Can Brands Thrive Beyond Their Founders' Legacy?

    With more attention and pressure on founders than ever, responding with resilience to unforeseen challenges and adverse impacts is essential.
    Photo: Shutterstock
    Susan MoonAuthor
      Published   in Retail

    The images of visionary brand leaders gracing the covers of Fast Company and Forbes have begun to reveal a darker side to the fame and fortune of founders. Looking back at 2018, we have witnessed Tesla’s stock price roller-coaster ride attributed to Elon Musk’s controversial actions, the ousting of skincare brand Deciem’s founder Brandon Truaxe following a series of disturbing decisions made in plain sight of the public, and the boycott of Dolce & Gabbana in reaction to racist remarks by founder Stefano Gabbana.

    With more attention and pressure on founders than ever, responding with resilience to unforeseen challenges and adverse impacts is essential – but how can brands grow, change and evolve for the better beyond detours and bumps in the road ahead?

    Leading with values#

    Creating a brand that is underpinned by unique yet replicable values offers customers and employees a means to carry on the brand vision. Nowhere is this more valuable than in the fashion world where brands must often outlive the turnover or passing of their namesake founders. In such cases, the replicability of values can be determined by asking: how easily can employees and customers internalize and express the values of the brand in the words they use and the actions they take?

    Kate Spade offers us a compelling case of resurgence and growth. The brand has made headlines in recent years in the wake of its acquisition by Tapestry and the death of its namesake founder. Despite stepping out of the brand in 2007, the founder’s playful sensibility and sparkling wit still resonate with customers in the bright colors & polka-dotted charm. Staying true to the brand promise of optimistic femininity has been at the heart of Kate Spade’s evolution, and according to CMO Mary Renner Beech, “We are re-imagining everything about Kate Spade but linking it incredibly clearly to our heritage and these past 25 years.” With each bag designed to visibly evoke qualities tied to optimistic femininity, Kate Spade and the legacy of the founder outlasts her departure as indicated by strong first-quarter earnings.

    Whether reinforcing a strong emotional connection with customers or evolving the offering to appeal to broader audiences, leading with clear and replicable values is vital for affirming the brand legacy.

    Building an army of voices#

    In an age when audiences seek to identify with the personality of the brands they pledge their allegiance to, the voices of employees and customers become ever more invaluable to amplifying brand image.

    A closer look at different approaches taken by cult beauty brands Glossier and Deciem, for example, manifests the benefit of entrusting followers with the brand.

    Skincare brand Deciem fell into chaos when founder Brandon Truaxe fired his co-founder and social media team and staged a hostile takeover of the brand’s social media to proclaim his personal commentaries, zeal, and criticisms directed at customers and even other beauty brands. Following the ouster of Truaxe by the shareholder Estée Lauder Companies, Deciem is still recuperating from damage control.

    On the other hand, Glossier promotes its brand image not through one single founder, but via the collective voice of loyal fans. In a recent interview, Glossier founder Emily Weiss shared, “We have always believed that every single one of our customers is an influencer. The brands of the future are going to be co-created.” The beauty brand makes good on Weiss’s vision through cultivating a thriving community of “Glossier Girls” who promote their favorite products for commission, partake in product feedback sessions, and are regularly featured on the brand’s social media. With more than 500 Glossier reps to date, the brand is driven by a harmony of customer voices that interpret the brand in their own meaningful ways.

    Inclusion of customer and employee voices is an effective antidote to potential brand identity crises. Enrolling customers and employees in the brand brings a level of accountability and integrity to the vision. While a founder defines the vision of the brand, achieving the vision requires joining forces with followers who can build upon the foundation of the brand DNA.

    Designating co-pilots#

    It’s commonplace to see today’s founders attain celebrity status. Establishing them as the one and only North Star, however, is far from being a sustainable path. Prior to his passing in 2017, Pierre Bergé spoke on the power of his partnership with fashion house co-founder Yves Saint Laurent:

    “The two of us formed a puzzle and we were made of pieces that fit together very precisely. The money, the business, the licenses, the store openings, all of that would not have been possible without me. But you can’t operate the world’s biggest and most beautiful airplane if you don’t have fuel and a pilot who can fly that plane. And the only pilot who knew how to fly that plane was Yves Saint Laurent.”

    The risk becomes great when founders buy into their own legend of single-handedly building the future, as we have seen Tesla weather a media maelstrom in the midst of brand founder Elon Musk’s unconventional actions and tendency towards work martyrdom.

    For some founders, hitting rock bottom and relinquishing control to trusted counterparts is what it takes to rise from the rubble. The massive rebound to become the Apple we know today is due in no small part to distributing the power structure to ensure no lack of lateral vision. The firing of Steve Jobs from Apple and his subsequent return in the company of trusted co-pilots Jony Ive and Tim Cook now serve as a parable for brands today.

    Welcoming alternative viewpoints to guide the course as custodians of the brand ensures a level of empathy both wide and deep enough to engender internal employee engagement needed for growth, and meet customer expectations across multiple touchpoints.

    Paving the Road to Recovery#

    While unexpected setbacks are inevitable, the way in which brands adapt is what can make for an even stronger comeback. For brands, paving the path for a comeback begins with reinforcing the values that the brand does (and doesn’t) stand for, and is sustained by harnessing the power of an emotionally-connected customer base and strong partners to lead with. With these elements in place, the essence of the brand and vision set by its originator are destined to have the greatest chance at being preserved and expressed through any ups and downs with utmost integrity.

    Susan Moon is a Senior Brand Strategist at Labbrand, a global brand consultancy specializing in creating meaningful brand experiences by bringing together excellence in research, strategy, design and verbal identity. Susan is based in New York and can be reached at

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