It’s sad to see Steve Jobs have to take leave from Apple and equally sad to see the response of industry analysts. It is always an issue with brands that become deeply identified with a strong managing personality – we see such scenarios with Microsoft, Virgin and News Corporation for example. Wise brands employ strategies to maintain the figure as a brand asset for as long as possible, while steadily decoupling them from operational roles and bringing on other management strength in depth.
Interestingly none of the examples we have spoken of have the founder’s name above the door. With new brands, I routinely advise against using the owner’s name unless there is a very strong reason. If the owner wishes to sell at some point in the future, the name may be a stumbling block. We used to see this with advertising agencies for example when ‘Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh’ have to rebrand because Myrrh leaves to set up on his own and Robinson joins them. However, many brands have survived and flourished under the owner’s name – Kellogg, Gillette and Ford spring quickly to mind.
Bill Gates pulled back from operational roles in Microsoft, but the brand still recognises his value by wheeling him out whenever there is a new product launch or the organisation needs a human persona to communicate with its public. Richard Branson is far more entangled with the Virgin brand and an expression of its values – some would argue that unlike Apple and Microsoft Virgin owns nothing special in terms of product or IPRs. Its distinguishing features lie in its brand values which are brilliantly embodied by a charismatic figurehead. From that point of view the brand may have more of an issue than the business with Branson. However there are obviously management strategies in place and we would be unlikely to see serious share-price damage when he decides to withdraw from the business.
The Apple situation is rather more difficult and is involved with the recent brand narrative. Apples early days were amazing but the business hit quite a few serious bumps in the road which coincided with the period after Jobs’s resignation in 1984. In the years following his return in 1996 the business found new direction and the last decade has been enormously successful. Not ignoring his obvious talent, the simple narrative for the brand is: ‘Apple with Jobs, good – Apple without Jobs, bad.’ Microsoft, Virgin and News Corporation don’t carry that history. How they will fare without their leaders we do not know, but we are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, analysts think they know the Apple story and are writing their own scripts.