Stars Of The Show

March 10, 2005
An unshakeable confidence in the quality of their products -- and a little bit of ego -- have some head honchos hawking their own wares. Lending their faces lends credibility, just as long as they keep their noses clean.

David Oreck is it. So are Jay Bush, James Dyson, Ron Popeil and Martha Stewart. They are the faces of their empires. Whether it's vacuums, beans or towels, their faces are synonymous with the products they represent. And in an era peppered with corporate wrongdoers, familiar, kind faces lend credence to companies and their products. If, of course, those faces haven't appeared in mug shots.

"CEOs are human and are vulnerable to make mistakes," says Robert J. Oltmanns, president, Skutski & Oltmanns, a public relations firm based in Pittsburgh. "But certainly, a case can be made that there is often no better or more persuasive spokesperson for a company than the top executive -- particularly when the top executive is also the founder. After all, the buck stops with them."

Indeed, "My behavior represents more than just me," says David Oreck, founder of $100 million Oreck Corp., the New Orleans-based vacuum cleaner company that started manufacturing upright vacuum cleaners in 1963. "If I were to behave poorly, it's just not my reputation that would be ruined."

Additionally, Oreck says by being the face of his company, he feels personally responsible if something goes wrong with one of his vacuums. He says that the accountability factor lends credibility that other companies can't achieve because there isn't one person attached to the brand.

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"If you buy a General Motors car and it doesn't work who do you blame -- General or Motors?"

Oreck, whose face has adorned mailings, print ads and TV commercials complete with a suspended bowling ball to demonstrate the power of his vacuum cleaner, decided to become the face of Oreck out of necessity.

"I felt there was a facelessness and a namelessness to business, and I felt that I would have an advantage if people knew who they were doing business with."

Oreck didn't come out of the running blocks with vacuum in hand. Prior to forming his company, he was selling everything from Whirlpool appliances to RCA televisions. It wasn't until he started selling vacuum cleaners under the RCA Whirlpool label (yes, the company did make vacuum cleaners) that he got his big break -- sort of.

He was doing such a great job selling vacuum cleaners that the company's principal stakeholder wanted to get rid of him, according to Oreck. "So they forced me to go into business for myself. I no longer had the benefit of their good name and the only name I could find that wasn't already taken was my own."

Coming To America

Like Oreck, James Dyson sells vacuum cleaners. Unlike Oreck, Dyson's fame isn't as tenured -- at least in the face-recognition department.

In October 2002 the soft-spoken Brit introduced his cyclonic vacuum technology to the United States via television ads featuring the inventor describing his frustration with other vacuums.

"I thought it was a good way of explaining why I invented the first vacuum cleaner that doesn't lose suction," says Dyson of the documentary-style ads.

"How often do you get to introduce not only a brilliant new product, but a brilliant new brand to the country?" asks David Lubars, former president and executive creative director of Publicis Groupe's Fallon Worldwide, a Minneapolis-based ad agency that worked on the Dyson campaign. "James Dyson is the brand. He tells the Dyson story in an honest, non-advertising way."

In this case, there are no gimmicks. "We knew from the beginning what we didn't want," says Michael Hart, copywriter and group creative director for Fallon. "No footage of dancing moms vacuuming. No longhaired cats shedding in the background. No bowling balls being sucked up. Just the vacuum, the man who invented it and why it's better."

While U.S. consumers have just recently been able to buy the colorful vacuums, research and development started in the late 1970s. In fact, Dyson went through more than 5,000 prototypes before he got it right. Today his $197 million company, which sold 891,000 units in the U.S. last year, manufactures its vacuums in Malaysia.

The Homespun Approach

"Roll that beautiful bean footage!"

For Bush Brothers & Co., a family-owned company coming up on its 100-year anniversary, a less-serious approach to advertising is where it's at.

Makers of baked beans, chili and vegetables, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company employs Jay Bush, the great grandson of founder A.J. Bush, as the company spokesperson (he also manages a plant).

The premise of the commercials -- Jay is so proud of the quality and care that goes into making his family's "secret" recipe for baked beans that he goes to great lengths to keep the secret recipe secret. In fact, in his debut commercial Jay eats the piece of paper the recipe is written on.

In later ads Jay's faithful companion, Duke the dog, aids Jay in telling consumers about Bush's Baked Beans. Once again Jay is proud of the fact that no one outside the Bush family knows the recipe. The only other being that has seen the recipe is Duke, "and he's not talking," Jay says.

Unbeknownst to Jay, Duke can talk and isn't shy about auctioning off the recipe to the highest bidder.

This scenario isn't the first and won't be the last that uses an animal to pull one over on humans. Smart advertisers know that animals have a greater appeal to a mass audience.

"With marketing today seeking ever-narrower customer segments, while at the same time trying to not alienate those who fall out of the narrow parameters of a targeted segment, using animals is a lot safer as an emotional trigger than using people," says Kim Garretson, editor, Emerging Media Audiences blog. "Plus, proliferation begets more proliferation. So, being the next advertiser in a long line to use animals is another safe bet. If it's working for Brand X, it should work for my brand."

Pitching The Pitchman?

What happens when the face of the company has a run-in with the law? You need look no further than Martha Stewart and some of the celebrity CEOs that have run into trouble, according to Oltmanns.

"The Martha case is extreme because there were criminal charges, but it could be something as simple as a board struggle or shareholder suit or a lawsuit filed against a company for environmental impact or fraud," says Oltmanns. "That public face is indelibly attached to the company."

In Stewart's case, people wanted to know what her conviction was going to mean for the company. She built a multi-billion-dollar empire and it was all her -- her name, her face and her personal brand were all attached to the business and with her in prison, could the brand survive? "That was the $64,000 question," says Oltmanns, who ultimately believes that Stewart's empire will prevail -- although it did take a hit in terms of advertising for her magazine and lost sales on her K-Mart line of products.

While Stewart's indiscretions weren't buried in a well-organized closet -- she screwed up in real time -- it makes good sense to go through a proper vetting as you would with a political candidate to make sure that there's nothing in the past that could come back to bite the company, according to Oltmanns

"It's a good practice to think long and hard about the what-ifs," he advises. "What would happen to the company if the CEO were arrested or there were salacious allegations made against them -- what effect could that have on the business or the brand? Could it be repaired? Even if they are allegations and they are not proven, it doesn't matter -- you're a public figure -- you've brought this on yourself by making yourself a public figure."

In the end it comes down to a quality product and the ability to sell.

"A good marketing man can't sell a lousy product, but a lousy marketing man can kill a good product," says Oreck.

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