company, said that as chairman and CEO, his job was to provide a corporate structure and culture that enabled the Disney “cast” members to perpetuate the values and traditions that fuel the Disney magic.

“I am, in effect, the chief brand manager. I take my responsibilities as a steward of the brand very seriously: to protect it, enhance it, and try to ensure that it is even more valuable in the 21 century than it was in the 20. It’s a responsibility I share with all 120,000 Disney cast members around the world. We all know that the Disney brand is our most valuable asset.”

What he clearly recognised is that the Disney brand is supported by the culture and values of the company and its people.

He reminds me of something that Richard Branson wrote in the foreword to a book written by Thomas Gad, titled 4D Branding: “Increasingly, brands are driven by values. Great brands stand for something, something which people believe in and which matter to them. Values and brands are inextricably linked.”

In the book Gad makes the point that brands are not the preserve of the marketing department, or any other department, and that they are the responsibility of the company’s leadership team. It’s a view endorsed by Eisner when he describes himself as ”the chief brand manager” and the ”steward of the brand”.

It’s important that leaders accept the responsibility for the brand because they already have responsibility for the reputation of the company. Brand trust and reputation are basically the same thing. Both are dependent on keeping a promise.

The brand promise is made to the market by the marketing department and this is very important, because if it doesn’t resonate with the market the company can hardly expect support. But here’s the thing: living up to the brand promise is what will build trust.

Living up to the brand promise needs to be the concerted effort of everyone in the company and that’s why it is leadership’s responsibility to look after the brand and to make sure it has integrity. Marketing must make sure it is relevant to consumers; operations must ensure that the brand is where it needs to be, when it needs to be, and delivers functionally; human resources has to ensure that the service ethic is lived by capable people; and so on.

The risk of a brand not being a cohesive expression of the full leadership of the company is suitably captured in these words of William Bernbach, a doyen of advertising: A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

David Aaker, recognised as a brand strategy thought leader and the author of 15 books on the subject, makes another point that emphasises the need for leadership to own the brand:

“What a competitor brand cannot copy is an organisation – its people, culture, heritage, programmes, assets and capabilities – because that is unique. Thus, any point of differentiation or basis of a customer relationship that is driven by the organisation rather than by offering characteristics will be enduring and resistant to competitor brands.”

If a company wants a strong brand, with strength measured by trust, then the brand strategy that builds and protects the brand must be developed and owned by the full leadership team, inspired by the CEO, who is the brand owner. That is the only way the whole company will live the brand and live up to the promises made.

The big take-out: Brand strategy needs to be facilitated at the highest level of leadership in the company because great brands are built from the inside out. Only if leadership owns the brand can they effectively use it to build a culture that lives the brand.



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