Brand Champions Could Make Or Break A Brand

If you were asked to name three brand names which can directly be linked to an individual, what brand and who might the person be? Could it be LV to Louis Vuitton, JP Morgan to JP Morgan, Air Asia to Tony Fernandes or anything else? These individuals are the brand champions of their respective brands or companies. Very often, we may even know the person more than the brand.

The brand name might be named after the founder or might just be an abstract brand like Apple. Last year, we lost an important person in our lives. It was the person whom has changed the way we work, play and interact – Steve Jobs who was the person behind the innovation of iMac, iPhone and iPad. Will we see more innovations from Apple after his departure? Despite having Tim Cook as Apple’s new CEO, the share price of Apple dropped when Jobs announced his resignation as the CEO last year. The launch of iPhone 4S by Tim Cook got many fans disappointed as well. The personal brand of Jobs as the brand champion of Apple was so strong that many associated him as the soul and energy of Apple. Both consumers and investor had undisputed confidence when Jobs is around.

What Happens Now?

Personally, I have confidence that Apple will continue to do well and surprise us with more innovative products. This is because Jobs’ visions and values had been Institutionalized into Apple’s corporate culture.

What about the scene in Malaysia? Let’s talk about Air Asia and Limkokwing University and a little of the company I previously worked in, SKALI. Tan Sri Dr. Tony Fernandes – the guy with the signature red cap whenever he attends any social and official functions. Since year 2001, he has turned the company around, appeared in countless media coverage, spoken at international conferences and sometimes, we see him more often than our government ministers. When ‘Air Asia’ is mentioned, it is associated with either ‘Now Everyone Can Fly’ or ‘Tony Fernandes’. When we see him, we see Air Asia. It is not because of his red cap but the identity and personality that have been created to represent Air Asia. Fernandes’ popularity has definitely added value to the Air Asia Brand. Although he has ventured into other businesses, everyone still links them to Air Asia.

Limkokwing University – What or who can you associate the brand with? Definitely the founder himself, Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Dr Lim Kok Wing, the color black and creativity – or at least that is how I see it. Many Chinese businessman in the SME industry use their own names as their brand names. Very often, we will immediately associate these brands as “very Cina” (very Chinese-oriented/minded) in their way of operating and thinking. What about the Limkokwing brand? Very Cina? Definitely not!

I was recently invited to be a part of the evaluation team for the Brand Excellence Award under Ministry of International Trade and Industry and one of the nominees for the Award was LimKokWing University. During the visit to the university, I could experience the brand’s beliefs, culture, identity and creativity, through the tours around vicinity and the words spoken by the management staffs and students. I could truly feel that the brand was deeply associated with Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Dr Lim and I could not help but ask “What will Limkokwing University be without him?” As expected, the management explained that all his philosophies, visions and values have been instilled into the management practice and education syllabus – which is probably why its brand is so strong.

Lastly, I would like to share my experience in SKALI, when I was heading the strategic marketing department branding SKALI to be the top local e-business specialist. Not many people are familiar with SKALI but those in the IT industry would know SKALI and its founder YM Tengku Farith. He was a very active IT entrepreneur who spoke in many seminars and conferences and appeared in numerous media too; which made him a very recognizable and reputable personality.

It got to the point that whenever a staff introduced himself (to an outsider) as “I’m from SKALI’, the immediate response received would be “Oh! Tengku Farith!?” Then, the press started insisting that they will only interview Tengku Farith and nobody else. We realized that the association had became too strong so we took immediate measures to reduce his public appearance and selected spokespersons to talk about different matters. Fortunately, those steps worked and the market realized that SKALI was more than just Tengku Farith.

The popularity of brand champion is good but it needs to be managed. A strong brand must be sustainable even in the absence of the brand champion. All the stakeholders need to know that things will not change should the key person be gone. A company which intends to be a global and sustainable brand must own the brand as the company; the brand must not be owned just by the found or brand champion despite their vital roles in promoting it. If you are the owner and your personal branding is stronger than your company brand, it is time to balance them. It will do your company good and you can retire with a peace of mind without adverse effects on your company.

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