Executive Insights | May 2011 | By Robin Van Tan

Are CEOs Required to be Celebrities?

Big name executives have created a new prototype for CEOs. But this kind of celebrity might not be ideal for quick-serve execs.

Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, on NBC's "America's Next Great Restaurant."
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You’ve heard of celebrity chefs entering the quick-service industry, but celebrity CEOs? Soon, they might be just as common. Take Chipotle’s Steve Ells, for example.

Ells wasn’t exactly an unknown before March 6. But when America’s Next Great Restaurant premiered on NBC that night to the tune of more than 4.5 million viewers, he became a lot more visible. Ells is one of the show’s four judges, along with Food Network star Bobby Flay, cooking show veteran Curtis Stone, and renowned chef Lorena Garcia. Together, they were given the task of determining which of the 21 finalists from across the country would get to make their fast-casual restaurant dreams a reality.

In an era when CEOs such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg are quickly becoming the new prototype for top executives, it was only a matter of time before CEOs in other industries started to gain public figure status—or, in Ells’ case, reality TV star status.

“Ultimately, [the production company] determined Steve was this visionary and leader, and I think through the show people will see that,” says Chris Arnold, spokesman for Chipotle. “People will see he’s remarkably knowledgeable about the restaurant industry and what makes a tremendous restaurant. He’s really passionate about it, and that will contribute to Chipotle’s success.”

Experts say that CEOs who act as the face of, or even become synonymous with, a brand can take advantage of opportunities that will maximize their brand’s exposure.

“Is there such a thing as bad publicity?” says David Kincheloe, president of Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants.

Going on a reality TV show isn’t the only way to become a public figure, though. Dan Kim, founder and chief concept officer of Red Mango, didn’t set out to become the face of his company. But he’s become just that because of his diligent attendance at store events and his avid use of various social media.

Until recently, Kim made a point to appear at every store opening, and although the company’s demands have limited his travels, he still attends as many as possible.

Kim also mans the Red Mango Facebook and Twitter accounts. While he also has personal accounts, he’ll often post content from his personal sites onto the Red Mango ones, and vice-versa.

“One of the things my board of directors and people who interact with us say a lot is that other competitors don’t have a personality or someone who represents the brand and the values of the brand as well as we do,” Kim says.

“That’s really helped us acquire and retain very loyal customers who are passionate about Red Mango. … It’s not like the tech world where you can outsource somebody. With food, people have to trust you. Having someone represent your brand is really the most effective way do that.”

Of course, companies with high-profile executives face certain risks. Chick-fil-A learned this first-hand when it came under fire for donations CEO Dan Cathy made to groups that reportedly oppose gay marriage. Cathy was forced to voice his personal views, which sparked public outcry and affected the brand’s reputation.

Robert DeVries is the coleader of the hospitality, leisure, and restaurant practice at executive search firm Spencer Stuart. He says CEOs should avoid the spotlight when it comes to certain issues, and stick with talking points that are “relevant and meaningful to their core consumers.”

“Where it becomes potentially problematic is when you take a CEO who takes a position that’s aligned with their core values, but it’s misaligned with the brand,” he says.

CEOs should avoid the spotlight when it comes to certain issues, and stick with talking points that are relevant and meaningful to their core consumers.

If asked to comment on an issue that isn’t relevant to the concept’s core values, DeVries says they should take a pass. Or, for issues on which the National Restaurant Association has done extensive research, such as nutrition and undocumented workers, deferring to a representative there can also be an effective strategy.

Red Mango’s Kim says that with such a blurry line between an individual and a brand, keeping the views of the two distinct can be difficult.

“People will ask randomly what I think about different world issues,” he says. “I don’t answer if I don’t think they’re relevant to what we do, but I may answer through a personal channel. Separating the two is one way to address that.”

Carefully distinguishing between worthwhile interviews and troublesome ones is another important strategy for executives who don’t want their personal views to become confused with the brand’s. While Kincheloe says executives should generally tackle as many interviews as possible with various media to gain exposure, he recommends doing some due diligence on the publication or media outlet beforehand. Any outlet that might misrepresent you, your brand, or what you say, Kincheloe says, should be avoided.

“You don’t want to be in certain publications or on certain TV shows that may have a negative perception from the general public,” he says.

While a CEO who pushes his or her name in the public arena and becomes synonymous with a company can help support the brand, experts say that it is possible for CEOs to “opt out” of being a public figure without causing too much damage to the company.

“There are great examples of CEOs who are focused more internally on the customer and the menu and prepared to publicly respond if there’s a public affairs issue, but they’re not opportunistically looking to expand their brand,” DeVries says.

“Our clients, when they’re looking to hire a new CEO, don’t necessarily care about either approach as long as they’re successfully building their business.”

While it often makes sense for founders to serve as the spokesperson for a brand because they naturally share the views and vision of the concept, Kincheloe says that an individual’s experience in the limelight—or lack thereof—should dictate whether they strive for public figure status on behalf of their company.

Executives who have to be talked into being the public face of companies are not good fits.

“If you’re not comfortable with it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he says. “You can always have a spokesman.”