4 CEOs Show Their Chops in Leading Brand Refinement, Redefinition

Thus Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, Hershey CEO John Bilbrey, Cadillac CEO Johan de Nysschen and Penn Mutual CEO Eileen McDonnell are heavily involved in the process of sharpening and repositioning their companies and brands for today’s challenges and opportunities.

For life insurer Penn Mutual, for example, McDonnell has seen her role over the last few years as creating a tighter focus on the domestic market while other insurers have sought new business abroad; supporting its traditional network of advisors; and reaching out more to women customers with a product that historically has been male-dominated.

“We have almost universal name recognition, but the brand itself hasn’t kept up to the degree to which our business has evolved.”

“We have grown into a well-recognized brand for having great relationships and supporting advisors on behalf of clients,” McDonnell told CEO Briefing. “We also are focused keenly in our strategic plan on the demographic shift in the United States—on the growing influence of women as financial consumers, as well as other demographics that have been underserved, including veterans and millennials.”

To that end, McDonnell herself has helped spearhead initiatives such as the creation of a program called My Worth to help women evaluate their unique financial-planning needs, and a marketing initiative around rugby, a rising sport favored by millennials.

De Nysschen has been leading a very disruptive breakup of the Cadillac brand from the rest of General Motors since he took the helm of the luxury marquee last year, after coming over from Infiniti, where he had launched a brand overhaul, and Audi, where he completed one.

The new Cadillac chief ordered the physical relocation of Cadillac’s headquarters to New York from Detroit in large part to break the old mindset of a brand that, while now producing cars and trucks worthy of competing with the German category leaders in quality and technology, was being held back by traditional industry-think in the Motor City.

“We are very proud of our Detroit roots and heritage, and the majority of the Cadillac workforce will remain in Michigan,” de Nysschen said in GM’s statement announcing the move that he coordinated with Cadillac CMO Uwe Ellinghaus, who also has been transformational for the brand. “But there is no city in the world where the inhabitants are more immersed in a premium lifestyle than in New York.”

The company said in the release that the “realignment confirms Cadillac’s importance to GM’s strategy. Creating a new Cadillac business unit enables it to pursue growing opportunities in the luxury automotive market with more focus and clarity.”

For Burns, a major part of her role was to hire John Kennedy as Xerox’s new CMO last year, bringing him over from a top marketing job at IBM. Xerox’ CEO wanted to accelerate the redefinition of the old “copier company” into a new brand that emphasizes how it has become a major provider of business services, which now make up nearly two-thirds of its $19.5 billion in annual revenue.

Xerox’s recently launched advertising campaign was the first major brand statement since Burns hired Kennedy. With the tag line “Work Can Be Better,” the new ads depict a CEO who is bombarded with technology jargon such as “Internet of Things” and “cloud” and “virtual reality” and turns to Xerox to help him sort through what it all means and how to harness it.

“We have almost universal name recognition, but the brand itself hasn’t kept up to the degree to which our business has evolved,” Kennedy told CEO Briefing. “We’re one of the leading companies in business process services, and it’s the lion’s share of our revenue now.”

At Hershey, Bilbrey has been leading a transformation of the company from a guiltless provider of iconic, indulgent treats to one that is adjusting heavily to a new era in which more consumers look askance at such products. So he has been emphasizing better-for-you products through acquisitions such as Krave, the beef-jerky company, and Brookside, maker of fruit-and-nut bars. He also has been emphasizing corporate responsibility through Hershey’s efforts to make everything from its ingredient lists to its supply chain as transparent as possible.

Yet under Bilbrey, the chocolate giant hasn’t abandoned its primary brand identification—a challenging balancing act. “It’s about being really clear with the consumer what we are and what role we aspire to play in their lives,” Peter Horst, the new CMO for Hershey, told CEO Briefing. “We make no bones about the fact that we’re in the confection business, and that a chocolate bar is a treat—not masquerading as a core food staple, and not presenting it as anything other than what it is. There’s a place for treats, and that’s perfectly fine.”

By recognizing the importance of modernizing or redefining the brand essence of their companies, these four CEOs have demonstrated one of the most important characteristics of corporate leaders in the modern era.

 

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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