Likable Leaders Help Build Strong Brands

A picture of Apple CEO Tim Cook giving a talk with the Apple logo behind him
Tim Cook, aka ‘Tim Apple’ as our brand-savvy former president called him in a stroke of idiot-genius.

People like to ascribe human-like qualities to brands, because it makes it easier for people to understand and relate to the brand on a human level. People identify with brands the same way that they affiliate with people they like and groups they want to be part of, and the greater that affinity, the more more they identify with the values and the attributes that brand projects into the world.

Leaders of a company or organization can personify a brand by embodying its core values and qualities, and reinforcing the narrative and position they want to occupy. A likable leader does this in a constructive way by acting as an exponent for the brand, relating well to its key publics, and behaving in a way that builds trust and credibility with those customers and stakeholders.

A likable leader is a valuable brand asset because it can help create a shield of goodwill for when the brand comes into criticism. Compare Apple and Facebook; following the legendary reign of the brilliant but abrasive Steve Jobs, his successor Tim Cook projects a steady and approachable image that is still congruous with the reliable and user-friendly Apple brand. In recent years, Cook has forcefully communicated that Apple prioritizes the privacy of their users in direct (and less-direct) criticism of other technology platforms. By being seen both as reasonable and friendly while advocating for users, Cook builds credibility and trust that pays off later- whether it’s a single customer with a bad experience who decides to give them another chance, or when they have a major public relations issue liked Antennagate, accusations of anticompetitive behavior, or controversial labor practices. The public trust does not give them immunity but it certainly fortifies them.

By contrast, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has not cultivated the same kind of relationship with the users of his platform, most likely because he sees Facebook’s advertisers as his true customers- and at the end of the day, they are. As their business model that leverages personal data to generate advertising-based revenue comes under increasing criticism, as more of their users realize they themselves are the product, and as the company comes under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum, the public is not rushing to their defense.

A likable leader doesn’t have to be the president or CEO. In my own sector, higher education, high-profile faculty, coaches, prominent student-athletes, well-known alumni, all can help humanize the brand of an institution.

But because organizations leaders are such a focal point of public communication and conversation, many will look to that person for their cues as to how they should feel about the brand and whether they can trust it.

A likable leader is not a required ingredient of a strong brand, but it is a proven way for a brand to build up lasting equity that can help them weather adversity when it comes inevitably from one direction or another. A brand that doesn’t employ a likable leader to relate well to its key publics may be seen as a faceless corporation and will be an easy target for criticism or customer ire when things don’t go well. And that can be just as risky for your brand as having an unlikable leader.

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter with college students
Papa John’s founder John Schnatter with college students
Greasy ingredients. Greasy pizza. Papa John’s.

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