When Steve Jobs died this week an immediate concern was, “Can Apple be the same innovative company without him?” It’s because the man had become the brand. For Apple, this was a good thing. But for some companies, being so closely associated with their top man has not always been ideal.
A century ago, John D. Rockefeller, head of Standard Oil, was so hated for his monopolistic and callous ways, that he hired one of the fathers of modern public relations, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, to tell him how to change his image and with it, public perceptions of his businesses. Henry Ford was highly successful and respected but put his company at risk when it was revealed that he supported Adolf Hitler, and subsequently for decades there were thousands of people who wouldn’t by a Ford. Conversely, Ford’s friend Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors ever known, could do no wrong. The public revered him and his companies benefited by his popularity.
In my lifetime, hundreds of CEOs and founders have become TV pitchmen for the products that bear their names. The late Tom Carvel, Frank Purdue and Orville Redenbacher, for example, created well-known products which the public, by design, closely identified with them. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Bill Gates’ Microsoft are more current examples of how closely companies can become associated with their founders. In many circles, Murdoch’s media power has become a liability for his firm. Gates might have had a similar fate to Rockefeller until he also began sharing most of his wealth with those less fortunate, thereby making his unimaginable success more palatable to the public.
My guess is that innovation won’t stop at Apple. But I doubt that anyone else will rise to actually become the Apple brand. Few have done it–and done it so successfully–as Steve Jobs. Your thoughts?