The setting: A dark, computer-generated backdrop, swirling with what seem to be shards of glass. Low-key electronic music rises. A heavyset man in a suit is sitting there, arms crossed. Cue the voice over:
“I’m Patrick Ghilani, CEO of MRI Software,” he says. Cut to Ghilani, now against a white background. He speaks directly to the camera: “MRI Software provides solutions for those who operate, invest and manage large-scale real estate,” he says, deliberately enunciating each and every syllable. “What our solutions do is allow these people to better enable how their clients live, work and play in the communities that they build.”
More than 35 years after Lee Iacocca stared into a TV camera and challenged America to buy a K-car (“If you can find a better car, buy it”), a whole new generation of CEOs is rediscovering the power of personality in building their brand.
Changes in technology make it cheaper than ever to harness Internet channels and expand this time-honored marketing method with podcasts, blogs and YouTube videos featuring company owners.
Ghilani is headlining online marketing videos, hosting podcasts and leading the annual users’ conference. He is appealing to business-to-business customers for Cleveland-based MRI’s real estate software—not trying to conjure thousands of dollars out of the pockets of ordinary American consumers. And MRI is only a nine-figure relative small fry, not a multi-billion-dollar giant.
“The reality boils down to why would consumers, buyers and clients really be intrigued by seeing the leader up there?” says Ghilani. “It’s got to boil down to the leader’s ability to generate trust, confidence and transparency.”
CEO Mike Walters began anchoring podcasts for USA Financial, aimed at recruiting advisors to the Ada, Michigan-based company by covering topics such as how to deal with new financial-industry regulations. “It’s a good way to incubate them and move them along, especially if they’re wanting to just dip their toe in the water and don’t want to fully engage with our team yet,” Walters says. “Now we’re running [that] about 18 months after an advisor first listens to my podcast, they typically start doing business with our firm.”
Dan Sandberg grew up in the radio business and now finds his vocal talent handy as the host of podcasts for Brembo North America, which makes performance brakes. For several years, the CEO of the U.S. arm of the Italian manufacturer recorded podcasts for internal consumption only, featuring interviews with intriguing guests such as race car drivers.
But word-of-mouth spread via social media, enticing the company into creating a series of 35- to 45-minute “Brembo Red” podcasts—named for the its distinctively red brake calipers—available to all on iTunes. “We felt we could upgrade our [guests] and even include some customers if we went public,” Sandberg says.
David MacNeil has taken this art form all the way to the ultimate marketing stage: the Super Bowl. He started out several years ago appearing in marketing videos for his company, WeatherTech, which makes customized automotive floor mats and other aftermarket products in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Starting in 2014, MacNeil made his story of made-in-America manufacturing the centerpiece of annual Big Game TV ads, initially with an actor playing MacNeil. He soon stepped in himself.
“I thought it was important to let our customers know that the belief in American manufacturing, American workers and using American suppliers was important to me as the company owner,” MacNeil says. “It has resonated, and once you put yourself out there as a ‘front man,’ I think it needs to be reinforced. I still do some voiceovers for our radio spots and even had a cameo in our last Super Bowl spot.”
Want to give it a try? Here are a few tips from CEOs who’ve done it:
Find captive audiences: Starring in various video forms besides TV, for audiences that are essentially closed-circuit crowds, is a relatively new twist on the CEO-as-star phenomenon. For about 10 years, Paul Glantz, CEO of Emagine Entertainment, has starred in pre-movie, turn-off-your-cell-phones videos on the silver screens of the 13 theater complexes owned by his Troy, Michigan-based company.