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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Clive Chajet

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-29

Clive Chajet makes famous companies more famous so that they can make more money. That's why, in the corporate world, he's known as "The Brandmeister."

"Brandmeister! I like that - there's a ring to it," said the founder and chairman of Chajet Consultancy, letting forth his trademark booming chuckle.

That ring has resonated with prominent companies such as Citigroup, Continental Airlines, Triarc, Mutual of New York, Nissan's Infiniti, Nasdaq, Humana, Vornado Realty Trust, American Stock Exchange, Chrysler, McGraw-Hill, Standard & Poor's, Carnegie Hall, and, yes, Enron.

Mr. Chajet has assisted all of them in strengthening their brand.

"That means I deal with two things - identity and image," he said. "A company's name, its logo, its communications material, its advertising, and its public-relations - these things add up to its identity. A corporation's identity is what it chooses to use to shape those perceptions. The image of a brand, on the other hand, is what people think of you - and how you react to that. A corporation's image is what is perceived by its various audiences - how it appears to outsiders."

Corporations worry about both their identity and image, which is why they seek Mr. Chajet.

"Branding doesn't mean a whitewash," he said. "As a corporation, your branding must accurately reflect the reality out there. By definition, a good brand means ethical business practices."

So what about Enron?

"Enron and its CEO, Kenneth Lay, fooled us all - including me," Mr. Chajet said, in a tone that suggested regret and outrage. "His image was almost celestial - but his criminal trial begins Monday [today, January 30]. Enron's problem had nothing to with its branding; it had everything to do with fraudulent business practices.

"With the Internet and other information gateways, the more ubiquitous access is to a corporation's inner workings, the more people will learn about you," Mr. Chajet said. "It's no longer a case - if it ever was - of the public knowing only that you want it to know."

While the general public - read "consumers" - is his audience, Mr. Chajet doesn't see himself as only an image maker and identity creator.

"What I do is more than just advising companies," he said. "My job is devising communication solutions to business problems so that companies can make more money. If you can't describe for a client in business terms the value and usefulness of the corporate brand - then you're viewed as only an artist, just a designer."

"But design is only a tool to solve a problem," Mr. Chajet said. "Branding is about expressing ideas that have a specific message to deliver."

When professionals such as Mr. Chajet talk about branding, they invariably refer to Walter Margulies. Margulies and J. Gordon Lippincott founded the legendary firm, Lippincott & Margulies (now Lippincott Mercer) in 1945.

By the 1950's, Margulies recognized and conceptually formed the modern corporate identity consulting business, according to Mr. Chajet.

"What enabled me to pole vault to becoming a leader of the branding industry was my acquisition of L&M," Mr. Chajet said. "Walter Margulies was devoted to my success so that his company could outlive him - I had access to a man who invented the industry. One of the luckiest things in my life was that I got to speak to him every day."

Mr. Chajet brought good luck to the company as well.

When he bought L&M in 1980, its revenues were $6 million. When he sold it in 1988 to Marsh & McLennan, annual revenues were more than $15 million. Among L&M's clients were Betty Crocker, General Mills, Chrysler, Eastern Air Lines, Del Monte, RCA, American Express, Amtrak, Pizza Hut, and Infiniti.

He had come into the branding business not by design. After graduating from Columbia University with an economics major, Mr. Chajet toyed with the idea of working on Wall Street.

"But I was lousy with numbers," he said.

Wall Street's loss was Madison Avenue's gain. Mr. Chajet found a position with the advertising company of Fuller, Smith & Ross.

"We would jokingly call the company 'FSR' - 'Full of s--t and rubbish,'" Mr. Chajet said.

With that kind of esteem for his employer, it was only natural that Mr. Chajet moved on.

His next stop was the packaging design industry. He started Lois Chajet Design Group with George Lois, of advertising legend. There, in order to flourish, he needed to create and deliver new and distinctive ideas for his clients' brands.

"I've been intrigued by the business of ideas ever since I came to America," Mr. Chajet said.

He came here from his native London as a 13-year-old with his parents, Henry and Anne, and his brother Barry. The Chajet family - as all Londoners during World War II - was subjected to unforgettable nightly bombings by Hitler's Luftwaffe.

If the bombing is still vivid in Mr. Chajet's memory, so is the story of his father, who was born in a Jewish ghetto and fled the Nazis.

"To this day, neither my brother nor I know how many siblings our father had," Mr. Chajet said. "Most of his family was killed by the Nazis. We could never get him to talk about that part of his life. It was simply too painful for him."

The older Chajet - who died 51 years ago - was determined that his sons never be exposed to anti-Semitism and genocide. He was also convinced that raising them in America would give them economic opportunities beyond anything that Britain would offer.

Partly as a result of his father's experience, and partly because of the strong Judaic values that his parents instilled in their sons, Mr. Chajet has long been active in Jewish philanthropy.

"I remain intellectually and emotionally influenced and horrified by the Holocaust," he said.

That memory weaves through his professional career - quite possibly accounting for Mr. Chajet's constant emphasis on his "rules" for good conduct.

"I often tell my corporate clients that bad news travels fast, and the speed is frequently accelerated by competitors," Mr. Chajet said. "Thus, you have to be very careful not to rip anyone off. And never, never mistreat your employees. Never shut the door on people.

"In pursuit of business, never, never give up," Mr. Chajet said. "You cannot predict lucky breaks or unlucky occurrences. You must always, always, always have adequate financing in place to keep your ship afloat.

"And finally," he said, "at the end of the day the one scorecard common to all businesses is financial results. As a provider, you have to make sure that your product or services will have a positive impact on your client's financial health. That also means that you must keep your own eye on your financial health - severe financial pressure forces you to make decisions for all the wrong reasons."

"The importance of making sound business decisions is all the more relevant now because of the central role business can play in reinforcing America's position as a world leader in this time of globalization," Mr. Chajet said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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