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What is a Chief Brand Officer?

Building a tribe around your brand requires a chief brand officer. Sure your CMO can broadcast your message, but the planning of the company’s image and direction is not in a CMO’s wheelhouse. Crafting and reinforcing your story and design requires a new or repositioned role focused solely around how the brand grows.

Branding Upstream: C-Level Brand Ownership

Marketing exists to communicate messages and ideas to a wide audience. A Chief Marketing Officer can craft a strategy to spread a brand’s message across the country or around the world. While CMOs are well-equipped to propagate ideas, it is beyond the scope of the marketer to decide what these ideas should be.

That’s where the Chief Brand Officer (CBO) comes in. A CBO is required to sit beside the CMO to oversee the cultivation of a coherent brand story and corresponding design vocabulary. This key executive presence provides a unifying force and singular focus to both the marketing department and the company or organization at large. Spreading a brand’s message is about delivering authentic brand experiences.

Branding Consistently: Does United Airlines Do it?

Some companies get this right, and others don’t. Profitable as the airline industry is, it’s been under attack from many sides. Without a CBO to develop and manage an airline’s brand story at a high level, individual marketing messages can be disparate and even counter-productive. For example, certain brand promises marketers make may be contradicted by other departments. United Airlines’ marketing might assure customers the company is Connecting People and Uniting the World, but spreading this story isn’t relevant when United’s customer service scores dismally on consumer affairs, or the embattled CEO resigns amidst a corruption scandal. The next CEO began his tenure with an apology, and has had a bumpy ride since. Indeed, fed up customers dedicated a website called to share their actual experiences of the brand and expose the glaring holes in United’s customer service. Rather than taking the opportunity to connect and unite, the airline sued the site and took it down. American Airlines, no stranger to scandal, has made similar miscalculations. First the company dropped its iconic logo designed by Massimo Vignelli for a sterile corporate “update." To paraphrase Vignelli, companies without a sense of history don’t understand brand equity and will often make change for the sake of change. More recently American’s 2016 ad campaign, “The world's greatest flyers fly American,” which featured lines like “They like babies, but bring noise canceling headphones. They know their mood contributes to the mood of the flight. They always ask before they raise and lower the window shade.” The campaign was pilloried for passive aggressively putting the onus for pleasant travel onto customers. It’s a long way from the American Airlines of the 1980s, which boasted low fares and high standards.

Branding Authentically: JetBlue did it!

In contrast to United and American, JetBlue built a brand based on reputation not dictation. The airline made a big splash by being brand-centric, revolving around its brand values, and using social media to connect with its customers. This experience was felt on planes, in airports, and even at HQ. JetBlue’s initial success was best be summarized by Laurie Meacham, Customer Service Executive: “We’re a customer service company that just happens to fly planes.” This spirit translated naturally throughout JetBlue’s various channels.

Southwest also gets the brand right by protecting flyer perks to keep fanatically loyal fans — and outspends other airlines in advertising to achieve this positioning. In contrast, JetBlue puts two-thirds of its advertising budget to digital marketing, and only does local TV advertising, as it’s not a national brand. “The beauty of digital is it is made for test and target,” St. George says. “The whole concept is you throw it all out there. You make the best media plan you can come up with.”

Still, a brand must be constantly nurtured, which is why having a clear focus on nurturing the brand—ideally through an empowered CBO—is so critical. JetBlue enjoyed a halo effect, but it didn’t last. JetBlue started to lose its way after customer-focused CEO Dave Barger stepped down and new CEO Robin Hayes started making changes that pleased Wall Street. In 2015, JetBlue decided to get back to basics and returned the reigns to EVP, Commercial and Planning Marty St. George. He said, “The most important thing we can do is have a great customer experience. There is no better advertising than when people walk off an airplane and say ‘it’s great.’” The result? Customers are back to rating JetBlue as one of the best, along with Southwest and Alaska Airlines.

CBO’s and Branding by Example: Uber, WWE, and more…

Fortune 100 companies are already embracing the cohesive energy that a C-suite brand owner can bring. After a slew of brand fails, including employee allegations of rampant sexual harassment, the viral #deleteUber campaign, concern over treatment of drivers, and a video of CEO Travis Kalanick yelling at one, Uber recruited Bozoma Saint John away from Apple to be their CBO. Her task was daunting: as the Financial Times put it, it was “ try to get people to love a business that has become synonymous with the worst excesses of Silicon Valley culture.” While St. John left Uber after just one year, during her tenure as CBO, Saint John focused on the human connection to compliment a wider effort at shifting the culture. As part of that, she started driving an Uber Pool herself. Not long ago, Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CBO Stephanie McMahon revolutionized the brand by embodying it entirely (she also plays a character in the WWE universe). McMahon’s “lead by example” approach instilled a culture of authentic fan interaction throughout the organization.

One domain of brand communications ripe with possibility as well as danger for CBOs and CMOs is social media. Jon Oliver consistently pillories brands with a tone-deaf social voice, a failure that often springs from a lack of attention paid to their audience. CBOs look at the bigger picture, know their brands, understand their customers ,and smartly and consistently interact in the social ecosystem. McMahon cautions her WWE stars that “anything you put out on social media, you should assume it has the reach of a national television program. My number one don’t drink and tweet.” Most social mistakes spring from a lack of self-awareness about what a brand has the authority to speak about: the domain of the CBO and CMO.

Brand Takeaway: Branding as an Obsession

Brands are more decentralized than ever, the brand ecosystem is more complex, and a CBO can elevate consumer insights from leading the living brand presence to drive the business forward. The true role of the CBO is not to dictate a brand to consumers, rather it is to create the values that earn brands real, lasting reputations. A great CBO, above all else, creates a unified culture that ensures that all of an organization’s wide-ranging efforts are inspired by consumers’ real feedback, and aligned with the core brand story, design, and beliefs. Your CMO can broadcast your message, but building a tribe around your brand requires a CBO. Take a page from most Fortune 100 companies: hire a CBO now.


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