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How to Be a Brand Champion: Lessons from Elon Musk and Other Leaders
Brands and their creators sometimes inhabit the same identity—for some, it’s easier to champion a brand without making themselves the brand, but for others, it’s harder to disassociate the “brand personality” from their own. Some brand leaders are distinct for championing their brand from the inside—making sure their employees buy in to the brand’s philosophy and become brand advocates themselves, especially those with customer-facing roles. Others are brand champions from the outside, playing the role of primary spokesperson and brand defender, conducting reputation management when necessary.
But what these brand leaders have in common is the distinctive system they have created to manage their brand. This system is the thing that makes their brand stand out from its competitors—be it a system that operationalizes complexity, delivers on grand visions, or centralizes diverse products within a single brand identity.
Instead of labelling Elon Musk “the space cowboy” of tech, look at him in the context of the system he built to manage Tesla’s brand. Instead of looking at Richard Branson as a rebellious entrepreneur with a fascination for space travel, look at him as a face for uniting disparate products under a single brand personality. The hallmark of a brand advocate isn’t simply a memorable personality, so much as an ability to make his or her brand distinctive inside and out.
A System for Aspirational Branding: Elon Musk
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been labelled a visionary, Silicon Valley’s “new It Boy”, and “the raddest man in the world”. He’s made Tesla resemble a technology brand rather than an automobile brand, and the entrepreneur regularly tweets company updates from his personal Twitter. In the spirit of aspirational leadership, Musk recently announced the Hyperloop, a pneumatically powered tube that can theoretically shuttle passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes compared to five hours today. The catch: it’s a futuristic product without a delivery date, but for Musk and his cult following, that’s okay.
Musk has crafted for himself a persona that is both intimidatingly aspirational and personally accountable. He personally authored a blog post in the aftermath of Tesla cars catching fire, making a staunch defense of Tesla’s product and consequently of his own brand identity—an identity that is always-on, prepared to deal with blows to the brand.
Not every brand leader can do it the Tesla way, however, and most brands need to be conscious of marrying vision with actionable strategy. The bottom line: making sure brand champions’ ideals can realistically be implemented. Case in point: Howard Schultz tried to add Starbucks to the race relations discourse, but the initiative belly-flopped: his “Race Together” campaign didn’t get baristas as excited to talk about race as it did Schultz. Starbucks is a coffee company, not an educational institution, and reinforcing its product messaging will be more valuable to strengthening its brand than building a new association. With Tesla, Musk is able to directly translate goals of a sustainable future to his products, be they cars or spacecraft. Consumer and employee feedback is more likely to be productive when it is related to the everyday product, giving CEOs and CMOs more fodder to improve strategy within a tight feedback loop. In short, brand leaders are champions of the product as much as they are of the brand—and it’s crucial that they align their values with the business.
Brand Champion Evaluation: The Hands-on Brand Man
Musk is the unique case of an entrepreneur who is both internally and externally a champion of the brand. His social media reputation management for Tesla keeps the brand accessible, and he is hands-on on the business side (he is known to work 100 hours a week). His system of aspirational branding has positioned Tesla at the forefront of emerging technology, giving it the legitimacy to continue pushing the envelope. In short, Musk has ensured that his internal and external brand management reinforce and strengthen one another.
A System for Operationalizing Complexity: Howard Schultz
The first thing that comes to mind when you think Starbucks might not be its CEO, Howard Schultz. But this entrepreneur has been instrumental to building a brand system that reimagined the modern supply chain and customer service model. Schultz’s business model for Starbucks, right from coffee bean sourcing and supply chain management to barista training, has been centered around selling a distinctive branded experience that goes beyond the cup of coffee—echoing Warren Buffet’s “Buy the commodity, sell the brand” philosophy.
Looking at the brand internally, Schultz is responsible for building coffee shops that have come to be thought of as a consumer’s “third place” between home and office. From acquiring Starbucks in 1987, Schultz’s mission has been to preserve the authenticity—and prevent the commoditization—of the “Starbucks Experience.” But it’s no easy feat to keep your brand consistent across almost 20,000 stores in 62 countries. The Starbucks Experience is a system in itself—it is distinct from the local coffee shop, intent on reflecting the culture of the community, and operates on the same code of customer service worldwide. (I was pleasantly surprised to see the first Starbucks in my home town, Mumbai, had Indian art and furniture.) Schultz set in place a system of localizing Starbucks stores as the brand’s global reach increased—set down in his Seven Big Moves as “Expand our global presence—while making each store the heart of a local neighborhood”.
Under Schultz, the Starbucks Experience’s journey from philosophy-to-reality has become the system Starbucks uses to manage its brand worldwide. But it’s not all just good customer service—one of Schultz’s principles has been to keep all Starbucks stores company-owned and resist franchising, in order to preserve a centralized, consistent brand. It’s easier for Starbucks to create a closed-loop system this way, capturing feedback about operations and customer experience that travels up from the store level to the C-Suite. An instance of the feedback loop in action: Schultz launched a frozen-yogurt-inspired drink in 2008, but pulled the product after baristas complained that it added time to their cleaning duties.
Brand Champion Evaluation: Internal Champion Extraordinaire
Schultz is a true champion of brand advocacy from the inside out—generous employee benefits, training, and feedback response mechanisms are designed to make the brand as inclusive from within as its coffeeshops are.
A System for Centrality: Richard Branson
Richard Branson is the public face of the Virgin brand ecosystem, even when he’s trying to break world records for hot air ballooning. 65-year-old Branson has made his ageless, daredevil personality synonymous with the Virgin brand, even though he doesn’t personally lead many of Virgin’s businesses.
He has created a lifestyle around the brand that closely mirrors his own. It makes sense then, that Virgin Airlines launched as a “high quality, value for money” airline was the first to offer a customer experience that echoed Branson’s own “high life”—offering passengers chauffeur-driven airport transfers and in-flight entertainment before its contemporaries. After all, how could an airline started by the same man who owned a record label not offer its customers a fair dose of the rockstar life?
With his foray into space travel, Branson has only become more the flamboyant, risk-taking entrepreneur. While recording artists, commercial air travel, and space travel are unrelated on the surface, it is Branson’s—and, by default, the Virgin brand’s—personality that keeps things centralized.
The only risk: the sustainability of having a brand revolve around its leader’s lifestyle. “Every day that Richard gets older the issue of the Virgin brand becomes a bigger one because so much of it is tied to him,” says Jez Frampton, chief executive of Interbrand. Branson has centralized a disparate product portfolio within a single brand identity, but it’s critical that his system stay relevant outside of his personality and lifestyle.
Brand Champion Evaluation: The Brand Personality Embodied
While Branson is more of an external brand champion, his commitment to keeping his own lifestyle on-brand is admirable. He has succeeded in uniting products ranging from technology to transport under his system of brand centrality—what remains to be seen is how sustainable this will be over time.
The Bottom Line: There’s No Formula
What Starbucks, Tesla, Virgin, and other iconic brands have going for them is more than just a visible leader. They have successfully created cultural associations around elements of their brand and its products. But having a recognizable—and human—face has contributed to their brand salience. There’s no formula for being a strong brand champion, but for aspiring brand leaders, it’s crucial to strike a balance between fostering internal brand advocacy as well as external brand visibility.