Charisma and brand relevance: How to achieve a strong corporate identity

By Luigi Gentili

This article examines the nature of charismatic brands and how this characteristic gives them a competitive advantage. Charismatic brands redefine the status quo by posing new opportunities. Many companies also succeed thanks to charismatic leaders capable of building a strong vision for the future, which resonates in the corporate identity, reinforcing its relevance in the business environment. Through a historical review, the article identifies the distinctive features of charismatic brands. Finally, the triangle of the charismatic brand is introduced. Its main components are pride, courage and resoluteness.

As Max Weber highlighted in his theory, charisma is the only force that can ensure social dynamics [1]. According to the sociologist, it emerges in extraordinary moments, when everyday life comes into crisis. Charismatic power is based on the exceptional qualities possessed by few people, able to redefine the established social order. In its original sense, charisma derives from the belief that someone has a direct and privileged relationship with a deity. The anthropology of religion allows us to understand the conceptual roots of charisma thanks to the study of the magician kings, both in the primitive societies of Africa and Oceania, and in Europe during absolute monarchies. According to James George Frazer, Kings Charles II of Great Britain was able to heal scrofula by the laying on of hands [2]. As evidenced in numerous documents collected by Frazer, the king’s intercession with the deity made it possible to obtain great influence. Weber also sees the roots of charisma in religion. Charisma represents a divine gift granted for the benefit of a population that God wants to protect, save, or lead to a position of dominance over other peoples [3]. Weber’s analysis emphasises the importance of religious links between power and divine grace. In the Bible, the ancient prophets have supernatural powers, and the figure of Moses represents the prototype of all charismatic leaders. The biblical prophet says, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …” to express disruptive charismatic power. It is a vocation with a specific mission: to save people from slavery. For this reason, charisma must overcome an unacceptable situation. Its fundamental elements are the following: the skills of a person out of the ordinary, the existence of social tension and the redefinition of the status quo.

The charismatic hero is the one who creates order out of chaos, shaping what is manifold

In modern times, we find yet another interpretation of charisma through the introduction of heroes. According to Niccolò Machiavelli, hero-worship is linked to the founding of the State, as in the cases of Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus [4]. The hero is a charismatic individual who draws the miracle of a free and united community from the darkness of disintegration and despair. Charisma experiences are an attractive force that bring people together. The theme is revisited in eighteenth-century Germany with the development of the Romantic Movement and idealistic philosophy. According to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the exceptional man has a higher calling; the hero is the one entrusted with the cause of civilisation in history [5]. In Hegel, on the other hand, the processes of social change are driven by historical cosmic individuals. Their function is to go beyond the restrictions of the old order to create a new one [6]. The charismatic-hero theory can also be traced to the writings of Carlyle and Nietzsche. For Carlyle, history is essentially made by the deeds of heroes with extraordinary faith, from which comes their formidable creative dedication to their mission [7]. According to Nietzsche, though, history is at the mercy of the will to exercise power. The charismatic hero is the one who creates order out of chaos, shaping what is manifold [8]. 

Carlyle and Nietzsche anticipate the Weberian interpretation of charisma. In Weber, charisma emerges in a situation of “nascent state”, when there is emotional arousal in a group [9]. Charisma instils metanoia, an inner conversion by the followers to the values that the leader embodies. In this sense, charisma goes beyond usual rules and tradition. Recognition by followers involves a spontaneous adhesion, which occurs with optimism and hope. However, Weber highlights the main obstacle to charisma: routinisation. The transformation of charisma into daily practice entails an alteration of its essence and its course of action. Charisma is the opposite of bureaucracy; it is against procedures and standardisation. After Weber, this issue is taken up by other sociologists, such as Robert Bendix [10], Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt [11], Edward Shils [12], Luciano Cavalli [13] and Francesco Alberoni [14]. Although these various theories are quite different, they contain a common element – namely, the constant need to address leaders as a means of escaping from mundane, everyday existence.

By interpreting these sociological studies, we can identify the following four characteristics of charisma: 1. possession of extraordinary qualities; 2.  activation for a radical change; 3. creation of an enthusiastic mobilisation; 4. direction towards an important goal (figure 1). 

