Why Brand Strategy is a CEO Responsibility

Brand, Leadership, Strategy

Your brand can’t be solely in the hands of your marketing department. Let’s talk about why.

In our work with CEOs, we ask, “How often are you and your senior leadership team talking about your brand, your brand strategy, and how you want to be experienced in the world?” 

The responses vary widely:

“We never talk about it.” 

“We’re a B2B company in a niche industry; we don’t need a brand.”

“We talk about brand, mostly in the context of how our competitors are kicking our butts.”

“We appreciate the value of brand, but we don’t really know how to talk about it at the table.”

“We obsess about brand and know it’s a difference-maker as we navigate change that we know is right around the corner.”

Brand is a part of marketing, which is why many organizations expect their in-house marketing department to own all things brand: strategy to execution. But there are many elements of brand strategy and long-term brand equity that simply aren’t visible to anyone who’s not in the CEO seat. Even when there is visibility, the path forward has to be set from a higher vantage point. According to acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker, “The CEO is the link between the Inside – that is ‘the organization’ –  and the Outside of society, economy, technology, markets, and consumers.” The CEO has the unique role of experiencing the Outside and interpreting it for the Inside

While CEOs have numerous responsibilities, Drucker claimed there are four things CEOs and only CEOs are uniquely qualified to do. We’ll outline those reasons here, and add context from our experience working with marketing teams and CEOs, and bringing them together for the sake of brand strategy. 

Short on time? Watch the video version of this blog for the highlights:

Four things CEOs and only CEOs are uniquely qualified to do

The CEO must assess, interpret, and make sense of environmental factors that could have enterprise-wide impact on the business.

There are endless “Outside” factors that have an impact on a business – new competitors popping up, technological innovations, industry booms (and crashes), global pandemics and their effect on goods and services, and the impact of new consumer behaviors like e-commerce and home delivery. The list can go on and on. If every single team member tried to take all these factors in and interpret them into the right actions to take, we’d all be left trying to boil the ocean. 

It’s the CEOs job to continually take what’s going on outside the organization and interpret it into how it impacts the strategy and culture inside the organization. The most solid brands we work with have CEOs who are always asking themselves: 

“What matters most?” 

“What should cause us to change our path?”

“What shouldn’t?”

With the CEO in charge of this high-level direction, the rest of the organization is free to focus on their part in getting there. 

Related Read: How to Effectively Identify Your Top Business Competitors

The CEO must be able to clarify for the organization and the marketplace: what business are we in and what business are we not in?

It’s the CEO’s job to define the organization’s stance on “Why do we deserve to win?” 

This is the process of taking those external Outside factors and double clicking into where the business competes – and why and how it wins when it wins. What are the true core competencies? What does it look like when we do our best work? Should we decide to grow from our core, or take on a completely new niche? 

If you asked 10 individual departments to answer this question, you’d undoubtedly get 10 different answers. Only the CEO has both the ability to see all those different points of view and the responsibility of determining how they all come together. 

The second part of Drucker’s question is just as important as the first: “What business are we not in?”

It’s not easy to decide to stop pursuing a part of your business, especially if you really wanted that part to work and be successful. Without the CEO at the helm of decisions like this, the organization will often continue to try to make it work, many times at the cost of energy and time that could be used for pursuits that are in line with the business’ overall strategy. 

The CEO must be able to strike the right balance between current and future business priorities.

Drucker said, “The CEO decides on the balance between yield from present activities and investment in an unknown, unknowable, and highly uncertain future…it is a judgment, rather than a decision based on facts.”

If one person within a business is responsible and accountable for the long-term success of the organization, it’s the CEO. Often this means they’re shaping both the present day and a future that might extend beyond their tenure. It’s this delicate balance, struck by the CEO, that the organization can take as a guide on where to lean in, what activities to prioritize, and why their actions matter in the long-term, grand scheme. 

In other words, a CEO with a clear, carefully calibrated vision for both current and future priorities is able to galvanize every department – especially the marketing department – to make that vision a reality. We’ve seen this kind of clarity and commitment generate immediate bottom-line success, as well as long-term loyalty from both consumers and team members. It’s universal to feel drawn to those with a plan and the confidence to pursue it.

Related Read: Alignment: When Commitment Meets Clarity

The CEO must set the standard for the values and beliefs of the organization, two elements that are intertwined with brand and culture.

At the heart of every brand is what it stands for and believes in. Whether your customers look for your values on your website or infer them from your brand, they’re subconsciously deciding: does this organization stand for what I stand for? 

Core values aren’t just about what values and behaviors we like and find pleasant, but what behaviors drive the business forward. What are the beliefs we share that make us uniquely us? What are the ways we behave that make it easier to work with us, and easier to work with each other? What can our customers always count on, and what can we never ask them to sacrifice? 

In our experience, it’s important to take inputs from everyone in the organization regarding core values. You’ll find a treasure trove of beliefs and behaviors that team members share and find helpful. And as the CEO, you’ll have the perspective to sift through which of those beliefs and behaviors are most critical in order for the organization to succeed as both a brand consumers connect to and a culture team members identify with. 

Related Read: 5 Steps to Define Your Company Core Values

What are the right responsibilities for the marketing team to own?

Your brand strategy drives how you want your business to be known and experienced by the world. That’s the CEO’s responsibility. But you might be asking then, what’s the role of the marketing department?

Marketing’s role is to manage and measure the strength of your brand the same way it’s HR’s responsibility to manage, measure and foster the health of your culture. It’s the marketing team’s responsibility to be the eyes and the ears of your brand, to maintain its consistency and to put your brand position out there in the world so others understand your place. 

You can often count on the marketing team to be your biggest advocates for your brand. The person who read this article and sent it to you is likely on your marketing team. They’re the ones who nudge the CEO and senior leadership when the focus on, investment in, and consistency of the brand are lagging. 

What’s the outcome of a CEO owning these critical elements?

In our experience, great things happen when CEOs are bold enough to invest in their brand, and some of them are surprising. When your strong brand precedes you into the room, your speed to close on sales and sales to right fit customers improves, you get a boost to company value, albeit not overnight.

One of the coolest and most unexpected outcomes is attraction and retention of high-quality talent. That’s good for business because it saves time, resources and emotional bandwidth that comes with hiring and culture building. Other organizations want to collaborate with you and to be associated with you because of who you are. 

Your investment in your brand strategy is always important, even more so as you navigate inflection points of growth and change. The investment in your brand is insignificant compared to what your company stands to gain. 

In college, Jess knew she wanted to work in advertising, but wasn't sure in what capacity. Dating an art director pushed her towards writing instead, and everyone at Element Three—not to mention Jess' clients—is thankful that's what she chose.

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