The uncertain future of the founder-led brand

The mouse outlives his inventor.

Those of us in branding admire often strive to learn from the world’s great brands. These are the brands that always seem to know who they are, what they do, and how to do it. But when you think about it, so many of them are founder-led and/or first generation. It’s hard to think of Virgin without Richard Branson, Google without Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Southwest without Herb Kelleher, Craigslist without Craig Newmark, and Ben and Jerry’s without, well, Ben and Jerry.

And of course, Apple without Steve Jobs.

The world witnessed Apple without its founder once before: The company lost its way, went “corporate,” and nearly went bankrupt. Only the residue of the great brand saved it for long enough that Jobs could return and change our world (four times, in fact). This has happen to other brands as well.

Remember the dark days of Disney shortly after Walt? Me neither. But it took a long time and a lot of hassle and money to bring the magic spirit back. But what finally saved Disney and its empire was that the brand outlasted the bad times. Walt Disney’s vision, charisma, and even longevity created a culture that really got what the Disney brand was all about.

So the question is … did Steve Jobs accomplish what Walt Disney did? Is Apple innovative, bold, and arrogant enough to continue to astonish us without its founder? Has his sharp, enduring brand vision spawned a company of mini-Steves? I hope so.

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