“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.
“It’s imperative for us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” says Glantz. “If in some small, intangible way I can play a role, then at some point that small intangible occasionally will drive theater guests to us instead of others.”
Be authentic: While usually amateurish and sometimes annoying, car dealers starring in their own local TV ads nevertheless have always comprised “one of the best examples of CEO connectivity on an authentic basis,” says Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice for A.T. Kearney consultants in Chicago.
Louie Gentine is the second CEO to star in national TV ads for Sargento, the Plymouth, Wisconsin-based, family-owned cheesemaker, following in the footsteps of his father, Lou Gentine. The latest Sargento campaign emphasizes family ownership with a timeline and old photos.
“Authenticity always matters, and when you see Lou and I in the commercials, that’s pretty much how everyone at the company sees us every day,” Gentine says. “And we’ve got recent market research which shows that people associate Sargento with being a family-owned company more than any other cheese brand. That makes an instant connection.”
Make it entertaining: Glantz has dressed up as a Jedi knight for videos that have run before Star Wars sequels and more recently as a baby shark, after the popular Internet meme. Ghilani says he gets “passionate and theatrical in providing what otherwise seems like boring information—but is extremely exciting to our company and hopefully our clients.”
Sandberg says Brembo’s “challenge is in making our podcasts entertaining. You want to find a human angle, maybe talking about employees. It doesn’t have to be about brakes. Sometimes we add a co-host. The key is that you can still market your product but you must have that human connection and entertainment value.”
Don’t expect to like it: Often CEOs are busy running companies and must be talked into “going Hollywood” by their marketing folks. CEO Alessandro DiNello was hesitant to star in a TV ad for Flagstar, the Troy, Michigan-based regional bank holding company. Flagstar had signed an endorsement deal with Blake Griffin, a pro-basketball star traded to the Detroit Pistons in 2017, and marketers wanted to pair Griffin’s life-long ascension in the sport with DiNello’s own rise from accounting student to the spearhead of an impressive corporate turnaround.
“They thought this would resonate most with the public,” says DiNello. “They said you’ve got to take one for the team here. I was a reluctant participant because it’s just not my style.” He did it anyway.
Domino’s CEO Ritch Allison was chagrined by the demands when he starred for the first time in one of the company’s national TV ads, early this year. “It’s surprising how many people it takes and how long it takes,” he says. “I shot for three hours.”
The time-crunch for podcasts is much lower. Sandberg has a production-quality microphone installed in his home office. And Walters says, “For each 15-minute podcast, I have maybe an hour or an hour and a half into it. It’s even quicker if I’ve got a guest.”
Prepare for the results: After they see his vignettes, Glantz finds Emagine patrons seeking him out via email to discuss his in-cinema ads and other topics. “I don’t invite them, but they find me,” he says. “I’m not hiding from anyone.”
But sometimes marketing that features CEOs can turn bad quickly, and catastrophically, in an era of instant communications and hyper-intensive public reactions. “You want to provide a bit of creativity in the business environment but not mess up a huge brand,” Portell says. “When celebrity CEOs were on the rise, you could control the messaging. But now the access points are 360 [degrees], so when a CEO does something bad, everyone is going to see it.”
In other words, don’t expect to hear “Hi, I’m Mark Zuckerberg…” anytime soon.