Brand Personality Trap

August 30, 2011 by  Filed under: Branding 

Elaine’s Restaurant in New York City is going to close on May 26. It’s been a famous celebrity haunt for ages even though its food was never anything to write home about, and there’s a book out now about it: Last Call at Elaine’s.

Elaine’s is famous for its owner Elaine Kaufman, and she passed away last December.

Her image was of a classic tough lady with a heart of gold. She was also smart and knew exactly how to treat her customers and she remembered small details about their lives. She helped struggling writers, joshed with superstars, and took no guff from anyone. She was even a recurring minor character in Stuart Woods’s Stone Barrington novels. But when Elaine died, the restaurant started to die too. I’m always talking about injecting personality into your marketing efforts, I even say that sometimes the company owner can be the spokesperson for the Brand. That doesn’t mean focus the company’s whole personality on one person. That can only work in the short term– as long as the key person is around. Kentucky Fried Chicken does very well now but they had a tough time recovering when their ubiquitous spokesman, Colonel Harland D. Sanders, died in 1980. They eventually brought him back as a pure visual icon. Wendy’s built a great campaign around its founder, the likeable Dave Thomas, but they, too, have had problems finding a focus since Dave passed away in 2002.

I don’t think a company’s personality should necessarily revolve around real people at all. Capital One was doing okay with its fake Vikings but then they switched to the very real Alec Baldwin and a lot of consumers have a lot of good reasons for not liking Alec Baldwin. Some companies, Hertz for instance, built their campaigns around the very likeable O.J. Simpson who turned out to be, to put it mildly, not a good spokesman. Fake or long dead real personalities can be fine because they’re completely controllable: Aunt Jemima, L.L. Bean, Ethan Allen, Captain Morgan, etc.

Years ago we worked on Weight Watchers and showed cartoony characters, Brenda and Elaine, who were constantly working on losing weight. They yakked back and forth about exercising like moving their arms in an out against the smorgasbord table. The direct mail was getting a great response when the heads of the company decided that Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess would work better. She bulged up after slimming down, and there were only head shots for a while.

So, a company’s personality can have a spokesperson, but it also has to have a sustainable strategic focus that becomes more of an attitude than anything else. Steve Jobs was ill, and didn’t give his keynote in 2009, and yet the Apple culture, the wonderful products, the iPads we adore… all continue to prosper. Of course we’re always happy when Steve Jobs comes out to present something new too!

Lois K. Geller
Lois Geller Marketing Group
Twitter: @LoisGeller

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