Branding’s Winners and Losers, from Ms. Clinton and Madonna to Monica and Mitt

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

Some people have the brand elasticity to not just survive crises but also transcend them, rising up out of the proverbial ashes newly empowered and invigorated, remaining in the spotlight because they want to be there. Whereas others simply can’t seem to bounce back, no matter how hard they try to reinvent themselves. Are some people born winners and others less likely to rise when the going gets gritty?

Consider Hillary Clinton, who went from headband-mocked presidential candidate’s wife to wronged first lady at her husband’s side after Monicagate to U.S. senator to serious contender for president (and way-paver for the female president we’ll likely see soon—maybe Hillary herself) to effective and well-regarded secretary of state whose statement of responsibility for a deadly attack in Benghazi has been hailed as a rare example of effective discourse and diplomacy during a spectacularly uncivil campaign season.

Meanwhile, Monica Lewinsky—whose role in the scandal was admittedly less innocent than Hillary’s but who deserves some sympathy for being a young girl seduced by the most powerful man on the planet—can’t seem to regain her footing, no matter how much she pivots to new ventures and personal brands. After a few years of trying to define herself as a New York handbag designer, she decamped to London, where she earned a degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science and has been trying to lie low, declining requests for interviews.

Speaking of England, Queen Elizabeth’s brand seems to be bulletproof. She has weathered some storms this year: attending her Diamond Jubilee alone when her husband, Prince Philip, was hospitalized; watching a son and a daughter-in-law get photographed in compromising circumstances. Through it all, she has held her head high and showed her ability to laugh—including at herself, as seen in her memorable entrance to the opening ceremonies of London’s Olympic Games. Likewise, Camilla has managed to rebrand herself by taking her lumps and sticking with it—with an assist from the queen, who invited her to meet in 2000.

Two other good examples are Madonna and Sean Penn, who struck some very low notes together but came out relatively unscathed and have, in fact, gone on to reinvent their brands in impressive ways. Madonna is proving that women don’t have expiration dates and can rock as hard and be as provocative at 50 as at 20. She remains the original chameleon, inspiring Lady Gaga and many others (including Britney Spears, who herself is back, with Simon Cowell as her biggest brand advocate). Penn, meanwhile, through genuine passion for helping Haiti, has rebranded himself as an effective, generous activist.

So how do these trends translate to the commercial sector? Reinvention winners share traits that can be applied to company or personal brands that could use some polishing:

  • Working hard
  • Focusing on goals
  • Turning a deaf ear to criticism
  • Pursuing meaningful achievements (Haiti, not handbags)
  • Hunkering down for the long haul
  • Staying in plain sight

And this week’s questions: After the billions spent, what will come of Mitt Romney? And how and where will David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell land? (Just between us chickens, it’s hard to imagine Broadwell as the next Monica Lewinsky.)

[photo: creativecommons.org/US Embassy New Zealand]

Be Present, Be Visible and Connect

This is the second in a series of 10 posts about different aspects of CEO branding.

People remember moments of great leadership. They treasure them, retell them and burnish them in the retelling. The best become legendary symbols loaded with meaning—reputational gold.

John F. Kennedy in blockaded Berlin delivering his 1963 “Berliner” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. invoking his dream at the Lincoln Memorial the same year, Nelson Mandela uniting a divided country to win the rugby World Cup in 1995, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading by example amid the debris of 9/11: These outstanding leaders at their best are great examples of what top business executives must do to be considered real leaders rather than just high-level managers.

Imagine if JFK had sent a subordinate to Berlin to deliver the speech, rather than flying to the front line of the beleaguered city himself and risking those famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” words in German. Imagine if MLK had just shown up and waved at the crowd rather than speaking. Imagine if Mandela had stayed up in the VIP seats rather than walking onto the field wearing the South African national jersey. Imagine if Giuliani had hightailed it away from Manhattan as quickly as possible and directed operations from a safe distance. Had those alternative scenarios played out, each man would have missed his shot at being a great leader because he would have avoided one or more of the three musts of great leadership: Be present, be visible and connect.

People understand that leaders have a lot of claims on their time and can’t be everywhere at once. That’s why it means a lot to them if a leader takes the time and trouble to be physically present at important moments—especially if the moment is unscheduled.

Still, even being physically present might not count for much if the leader is not visible. Seeing is believing; people wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of someone they admire so that they can say—and feel—“I saw him [or her] with my own eyes.”

The “connect” imperative is not only the biggest challenge of the three, but it’s also the one that makes the biggest difference. As in the four examples above, leaders connect when they demonstrate in words and actions that they identify with people and that they understand what’s important to them—their struggles, their fears, their hopes and their aspirations. It’s challenging because there is always a risk of getting it wrong and coming across as out of touch (as Mitt Romney did with his NASCAR comment), but a leader who isn’t willing to take that sort of risk is not a leader.

Sometimes natural leaders just emerge from a situation that calls for leadership, as happened in Egypt with Google executive Wael Ghonim, but that’s mostly unpredictable. What is predictable is that if you have an official leadership role, you will be expected to step up and lead; anyone in business whose job title starts with “chief” needs to be ready, willing and able to do it. Very few business leaders will have to deal with moments of great historical resonance like those above, but most will have to deal with moments that are very significant for their employees. Whether they’re highs or lows, the same imperatives apply: Be present, be visible and connect.

I should also add a fourth imperative that underlies the other three: Be prepared. If you’re in a leadership position, you should assume that all eyes are on you; if they’re not, you’re doing something wrong. Assume that employees and observers will track everything you do and say and will come up with their own interpretations of what it all means. Check out the Internet in general and social media in particular to pick up the feedback.

If you’re away on vacation when staff cuts are announced, for instance, people will conclude that you are too spineless when the going gets tough. If you can’t be found when there’s a serious workplace accident, people will think you are heartless and don’t care about the well-being of your employees. If you speak but don’t connect with the audience, people will dismiss you as clueless.

In Jim Stengel’s C-suite manual, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, he outlines the importance of having a “brand ideal,” a company’s shared goal of improving people’s lives.

As Stengel, the former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble, puts it: “The business case for brand ideals is not about altruism or corporate social responsibility. It’s about expressing a business’ fundamental reason for being and powering its growth. It’s about linking and leveraging the behaviors of all the people important to a business’ future, because nothing unites and motivates people’s actions as strongly as ideals.”

Being present, being visible and connecting do not just create a blueprint for dealing with moments of drama; they also underscore how a leader can most effectively communicate the ideals of the business and what the brand stands for daily. Embodying those ideals, great leaders elevate their everyday routine to something much more meaningful.

[photo: creativecommons.org/DouglasDuffield]