The relationship between brands and their founders is unique. Often the big personality of a founder is so synonymous with the brand they are building that it can be hard to tell where the brand stops and the founder starts. Founders bring energy, vision and drive. They’re able to place a burning purpose born of their experience right at its core. Founders also provide a shortcut to the brand’s personality, enabling consumers to better connect to a brand through their own persona. Think Richard Branson and Virgin, Anita Roddick and The Body Shop. It’s a powerful combination that many a non-founder-led brand simply cannot hope to match.

While a founder can be so intrinsic to the early success and growth of a brand, the reality is that all too often at some point the wheels come off the bus and founders start to drag down the very brand they have worked so hard to build. The narrative tips as founders go from visionaries seeking to change the world for the better to being insidious megalomaniacs who’ve lost the plot, or worse, unscrupulous fraudsters who’ve managed to deceive us all. What usually follows is a swift departure – WeWork’s Adam Neumann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick spring to mind – and a subsequent hit to the brand’s equity.

This throws up a really interesting challenge for brand owners of founder-led businesses. So, how do you ensure founders continue to build value for a brand and not detract from it, and is there ever an easy way to separate the two?

Simple Steps

The banking sector is a crowded market with so many players, all offering a wide range of products, and for the average consumer, the enormous choice on offer only serves to confuse, and in turn put off the decision-making process. For those willing – and able – to research their options, there are hundreds of products out there, all with different rates and different terms of access, which makes the entire process of saving money complicated. The reality is that many people simply don’t know where to start, too often resulting in them doing nothing.

Inertia is the crux of the problem and is what needs to be addressed head-on. Banks need to more clearly articulate the imperative that making a start on saving, however small, is the first step to building more financial resilience and a secure future. It’s about encouraging people to take small, frequent steps, helping them to make that move while removing the complexity of too much choice.

Perhaps it’s about offering less information and less choice but more encouragement. And perhaps it’s highlighting the opportunities and tools to divvy up money into different pots, spurring that emotional feeling that you can have different goals you are working towards, be that the utilities pot, the home renovation pot, or the holiday pot.

The complex vs the simple

The first thing to appreciate is that there is a fundamental tension at the heart of the relationship that’s central to understanding and ultimately managing it. At their core, brands benefit from having a clear and simple story behind them. The best brands stand for one thing and maintain a strict focus on this. Founders on the other hand are people, and as such are complex, multi-faceted entities. They hold their own agendas, voice their own opinions, and do things outside the control of the brand. With this stark difference comes tension, particularly when trying to build a brand that’s single-minded and coherent. The truth is, the intricate relationship between founder and brand means it is difficult to fit something that is essentially person-shaped into a brand-shaped hole.

Founder as figurehead

You would hope a gap would never open up between the brand and its founder. After all, founders should be the purest incarnation of the brand. But if it does start to happen then there’s a difficult conversation that needs to be had. It starts with getting everyone to recognise that the founder is a key component of the brand, and with that comes a responsibility to act as an ambassador for the brand.

In many ways a founder is similar to a monarch or a head of state; it’s a ceremonial role that needs to be performed and managed accordingly.

It’s tricky because it requires the humility to be able to separate the person from the role. It requires discipline and places a burden on that person, however it’s something good founders intuitively understand.

Finding a new focus

Founders by their nature tend to be serial fire-starters, it’s not uncommon for them to embark on multiple different ventures after their initial success. This presents opportunities for the brand. Bill Gates is a great example of this. After stepping away from the day-to-day running of Microsoft, alongside his then wife he created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest charitable foundation in the world. For a new generation coming through he’s increasingly known for the Foundation’s work. From a Microsoft perspective he continues to generate equity for the brand, providing an altruistic halo around them. While the fact that there’s now an ‘air gap’ between them, means they’re better able to manage any future reputational risks that might occur. It ranks as perhaps one of the most successful ‘conscious un-couplings’ between brands and founders to date.

Managing the myth

It’s not uncommon for a brand to outlive their founder. Time marches on and eventually catches up with us all. Today there are many brands that eponymously carry the names of founders long since passed, from Ford to Kellogg’s, from Selfridges to Chanel. Despite the fact that none of these people are around anymore, the struggle to manage this tension between brand and founder is still very much alive. It takes the form of efforts to control the narrative around these figures.

Successful brands are able to establish a favourable mythology around their founders, eulogising their good bits and keeping the less desirable aspects out of view. We all remember the story of Coco Chanel being the most talented young seamstress in pre-war Paris, less so her dalliances with occupying German army officers. Perhaps if we did we’d look less favourably on the brand, the fact we don’t speaks to how successful they’ve been.

In truth, as long as there are brands, there will be founders not far away, and therefore brands and their founders are inseparable. It’s a relationship that has the potential to be enormously rich and rewarding for both parties, yet there’s no denying it’s fraught with tension between the individual and the brand constantly playing out.

Ultimately, it’s a relationship that requires careful management of both people and reputation in equal measure. Only then can you ensure the future success of the brand for the benefit of all.