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McAfee Inc. takes reputation beating after founder fled police

Brand measurement firm links John McAfee's bizarre behavior to nosedive of security company's 'Buzz' score

In the wake of his Belize neighbor's unsolved murder, John McAfee's lurch through the news damaged the reputation of his namesake, the security company McAfee Inc., a brand expert said Thursday.

McAfee, 67, founded the firm in 1987 as McAfee Associates, took the company public in 1993, raising $50 million, but resigned from his creation in 1994. In early 2011, the company was acquired by Intel for $7.7 billion.

But although McAfee has had little or no connection to the security firm for nearly two decades, the link was strong enough to drag down the latter's consumer perception score, said Ted Marzilli, the global manager for BrandIndex, a brand awareness service of U.K.-based YouGov.

"If you are going to keep the name of the founder of your company after it's sold, you had better make sure he does not get into trouble later on," Marzilli said in an email.

McAfee Inc.'s "Buzz" score -- an indicator of its current standing in the "noise" generated by advertising, the news and word-of-mouth -- had been in a slump before Belize authorities said they wanted to question John McAfee about the shooting death of neighbor and fellow American expatriate, Gregory Faull. But almost as soon as McAfee began blogging -- maintaining his innocence, boasting of his evasion of the police, telling tales that made some Belize officials wonder if he was mentally unstable -- McAfee Inc.'s numbers began plummeting.

And when news broke of McAfee's flight to neighboring Guatemala, McAfee Inc.'s consumer perception score nosedived to -17.

"This was the lowest score for McAfee [Inc.] that we've recorded in over five years of tracking the company," said Marzilli in an interview Wednesday. "It's never been in negative territory before."

BrandIndex measures brand perception by interviewing thousands of U.S. adults daily, asking them to give companies thumbs up or down in several categories. Negative impressions are subtracted from positives to produce a score between 100 and -100.

The extended run of news stories about McAfee had an affect on McAfee Inc.'s brand perception, said Marzilli. Even reporters who diligently noted that McAfee was not affiliated with the firm may have unknowingly contributed.

"That may have helped readers associate the two," said Marzilli. "Without that attribution, many would have had no idea who he was, and would not have made the connection to McAfee [Inc.]."

Last week, after he was expelled from Guatemala, McAfee flew to the United States.

Ironically, although the security firm now bears McAfee's name and started with it, too, there were years when it was known as Network Solutions, a brand used from 1997 to 2004. After disposing of several business groups, the company returned to its founder's name, reportedly because it wanted to stress its security roots.

Marzilli could not recall another example of a company founder negatively impacting his or her namesake. The closest, he said, was in early 2009, when then Apple CEO Steve Jobs unexpectedly announced he was taking a medical leave, saying that he was stepping away for "health-related issues [that] are more complex than I originally thought."

"That had a negative impact on the brand," Marzilli said.

Jobs died in Oct. 2011 of complications from the pancreatic cancer he had had treated in 2004.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected].

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.


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