These four characteristics can be found in many successful businesses.  Let us now consider the two entrepreneurs Adriano Olivetti and Steve Jobs. Olivetti was first general manager and then chairman of the Olivetti Company, while Jobs was from the start co-founder and chief executive officer and later chairman of Apple Inc. These two leaders had exceptional abilities, were able to radically change their business, had a large social following and pursued goals of economic value. Their companies were successful and reached an important strategic position in their target market. Adriano Olivetti was an entrepreneur with cross-sectorial humanistic skills, interested in social sciences, art and politics. He represented a corporate vision with a territorial articulation, promoting social cohesion and community spirit, and modernising the typewriter and computing machine industry [15]. Steve Jobs had advanced computer skills, which he combined with mystical thought and Eastern philosophy. He acted as the spokesman for the radical values of new generations, communicating with a captivating and unmistakable style, and promoting information technology products for everyone [16].

Ferrari built a world of meanings based on the centrality of the human element and a winning attitude

Charismatic leaders implement these characteristics by creating a corporate identity. To distinguish a company in the marketplace, they build a strong culture, intending it to determine the way the business presents itself both internally and especially to the outside world, attracting consumers and separating itself from competitors. A corporate identity allows increasing loyalty of purchase behaviour and a sense of attachment to the company. Charisma creates a “possible world” rooted in an imagined elsewhere that is mythic and archetypical, and at the same time oriented towards the future. Thus a corporate identity can ensure an important status symbol and a dynamic performance for an organisation. Let’s consider the example of Enzo Ferrari and the legendary car factory he created. Ferrari realised his dream of guiding the prancing horse logo to become a synonym for excellence and great prestige, a myth founded on decades of sporting successes and the humanisation of competitive spirit. As the company’s “Formula Uomo” programme explicitly states, Ferrari built a world of meanings based on the centrality of the human element and a winning attitude. Throughout the world, the prancing horse is now associated with an intense passionate nature, where values such as challenge, tenacity and courage create a strong personality. The emblem of the Maranello car factory perfectly embodies the quality of a supercar loved and desired by many people. Everyone wants to feel a little Ferrari, even if they don’t belong to the rich élite. The revolutionary ideals of a car manufacturer have played significantly in the evolution of a legend, joining together tradition and technological innovation [17].

Research shows that a successful corporate identity may represent the essence of brand charisma. It possesses imagery, symbolism and prestige to generate high motivation and involvement in consumers. Consumers believe that charismatic brands have exceptional qualities [18]. A large segment of customers seek brands not only to build instrumental and functional roles but also the dream of high status to gain access to an exclusive club. Norman Smothers was the first to understand that brands can have the charismatic characteristics of human leaders. According to this author, brand charisma is a socially constructed concept that emerges from associating the identity structure with high status, exclusiveness and privilege. It is a social structure that customers legitimate [19]. Further pieces of research highlight that brand charisma is a strategic asset capable of strengthening the firm’s competitive position [20], establishing effective social relationships [21], and ensuring expansion and maintenance of a customer base [22]. It’s a matter of always emphasising the emotional connection between charisma brands and consumers. The charisma phenomenon coincides with the perspective of a consolidated leader-follower relationship between brand and consumer [23].  

Harley Davidson was successful in paying attention to technological innovations and changes without denying the past.

Charismatic brands are renovating and enterprising; they develop original products or services and embody unique values. Examples of charismatic brands in business history are Harley-Davidson and Lacoste. They are two brands linked to the figures of their charismatic leaders, absorbing their notoriety and appreciation. Harley-Davidson is an enterprise considered a myth, which has preserved a charm full of transversal meanings. The company was started in the early 1900s by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson and was successful in paying attention to technological innovations and changes without denying the past. That made it unparalleled. Among the values transmitted by the founders, there is a love of freedom and adventure, associated with the infinite United States highways and long distances to be covered coast to coast. There are also the values of brotherhood and solidarity, effectively creating one big family formed by many motorcyclists belonging to different social classes [30]. Lacoste, on the other hand, is an enterprise created by René Lacoste in 1933 that revolutionised the world of fashion with its clothing products. The founder, a sports champion, combined the elegance of a shirt with the practicality of a T-shirt. From the fusion of such clothes comes the Chemise Lacoste, capable of communicating elegance and performance. The crocodile logo semiotically represents strength, determination, stubbornness and irreducibility. Lacoste has become a synonym for sportswear and smart casual. With Lacoste, the brand turned from a simple “guarantee” of a product to the identifier of a lifestyle [31].     

