What happens to a brand when a CEO leaves?

wells fargo

What happens to a brand when a CEO leaves?

The answer is, it depends. On the:

  • Stature of the CEO in the business community
  • Perceived influence of the CEO on the company – good or bad
  • Swiftness with which a respected replacement takes charge

The recent resignation of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf could mean one of two things for the Wells Fargo brand:

  • The company is in trouble and his resignation is symbolic of a bigger problem
  • His resignation signals Wells Fargo’s commitment to fixing what is wrong, and is therefore good news

To employees, investors and customers alike, a CEO’s resignation might result in the loss of some trust in the company, the loss of some competencies and valuable connections the CEO acquired while in office, the loss of some institutional memory, and a potentially demoralizing impact on the organization.

However, these consequences may be overridden by showing that the organization has strong principles, that it holds its executives responsible for their actions, and that it is taking steps to prevent similar problems. The departing executive takes the perceived problems of the organization with him, while the new executive starts with a provisional slate.

When our client Boeing had to let its CEO go in 2003, the action created an opportunity for Boeing to reframe its story and deliver a bigger, more positive vision for the company. By drawing attention to a broader promise and a renewed commitment, the loss of a CEO catalyzed the brand’s ascendancy.

In other cases, the CEO embodies the company brand, and his/her departure signals a major change in the brand’s promise. Virgin America is a shining example of this – while Richard Branson was not allowed to be CEO of the U.S. based airline, he was every bit the personality of that brand. The sale of the company to Alaska Airlines, and Branson’s subsequent departure from the scene, has investors and customers very worried about the future of their beloved airline. Virgin America has done its best to reassure customers through communications and consistency of experience that their brand promise is here to stay. Like Wells Fargo, time will tell if they can fulfill that promise.

Our advice to Wells Fargo in this time of transition is to commit to a new story, invest in making a renewed, valuable promise to your customers and deliver on that promise in actions, not just campaigns. Seize the opportunity to make the brand stronger, rather than just hoping this loss of confidence will be forgotten with time.

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