Zimmer and Deen – Are pitchmen still a good idea?

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Sort of weird that both George Zimmer and George Zimmerman are in the news this week.  One is defending himself, the other is a men’s clothing marketing icon and decidedly playing offense, and is the one we’ll discuss here.  We’ll also discuss the slow-motion self-destruction of Paula Deen, food celebrity.

The upshot of these stories:
– Companies need to realize that consumers tend to instinctively side with the person, not the company
– Increasingly, sponsors are cutting ties with celebrities at the first hint of controversy – – because they think they have no choice
– Ultimately celebrities get our attention but it’s harder than ever to have a 30-year spokesperson


Link to Men’s Wearhouse History

George Zimmer, founder of midscale clothier The Men’s Wearhouse and famous after umpteen years saying “You’re gonna like the way you look – – I guarantee it”, was booted from the organization last week.  The reasons have evolved into a sort of ‘he said, she said’ PR battle (one good summary is here).  In the end, though, the reasons aren’t important.  What’s important is that the company looks cold and heartless for mercilessly getting rid of the old guy who, yes, founded the place, but apparently can’t appeal to the more important younger shoppers.  And that has translated into consumer antipathy towards MW, which has decidedly lost the PR war.

We remember Wendy Kaufman, the popular straight-talking ‘Snapple Lady’ who was dumped right after the company was bought for $1.7B by Quaker Oats.  Quaker was 0-for-2 on that one – -it eventually unloaded Snapple for $300 million 3 years later to Triarc Brands, which immediately reinstated her as spokesperson, to the delight of consumers.

In January 2012, William Shatner (who has had more career changes than Madonna) was terminated as Priceline pitchman (‘The Negotiator’) after 14 years, apparently due to a change in their business strategy.  Credit to Priceline for offing Kirk in a suitably campy explosion.  On the other hand, a survey by Priceline.com discovered that 94% of customers wanted him back.  So this past January he returned, in different, but still amusing executions.  Good move, Priceline.

On the other hand, when celebrities clearly behave badly, a company is justified in letting them go.  O.J. Simpson, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant (a seemingly endless list of pitchmen gone bad is here), which brings us to the case of Paula Deen.

Paula Deen Cries

Ms. Deen, longtime Food Network celebrity chef, is being fired by seemingly every sponsor she has (Food Network, Caesars, Smithfield Foods and now Wal-Mart).  Her crime?  Well, aside from glorifying heart-attack food, she admitted to using a racial slur several decades ago during a robbery.  OK, 30 years ago, she certainly could have moved beyond that mindset, right?  Well, she compounded the controversy by a continuing series of self-inflicted misfires in ensuing interviews.  She deserves to be heard and to have a chance for redemption, but she also can afford better PR advice.

Her sponsors, seeing this story take on a life of its own, probably figured that inaction on their part could be interpreted by some as tacit approval of using racist words.  So they needed to disconnect as a defensive play.  Fair?  Who knows; in this 24/7 news cycle the truth is less important than perception and reaction precedes facts.  But Paula Deen won’t starve, and business is business.  So it’s an understandable move by her sponsors.

On the other hand, the $1500+ Paula Deen cruise, where the food star mingles with guests and does cooking demos, has seen sufficient goodwill-fueled demand to require the cruise line to add another 500-person cruise to the schedule.  And her upcoming cookbook has seen a 1300% surge on Amazon since the incident.

Famous people can still move product – – but increasingly these relationships require caution – – and lawyers – – on both sides.


6 responses »

  1. Personally I don’t see the value in a spokesperson. I would never use a capital one card because of Alec Baldwin, but I would buy Martha Stewart’s cabinets at Home Depot because of the design.I do question the value of the product because of her name. If I company has to put extra money in to the marketing budget to garner a celebrity spokesperson , how will it effect the quality of the product? These are a few of the things that go through my mind. If there is too much noise around a product it confuses me and I don’t make the purchase.


  2. As I approach 50, I cannot recall a single product I’ve ever bought because of a pitch person. Not the clothes I wear, the car I drive, the furniture in my house, the credit card I use, the TV I watch, the bank and/or broker I use, the golf clubs I play with, the places I go, the restaurants at which I eat, not even the first baseball glove and bat I ever owned.

    I’ve recently seen Wayne Coyne, the frontman for the Flaming Lips, one of my favorite bands, doing commercials for a few different businesses, (one aired during the Super Bowl) but I could not tell you what businesses they were for and I doubt seriously that I have bought anything as a result of him acting as spokesperson.

    Most consumers I know look for quality, comfort and value. I want to know that a business stands behind whatever it makes, offers professional service after the sale, and is going to be around if and when I need them. Brand names, spokespeople and hype are not on my list of priorities.


  3. Dave, your final sentence is spot-on with two important points: “can still move product” and “caution.” I wrote about endorsements earlier this year (thanks again for your comment) urging marketers to apply marketing discipline to the process. For 5 points to keep in mind during the endorsement analysis and decision-making process, visit: http://marketingworldblog.com/2013/02/26/3m-brands-get-endorsement-right-with-mike-holmes/

    As for George Zimmer and Men’s Wearhouse, that’s an unusual endorser situation since Zimmer had a management role beyond his use in advertising. Reports I read indicated he disagreed with the CEO and Board about strategic direction. Who knows what really happened. But, when senior management alignment falls apart, someone typically leaves. In this case, it was Mr. Zimmer. Good for him that he takes his company stock with him!


  4. I to a certain degree am absolutely amazed by the number of hypocritical companies who carried Paula Dean’s different brands bailing on HER, and yet some of those same companies are still carrying and promoting Martha Stewart brand items, a person who is a convicted felon. HYPOCRITES!!!!


  5. Dave, a new Men’s Wearhouse ad is out, minus George Zimmer – pretty basic and not especially interesting: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/14/menswearhouse-brand-idUSL1N0FF1PN20130714


  6. Pingback: Dodge Durango Marketing and the Legend of Ron Burgundy | The Marketing Operator

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