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CEOs struggle to keep the brand alive

“Carly Fiorina has taken a brand that was growing steadily and cast it into chaos – for no good reason, as the [Compaq merger] deal, while it may be good, was not communicated in a clear and articulate manner, leading to the current negative perceptions,” claims an anonymous survey respondent.

As if Santa Clara, California-based HP’s (Hewlett-Packard) embattled CEO didn’t have enough to deal with regarding the Compaq merger, a survey has pegged Fiorina as the CEO to drag a corporate brand down furthest, while HP itself tops the list as the worst maintained IT brand.

Entitled The Bruised and Battered Brands Poll 2001, the survey comes at a time when a sour economy has encouraged the so-called “flight to brand quality” by IT management. Yet according to the 700 marketing executives polled across 17 countries, that doesn’t mean an equal rise in brand image.

In fact, the survey’s authors call this the IT industry’s “biggest brand recession ever.” Those authors are San Jose-based brand marketing firm Liquid Agency, marketing and communications company Neale-May & Partners in Palo Alto, California, and consulting firm The Sausalito Group, based in Sausalito, California Cooperating partners include InfoWorld Media Group, the American Marketing Association, Technology Marketing Magazine, @d:tech Conference, and GlobalFluency.

Thick with negative comments about the industry’s leading CEOs, the survey reports that 80% of marketing respondents “strongly agree” that the industry downturn has hurt technology brands. And perhaps not surprisingly, public relations strategies were identified as the best way to recover brand image for battered high tech companies.

When it comes to evaluating CEO performance, marketing executives believe trust is the key metric for success, followed by “market insight”, “vision” and “demonstrated leadership”, the survey says.

Leading the list of Top 10 CEOs that did the most to damage their company’s brands are: HP’s Fiorina, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. But interestingly enough, marketing executives appear polarised over the CEOs who best sustained their brand. The top three in this camp are Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Michael Dell (see full Top 10 listings below).

Meanwhile, Gates, Ellison and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Dell, Michael Dell, lead the list of CEOs best personifying their brands.

According to brand specialist, Jennifer Beck, group VP and research fellow at Gartner in Boston, Massachusetts, the survey highlights the high risk associated with marketing a CEO who becomes intertwined with that company’s image.

Regarding Fiorina and HP’s poor rankings, Beck says the poor performance of a brand is not necessarily a direct reflection on that brand‘s CEO. “The battle of CEOs is not always where customers are focused,” she says.

Fiorina’s top posting is “out of proportion with actual performance,” and “primarily based on headlines,” Beck says, noting that HP will exist long after Fiorina exits the company.

“I wouldn’t say that either HP or Compaq are in chaos right now,” Beck says in defence of the respondent’s quote. “Although the lives of Carly (Fiorina) and (Michael) Capellas might be a little chaotic right now.”

HP executives were offered the opportunity to comment, but did not respond before InfoWorld‘s deadline.

Importantly, Beck says brands have assumed a higher importance in a down economy as it helps IT executives gain budget approval for IT projects. “We have data that suggests (customers) are going back to the brands they know,” she says.

Alfredo Muccino, chief creative officer at survey sponsor Liquid Agency, agreed that the technology industry is facing its biggest “brand recession”.

Brands that are damaged are going to be a risk, suffering for poorer performance,” he says. Muccino says he was surprised that so many marketing executives agreed that the economic downturn had affected the perception of their brands. “We had hoped it would not be the case,” he says. “In essence technology companies have a long way to go before they build truly sustainable brands.”

Respondents speak out
Marketing executives took advantage of the opportunity to anonymously express their opinions about leading CEOs in the survey. Regarding the strongest performing technology brands, respondents said:

“Bill Gates is aggressive, is perceived to be technology-savvy, and shows inspiration. He has a disrespect for rules and an arrogance that’s also reflected in brand.”

“Oracle is much like Larry Ellison — brash, loud and immensely optimistic — even in the face of insurmountable odds.”

“Again, Larry Ellison is like the Pope and Catholicism.”

“(Michael) Dell – he is the brand – you buy into him, so you buy into the company.”

When it comes to the most damaged brands, respondents said of CEOs:

“Carly Fiorina’s gotten plenty of press, but what is HP’s brand these days? Completely clouded.”

“Ellison hasn’t been as high profile in the tough times. He’s damaging his company as a result.”

“This is contradictory to my statement that Microsoft has maintained brand superiority, but I think Gates has become the symbol of sneaky, questionable business practices. He’s a watch your back kind of guy.”

Finally, regarding the most damaged technology company brands:

“John Chambers couldn’t foresee Cisco revenues would drop off a cliff — they don’t manufacture.”

“Is there ANYONE besides Michael Capellas and Carly Fiorina that thinks the (HP/Compaq) merger is a good idea?”

CEO, company brand rankings

Best CEOs at retaining corporate brand
1. Bill Gates, Microsoft
2. Larry Ellison, Oracle
3. Michael Dell, Dell
4. Steve Jobs, Apple
5. John Chambers, Cisco Systems
6. Lou Gerstner, IBM
7. Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard
8. Scott McNeally, Sun Microsystems
9. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft
10. Andy Grove, Intel

Worst CEOs at retaining corporate brand
1. Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard
2. Larry Ellison, Oracle
3. Bill Gates, Microsoft
4. Michael Armstrong, AT&T
5. John Chambers, Cisco
6. Michael Capellas, Compaq
7. Ellen Hancock, Exodus Communications (equal 7th)
7. John Roth, Nortel Networks (equal 7th)
8. Scott McNealy, Sun
9. Eric Schmidt, Novell
10. Lou Gerstner, IBM

Tech companies with best maintained brand value
1. Microsoft
2. IBM
3. Dell
4. Intel
5. Cisco
6. Apple
7. Oracle
8. HP
9. AOL Time Warner
10. Sony

Tech companies with worst maintained brand value
1. HP
2. Compaq
3. Cisco (equal third)
3. Lucent (equal third)
4. Sun
5. Oracle
6. Microsoft
7. Nortel
8. Gateway
9. Palm
10. Dell

Source: The Bruised and Battered Brands Poll 2001.

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