The effect of CEO apparel on corporate brand

Sunday, 13 March 2011 19:52

In previous articles we've taken a good look at employee and internal branding. In The Employee Value Proposition (EVP) we examined the way great brands are built and sustained by motivated and committed employees who understand and embody the organisation's vision, values and behaviours. In Employee Branding we looked at employee branding generally, as well as the specific benefits that a strongly branded company brings to itself in relation to employee attraction and retention.

In this context we want to look at the the upward trend of CEOs dressing down, and the brand messages that conveys.

The dress of any member of a company will convey something about the brand that they embody, whether it's 'on brand' or 'off brand.' But the outward appearance of a CEO conveys a particularly strong message about that businesses brand. Many of the CEOs wearing non-descript clothing are broadcasting strong branding messages about their company.

On a recent tour of Chrysler's assembly plant, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne wore a black sweater and a checked oxford shirt. He was spotted later that week in the exact same outfit at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. That Saturday night at a prize award function, he was again sporting the same outfit.

Commenting on Marchionne's dress sense, Cristiano Carlutti (previous head of Fiat's used cars division) said, "the message he wanted to pass is [that by] not wearing a tie, not wearing a suit, means we are more flexible and what really matters is not the uniform but something else."

Marchionne is successfully projecting Fiat as a lean, reliable company that can quickly turn around new products. He has said that he is trying to have the company benchmarked against brands like Apple. In this case informality (and associations of accessibility, conversation with their audience, and honesty) is a large part of that. Before Marchionne joined the board, Fiat was a very formal company, and Marchionne has been determined to break this formality, by dressing casually as well as with a new approach to office culture, such as replacing solid office doors with glass.

Marchionne isn't the only high profile CEO wearing the same bare bones outfit day in and day out.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie and sneakers. His hoodie represents youthfulness, and ties in well with the social utility that is Facebook. Andrea Jung, chief executive of Avon Products likes to stick with sleeveless (usually red) sheaths and pearls. Steve Jobs of Apple famously wears his New Balance sneakers, Levi's and black mock turtlenecks, while Oracle's CEO Lawrence J. Ellison, feels comfortable 24/7 in a black mock turtleneck, frequently topped with a blazer.

Steve Jobs uses his non-descript clothing to push the emphasis away from individuality, and to promote the collective approach of Apple. His bare bones attire turns the spotlight away from him and back onto the product. Talking about the messages that Steve Jobs wanted to convey when retuning to Apple as CEO, former Apple marketing executive Steve Chazin said, "he didn't want any individual to kind of overshadow the brand, and that includes him."

These CEOs have all discovered the power of dressing down. Not just on casual Fridays, but throughout the entire week. In some quarters the bare bones personal uniform is the new power suit.

We always knew the CEO was essentially the summmarised embodiment of an organisation's brand. Perhaps however we didn't realize the subtlety around the CEO simply modifying his/her dress code and the impact this can also have in conveying important elements of the brand. These messages have a strong impact not only in presenting the brand to external audiences - perhaps more importantly they also impact how the organisation is understood internally.