Any business founder / owner whose surname serves as their company’s brand name has a unique challenge. If (s)he’s built a successful business that relies on the efforts of its employees, the founder of an eponymous business eventually will need to address brand transition; particularly if it’s a B2B or professional services firm.
Brand transition involves shifting market perceptions of the firm away from the individual founder(s), and toward an enterprise-based brand positioning. Over time, this means moving brand perceptions away from “Smith & Company: Jack Smith’s business,” and arriving at “Smith & Company: The business that Jack Smith built.” Or better yet, eventually “Smith & Company: Who was Jack Smith, anyway?”
The brand transition strategy goal is to have a company’s stakeholders – including clients, prospects, referral sources, vendors, etc. – understand that its value proposition is based on the collective talents and experience of all the people who work there; not solely or largely on the individual whose name is on the front door.
When it comes time for a founder to sell or step out of their business, a marketplace identity that relies heavily on that individual’s personal credentials, relationships or charisma will serve to erode the brand equity they’ve worked so hard to establish. It can also reduce enterprise valuation, and handicap the near-term effectiveness of the company’s new owners; particularly when those new owners are the marginalized employees who intend to grow the business.
Ideally, and years in advance of considering their exit strategy, founders of eponymous firms will have the foresight to consider the internal and external advantages of building a strong management team and showcasing that group’s intellectual capital. This requires a founder to put the welfare of the company ahead of their desire to promote themselves. And this can often be a tough task for people with strong personalities who’ve leveraged their ego-driven determination to build a successful venture over 20 years or more.
In our experience, many company founders give little or no thought to the task of shifting market perceptions away from themselves, and have not considered the benefits of a more institutional (and scalable) brand presence. Or they will recognize the issue with very little time left in the game, and then seek to apply some quick or simplistic remedy, such as advertising, to change market perceptions.
Other than ignoring the brand transition issue altogether, company founders have two options:
Re-brand to a Generic Name: To wit: “Smith & Company is now SmiTech Consulting Group!” This can be a viable strategy for eponymous firms at any stage of their lifecycle. These initiatives involve lots of planning and moving parts, and include heavy investment in communication tactics over at least a 6-month period to re-educate stakeholders.
Even with careful planning and coordination, a portion of brand equity will be lost in any re-branding effort, because some stakeholders will never remember the connection between the old and new brand names. Over time, however, re-branding to a generic corporate name can be worth the near-term market confusion for eponymous firms.
Go Cold-Turkey: Forget about orderly brand transition. Founders looking to jump-start an initiative to build an enterprise-based brand should consider going cold turkey, simply by disengaging themselves from the marketing & sales process altogether. This can be accomplished in a discrete manner, or in a more dramatic fashion.
One company founder we worked with, for example, called in his senior team and asked them what immediate and longer-term steps they would take, with respect to business development, if he died of a heart attack that morning. (He was the company’s top rainmaker.) After assuring them that he had no medical problems, the management team spent several hours in a white board session that provided the raw material for a very effective brand transition plan that the founder endorsed and implemented with great success.
The tactics generated in that company’s “cold turkey” planning session were neither complex nor sophisticated. Instead, they were straight out of the Marketing Communications 101 playbook, and included:
- Thought leadership content based primarily on ideas of interest to clients; not related to the accomplishments of individuals at their firm;
- Sharing the spotlight across the entire organization, involving all types of editorial and public platforms;
- Reconfiguration of all public facing materials, notably the firm’s website, to reflect the collective strength of their organization;
- Internal recognition and encouragement for all employees to promote the firm.
Many notable eponymous firms have succeeded in brand transition: McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Skadden Arps, Korn Ferry, etc. The back-stories are unavailable on how those firms accomplished that goal, and whether the change was managed in orderly fashion, or was the lucky result of internal chaos.
Although we’ve not found any research on this topic, we suspect that for every brand transition success story, there are at least 10 examples of firms that have failed; not simply in terms of brand identity, but more importantly, in terms of the company’s survival. Too often, a founder’s unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of employees ensures that there will be no brand legacy when they leave the business…and sometimes in advance of that.