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
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.
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.