American Express CEO, Kenneth Chenault, Addresses the 2008 MBA Graduating Class

May 16, 2008

On May 16, Kenneth Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, addressed the graduating class of MBAs at the McDonough School's 2008 commencement ceremony. The following is a transcript of his speech:

Dean Daly, President DeGioia, administration and faculty, distinguished guests, and of course, the graduating class of 2008... it is a great privilege to be with all of you today.

As I stand here looking out at the audience, it's easy to tell the graduates from the family members. Granted, the caps and gowns are a telltale hint. But they're not the only clue. The looks on your faces are also something of a giveaway.

Graduates - you look excited. Family members - you look relieved. You've seen your loved ones through another important milestone, that of graduate school.

But, graduates, unlike when you left high school or college, graduation from McDonough means one important focus of your life now comes to an end: no more tuition payments. No more new balances added onto your student loans.

Speaking as the father of a son who graduates from high school next month and is just starting college, I know that truly is reason to celebrate.

Of course, I know you will need no excuse to celebrate today. After several years of hard work, today you are receiving a diploma from one of the world's great schools of business. You're at the start, or the next phase, of very promising careers.

As I thought about the message to share with you today, I opted to rely on a tried and true principle of speech making: stick with what you know.

So, given that I've worked for American Express for 27 years, I've spent a lot of time learning about brands.

What defines a brand? What strengthens it? What damages it?

Over the course of my career, I've learned about the relevance of brands to consumers. But I've also learned that the concept of brands is not limited to products. For example, universities have brands. Political campaigns have brands. But, perhaps most importantly, we each have an individual brand.

Everyone here is a consumer, so everyone here is familiar with brands. We're confronted with, and make decisions about, brands on a daily basis. You may not be aware of it, or think you're consciously guided by it, but brands are almost always informing your choices.

A brand, a real brand, represents a connection - a rational and emotional connection between a company, its products and a customer. From the consumer's perspective, a brand creates an expectation. From the company's perspective it creates a promise.

The strongest brands, the ones that resonate most with consumers, are those that stand for something; that have personal meaning for a consumer; and that reflect a commitment consistently fulfilled over time.

Another important point to remember is that a brand is not what a CEO believes it to be ..... a brand is what the customer believes it is. Customers ultimately define brands. The power in this relationship rests in their hands, not mine.

The principles that shape corporate brands also hold true for individual brands. The difference is that while companies take conscious action to create their brands, individuals tend to develop their brands unconsciously.

It happens over time as their words and actions ultimately shape the perceptions and views formed about them.

For individuals it usually starts with the superficial characterizations we all face growing up. People get labeled as a jock, as a brain, as a member of the marching band. Over time, however, those labels fade and by the time we reach adulthood our values and individuality have solidified and our personal brand - the expectation that people have of us -- develops.

Whether you like it or not, your personal brand is being shaped all the time. Your teachers, your classmates, your friends form judgments about you everyday.

It's better to be aware of this brand building than to just let it happen. That way you can take conscious action based on how you want your brand to be judged. That way you can aim for being a premium brand, rather than a nameless generic. That way you can aim for the brand of a leader, not a follower.

Now, sometimes when I share this message, people will push back and say they don't want the pressure of building an individual brand. Or you'll hear professional athletes or celebrities talk about how they don't want to be role models. They just want to play their games, or make their movies.

But it's clear they've forgotten an important brand reality: the CEO of a company, or you as an individual, can take actions to shape your brand, but you don't control how it is viewed. That right belongs to the customer.

It's the customer who weighs a person's behavior over time. It's the customer who decides what, if anything, a brand stands for; what, if anything, a person stands for.

That customer can be your teammates, employees, fans, or colleagues. They choose who their role models will be; they select their leaders. They decide if someone's individual brand is a brand they will follow.

My father never studied brands, but one of the principles he taught me is quite relevant to this topic. He told me when I was growing up that you cannot control other people's perceptions of you. But you can and do control your own actions, actions that can, over time, alter those perceptions. And, he might have added, actions that, over time, can and do shape your personal brand.

Now, as you leave McDonough and join, or rejoin, the workforce, you will be taking even greater personal responsibility for shaping your brand.

The guidance and influence of your professors and family members have given you a terrific foundation.

I urge you to build upon this foundation, staying true to their teachings and to your values.

Thank you and congratulations, Class of 2008.