The news that Steve Jobs has resigned from Apple and will be replaced as CEO by Tim Cook made global headlines today (Thursday).
What has followed since has been a frenzied discussion of what the loss of Jobs will mean for new product development timelines, share price issues and corporate culture. But the real question for Apple as it enters its post Jobs period is how well the brand will survive without the founder.
It’s a little known fact that the word ’brand’ derives not from Latin or Greek but from the old Norse word for fire – brandr. Our concept of branding originates with the early Viking activity of branding the mark of the creator into their weapons and their cattle. In the two millennia since the first Viking burned his mark onto his wares, very little has changed in the dynamics of branding. For there to be a brand of any strength, there is almost always a founder. One feeds the other in an almost biological relationship.
Because they have the brand in their bones, when a founder like Jobs runs their own brand it can confer astonishing strategic advantages. Time and again, they instinctively and instantly make the right decisions. Founders also enjoy an almost preternatural gift for seeing the future and the place that their brand should adopt within it. They also often lead their organisations with the kind of vigour and charisma guaranteed to build the employer brand.
And perhaps best of all, they are a walking brand-centric source of free marketing communications. The most powerful form of marketing communication occurs when a founder talks about their business. Suddenly consumers listen. Even more amazing, they believe. Every time Steve Jobs has mounted the stage to announce a new Apple product the communication has been magnified and intensified as a result. There is no purer or more powerful force than when the founder who started the company, talks to consumers.
Such is their power, that when the founder finally departs, dies or retires many brands struggle to retain their trajectory. A fact will be reflected in the expected drop in Apple’s share price over the next few days as the market digests the news that Apple’s founder has left the building. And the market may be right. There is a long and very depressing series of case studies that exemplify what happens when some brands lose their founder and then stumble into the vacuum that emerges as a result. When Dior lost Christian Dior in 1957 in sudden tragic circumstances the impact took decades to rectify. When Howard Schultz retired at Starbucks the company suddenly fell from grace.
All is not lost, however. There are many cases where a founder returns to their failing brand and resurrects it. Steve Jobs did it against all the odds in 1997, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel did it in 1963 and at the age of 70 and more recently Howard Schultz waltzed back into a seemingly doomed Starbucks and took less than a year to turn around the brand that he first built two decades earlier. And then there is Google which only recently re-appointed one of its founders back into the big chair.
Back in April Google shocked the markets by announcing that the ten-year reign of chief executive Eric Schmidt would end. Schmidt stepped aside and allowed Larry Page, one of Google’s co-founders, to replace him. Schmidt certainly proved to be a safe pair of hands but there had been whispers for some time that Google needed to return to the hands that formed it.
Both Page and co-founder Sergey Brin were uncomfortable with Google’s commercially savvy but brand inconsistent decision to alter search results in accordance with the requests of the Chinese government. There was also increasing alarm at Google’s inability to monetise anything other than search advertising and a growing frustration born from competing with faster, founder-run brands like Apple and Facebook. Finally, Google was also beginning to lose the war for talent as many of its best engineers left the company for sexier destinations.
Brands can and do succeed after the inevitable departure of their founder. But it can take time to regain the momentum and in, severe, cases the brand never quite recaptures the glory of its initial founder driven period. Even after death brands like Walmart and Chanel have venerated their founders to almost saint like status and used their sayings and strategies as guidance for the future.
The power of founders is a clear and recurring feature of any brands long term success. Its the reason why Starbucks is now on track again to exceed all business expectations. It’s the explanation why Chanel’s brand goes from strength to strength. It’s also the main reason why most analysts continue to have high hopes for continued success at Google.
And it’s the reason Apple will miss Steve so very, very much.