Harvard Case Study – Kevin O’Leary: Building a Brand in Shark-infested Waters
For more than fifteen years, successful Canadian entrepreneur and investor Kevin O’Leary has developed his brand into a global powerhouse. Since his first appearance on the Canadian television program Dragons’ Den in 2006 and his meteoric rise to stardom through the hit show and cultural phenomenon Shark Tank, O’Leary had become synonymous with his penchant for telling the “cold hard truth,” just as much as his investing savvy.
A natural storyteller, O’Leary had long recognized the value of a powerful narrative. Now bolstered by network deals and a growing social media presence, the balding businessman had cultivated an audience of millions who eagerly await his advice on personal finance, just as much as they rely on him for entertainment. At the same time, active investments, speaking engagements, book deals, and a foray into politics bolstered his image as a formidable businessperson and thought leader.
Within a decade, he had come to realize the vast potential of the virtuous cycle that underlies a successful personal brand. On November 11, 2022, news broke that could spell the end for Mr. Wonderful: FTX, a prominent cryptocurrency exchange firm that O’Leary had supported as an investor and paid spokesperson, declared bankruptcy amid reports of mismanagement of customer funds and a potential investigation by the US government.
Sitting in Boston Logan Airport and watching his multimillion-dollar investment drop to zero, his phone suddenly rings: CNBC is running a national story on FTX and O’Leary’s involvement, and if he wants to tell his side of the story, he has to go live on air in ten minutes. For O’Leary, the decision is more than whether to face the media.
He must decide how to protect his personal brand, defined by honesty and credibility, from associations with potentially massive fraud. How should O’Leary respond? And what direction should he take his brand in the face of a potential crisis?