More open to experimentation, charismatic brands have better performance, especially considering their ability to face new situations. In the context of an unstable economic climate, charismatic brands allow a better strategic positioning through their ownership of three specific aspects: pride, courage and resoluteness. We can highlight these three aspects in an equilateral triangle (figure 2).

Pride is the possession of prestige values, with a vision and mission of excellence; courage is the faculty to undertake new projects and initiatives in a new and different way; finally, resoluteness is the ability to solve any problem and deal decisively with uncertainty. These three characteristics are always present in a corporate brand when it successfully faces change. They are a way to increase brand relevance. Consider, for example, the case of Semco under the guidance of Ricardo Semler. When Semler began running Semco, his innovative management policies attracted widespread interest throughout the world. The “Semco brand” was based on the will to achieve an open management model based on three principles: workplace democracy, profit sharing and information sharing. Semler has always given little importance to the things to which other firms gave maximum priority, like appearance, title and the formalities of autocratic managers [32]. He founded a flexible organisation and goes against paternalistic hierarchies led by blind management with a rule for every contingency. The company has shown phenomenal growth over a long period of time, despite the existence of an uneven economy. The company was determined to overcome currency devaluations, record unemployment, hyperinflation, and a virtual cessation of all industrial production [33].

The cases presented above show the dynamic and enterprising nature of charisma, incompatible with the static view of the present.

Charismatic brands enable companies to gain a competitive advantage, renewing themselves constantly. In an era of rapid change, charisma will become more and more necessary for companies to innovate their corporate asset. However, we need to understand the specific characteristics of charisma and its performance. Very often, charisma means generic leadership without specific qualities. However, that’s actually not quite true. The cases presented above show the dynamic and enterprising nature of charisma, incompatible with the static view of the present. Charismatic brands depend on the deeds of exceptional leaders. These leaders have an unmistakable personality. For this reason, we can distinguish charismatic and ordinary leaders. A charismatic leader is radical and questioning of the status quo, while an ordinary leader is more static and condescending. The first type create the future, while the second move in everyday life. The temporal dimension is essential. If charismatic brands are not related to their radical impact, no one can recognise their relevance. Charismatic brands find their characterisation by opening up new business horizons. Hence the possibility of going beyond the limits of routine.  

This article was originally published on 11 July 2022.

Luigi Gentili is a sociologist and professor of graphics economy and market at the Pantheon Institute of Design & Technology of Rome. He also conducts research activities at Assoretipmi and the Centre for the Study of Managerial Innovation. He has worked with various think tanks, business schools and enterprises networks. As a speaker, he often gives speeches at conferences and conventions for prestigious institutions. His primary research interest is media studies, economic sociology and industrial development. He is the author of many books published in Italy, including “Economia liquida” (Liquid economy) and “Ripartire dalla crescita” (Restarting from growth), recently published by Armando Editore.

References
[1] M. Weber M., “Economy and Society” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 -1921).
[2] J. G. Frazer, “The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion”, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004 – 1890).
[3] cf. M. Weber, “Economy and Society”,
[4] N. Machiavelli, “The Prince”, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 – 1532).
[5] J. G. Fichte, “The Vocation of the Scholar”, (London: Fb&c Limited, 2017 – 1794).
[6] G. W. F. Hegel, “Lectures on the Philosophy on History”, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 – 1837).
[7] T. Carlyle, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History”, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 – 1841).
[9] cf. M. Weber, “Economy and Society”,
[10] R. Bendix, “Max Weber. An intellectual portrait”, (London: Heinemann, 1960).
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[12] E. Shils, “Charisma order and status”, American Sociological Review, n. 2 (1965).
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[17] R. Williams, “Enzo Ferrari. A life”, (New York: Random House, 2011).
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[25] P. Kapferer, “Lacoste: The legend”, (Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2002).
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