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Smithfield Foods and others have severed ties with spokes-chef Paula Deen after she owned up to using a racial slur in the past

Paula Deen Smithfield Pork Chops

Face-off: the trouble with spokespeople

Men's Wearhouse, Paula Deen, and the danger of public faces for brands

What do a soft-spoken suit-slinger and a sassy Southern chef have in common? Both are textbook cases of what a company may face when hitching its brand to a name and personality. Presented with a social-media backlash for its ouster of co-founder and public face George Zimmer, Men's Wearhouse may not like the way it looks. And Smithfield Foods will no longer ham it up with celebrity chef Paula Deen following her admission that she used a racial slur in the past.

In Zimmer's case, the problem was Men's Wearhouse's perceived mistreatment of a likable public figure. On June 19, 2013, the board fired him as both executive chairman and the comforting promotional presence who assured fashion-challenged men he'd make them happy with what they saw in the mirror. Zimmer had delivered the Men's Wearhouse guarantee since 1985, and fans weren't shy about venting their displeasure when he was shown the door.

"Hope you enjoy the coming mass exodus of customers," one Facebook user said on the Wearhouse page after the news came out, while others used nearly anything the company posted as an excuse to pile on with pro-Zimmer barbs. According to Kellogg clinical professor of marketing Tim Calkins, an Academic Director of the Kellogg on Branding Executive Education program, it didn't have to go that way.

'Zimmer's exit leaves much to be desired.'

"It is surprising that the board couldn't craft a deal where Zimmer would depart on good terms," Calkins said. "This was a successful marketing approach because it personalized the brand. It also made the brand dependent on Zimmer. Now that Zimmer is out, Men's Wearhouse has to quickly replace him with other imagery. He could damage the brand if he wanted to."

Even if he doesn't want to, his irate fan base could do it for him, and the chain did little to defend itself for nearly a week before issuing its reasons for the decision. "The short-term handling of the customer outrage over Zimmer's exit leaves much to be desired," observed Daniel Diermeier, Academic Director of the Kellogg Executive Education Crisis Management program. "The main company response was deafening silence—no reason, no explanation, nothing to address the anger."

In the case of Deen, the problem came from her side when inflammatory comments she made in a lawsuit deposition went public. As the story spread, corporations with ties to her were forced to reevaluate their arrangements. The Food Network, home of two shows featuring the chef, declined to renew her contract. Smithfield Foods followed suit, canceling its promotional deal with her and denouncing her choice of language. Sears, Home Depot, Target, Wal-Mart, and Caesars Entertainment joined the crowd, while diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk and QVC paused relations with her.

'The connection goes far deeper.'

In such cases, companies are faced with a messy decision. They can drop a celebrity who's suddenly become a detriment to their image, but they do so at the risk of alienating that person's supporters. That's the risk they accept when making a popular figure their public face, Diermeier stressed, pointing to Tiger Woods's tabloid woes and cyclist Lance Armstrong's doping debacle as additional examples.

"In these cases, we have more than a simple association with a celebrity, as when a former quarterback endorses a car dealership," Diermeier said. "Rather, the connection goes far deeper, as the salient personal attributes of the celebrity are intended to rub off on the associated entity. Tiger Woods's "Be a Tiger" Accenture ads made a direct connection between his outstanding performance on the golf course and general leadership attributes, leveraging Woods's image of excellence and perfection into the business world. Similarly, Livestrong exhibited the values associated with Armstrong: toughness, defiance, and a never-say-die attitude. The risk associated with highly personal brands is that the personal life of the endorser, founder, or owner is closely tied to the success of the business entity. In case of a personal scandal, the positive spillover from an admired celebrity can quickly turn to a severe crisis, especially if the scandal undermines the very values on which the personal brand was built."

What might that undermining lead to? One Facebook user stated it plainly on the Men's Wearhouse page when she explained why she plans to shop elsewhere. "I see no other way to get my point across than with my wallet," she said. "Money is the only thing a business understands."

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Image courtesy Pickles Halliwell