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The Pitfalls of Brand Personification

Steve Jobs Apple

In a quest to be all things to all people, brands can sometimes lose their way. They become lost in a miasma of dilution as they try to stretch their brand equity to appeal to every consumer, or branch out into new markets. Some, like Virgin, have managed this fairly successfully – let’s forget for the moment about Virgin Brides – while others, such as Cisco (which we wrote about recently) have fared less well. Virgin’s equity relies in part on the man behind the company, Sir Richard Branson. His affable qualities have appealed to both consumers and investors. The balance he maintains is a delicate one, driving the essence of the brand without ever overwhelming it.

In the world of luxury, companies have often used brand ambassadors. The watchmaker Breguet has long claimed that luminaries such as Napoleon, Churchill and Marie Antoinette wore their brand. Each of these characters had their flaws of course, not least the megalomaniacal Frenchman. However, when the person personifying the brand is also at the rudder of the ship, the situation can prove more complex. This was evident in March this year when master designer John Galliano was fired from his creative directorship at Dior, as well as from his role at his eponymous label.

Similarly affected by ramifications at the top has been Lagardère Group, run by Arnaud Lagardère, who inherited the company from his father. As well as owning a range of media assets, it also has a 7.5% stake in the defence contracting firm EADS. Recently the 51 year-old has taken up with a 20 year-old model by the name of Jade. A cutesy video for a glossy magazine shoot made its way online (see below). Any semblance of dignity the man maintained – already in question prior to this video – was lost. This may decide future business directions at the company. Arnaud is a keen sports enthusiast, at one point mulling a bid for the rights to the Tour de France. Any such wishful thinking must now be considered just that as shareholders are keen to refocus on existing assets. His overt publicity has cost him dear; Arnaud may now be at risk of losing some of his control over the company. Writes The Economist,

“Executives at EADS are dismayed to see their future boss behave like a nincompoop. “In Germany any manager who shot such a video would be finished in business,” says a person close to the company.”

And so we turn to Apple, which has been recently hit with the news that Steve Jobs will be stepping down from his current role. He will remain at the company as chairman of the board, and his ideas and personality will affect the company’s direction for several years still, but after that the company’s direction, and its brand equity, will be at a crossroads. The company has, even relative to its own stellar performance, recently been enjoying great success, briefly becoming the world’s largest public company. In managing this feat, it overtook Exxon Mobil. As The Economist pointed out, however, “oil remains a vital raw material” (though not for a great deal longer, admittedly), whereas Apple’s appeal is in “delighting customers”. A company that serves such a fickle master so directly is in danger of losing said appeal at any given moment. Last week, an editorial in the FT pointed out that an Apple without Steve Jobs at the helm will be a less irascible but also a less happy place, and hence perhaps less appealing to customers. The New York Times echoed such sentiments that weekend, with an article headlined “For Apple fans, departure of Jobs is personal”,

“…[P]eople love Apple products in a way that they do not love other products they use every day. And Mr. Jobs as chief executive has been uniquely connected to Apple’s creations.”

The article details personal consumer reactions to the news, which range from tearful incredulity to concern over future business inspiration and product innovation.

All of which goes to show that having an impresario at the top can benefit a company hugely for decades. Could Steve Jobs have made Apple as popular, while taking a slight back seat, a la Bill Gates, Howard Stringer, Howard Schultz or Jack Welch? Probably not. If he had, Apple wouldn’t be the company it is today. But one thing’s for sure, what it is today will not be what it is in the future, when Jobs’ influence has left and the company has to decide which path to take.

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