Companies can fire a founder. But they can't fire his brand.
That's the dilemma Men's Wearhouse is left with after dumping its founder and spokesman, George Zimmer, a decision announced Wednesday. Zimmer had starred in the suit retailer's commercials for almost 30 years, guaranteeing men that "you're going to like the way you look."
On Thursday, a day after the company's terse announcement, reaction on social media continued to be fast and furious, indicating that Zimmer had made the jump from business executive to cultural icon. "George Zimmer" was one of the top searches on Google on Wednesday, and news of the firing made the gossip sites TMZ and Gawker.
And the Men's Wearhouse Facebook page had more than 200 comments criticizing the company for ousting Zimmer, with sentiments like "If George Zimmer isn't coming back, neither am I!" and riffs on Zimmer's signature ad closer like "You're going to miss the way I shopped. I guarantee it."
Men's Wearhouse has not said whether it will continue running the television commercials featuring Zimmer; the company had recently been evaluating their effectiveness, said Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.
Companies face risks when they tie an executive's personality to their businesses, advertising executives said. But it is a popular approach, with executives like Dave Thomas at Wendy's, Frank Perdue at Perdue Farms and Martha Stewart becoming the face and voice of their companies.
The appeal of doing so is obvious, said Ellis Verdi, co-founder of the ad agency DeVito/Verdi, which has made ads for retailers like Kohl's and Coldwater Creek. It's relatively cheap, rather than hiring, say, celebrities like LeBron James or Taylor Swift, and it allows for flexibility — an executive can credibly promote a Presidents' Day sale or talk about the brand's origins.
Perdue, the former chief of Perdue Farms, was one of the first corporate executives to appear in ads for his company. His "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" commercials are considered legends.
"It was the first time someone branded a commodity," said Adam Hanft, a brand strategist. "Without that, there would be no Perdue as we know it today."
That type of marketing can be highly successful until the executive ages, leaves, dies or gets into trouble.
When Perdue handed the company to his son, Jim, Perdue's ad agency ran spots featuring both men before using Jim as the lone spokesman.
Other transitions have not been as smooth.
When Orville Redenbacher turned 88, he was bounced from his popcorn ads as the company tried to appeal to a younger, microwave-popcorn-eating demographic.
When the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Col. Harland Sanders, died, the company could not decide how to react. It tried ads with an actor impersonating the colonel, and a cartoon version of him, leaving consumers confused.
And when the Wendy's founder and ad star, Thomas, died in 2002 after appearing in more than 800 commercials, Wendy's immediately edited ads to remove him. But the company underestimated his bond with consumers, executives later said. Within five months, Wendy's released new ads promising diners its food was still done "Dave's way," and sent posters featuring Thomas to its locations nationwide. Almost a decade after he died, Wendy's started featuring the original Wendy — Thomas' daughter Melinda Lou Morse, nicknamed Wendy and by then 50 — in its ads.
A different situation confronted Macy's when Martha Stewart was released from prison in 2005 as the department store chain considered considering carrying her housewares line. It conducted extensive research to gauge how consumers felt about Stewart post-prison, learning that her image had been tarnished, but not her brand.
"Lots of people don't like her, but they like her products and will happily buy them from Macy's," the company's chief executive, Terry Lundgren, wrote in a 2006 email, summing up research a public relations firm did for Macy's. It began selling Martha Stewart goods in 2007.
Advertising executives say Men's Wearhouse is in a particular bind because the ads featuring Zimmer have been remarkably effective.
"You have to ask yourself how many campaigns in this country last for 25 years," Verdi said. "It's part of our culture — you have comedians riffing on it, you have the tagline that people talk about all the time. So you have what … would probably be one of the most successful campaigns, in my opinion, in retailing history."
Men's Wearhouse spends less than competitors on ads — just $92.2 million in 2012, according to a regulatory filing, or 3.8 percent of sales. Macy's spends 4.3 percent of its sales on advertising, while the highly promotional Jos. A. Bank spends 39 percent of sales on advertising.
"He's very closely associated with Men's Wearhouse and the brand and, as a result, I think there's some downside to a company eliminating his persona too quickly," Verdi said. (One customer on Facebook likened his removal to what would happen if a certain fast-food chain dumped Ronald McDonald.)
Initially, the ads featuring Zimmer in the mid '80s were an attempt to make Men's Wearhouse less tacky.
The company had been using "this short, baldheaded guy who would jump out from behind a rack of suits and do his spiel," Richie Goldman, an early partner, said in an interview now on YouTube, adding, "We wondered why we had an image problem.
"Finally one day George said, you know what? If we're going to get ourselves out of this, we have to change our tone. Let me go on the air, and if people are not going to believe the president and CEO of the company, who are they going to believe?" Goldman said.
He had planned to finish his first ad with "That's the fact, Jack," from the movie Stripes, but at the last minute, swapped it out with the more long-lived "I guarantee it."
The company did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but in a recent regulatory filing noted that "George Zimmer has been very important to the success of the company and is the primary advertising spokesman."
"The extended loss of the services of Zimmer or other key personnel could have a material adverse effect on the securities markets' view of our prospects and materially harm our business," the company said.
The company has fiddled with the ads over the years. Sometimes Zimmer appeared on the selling floor or reclining on a patio. In other ads, he gave advice to employees and at one point, standing at a "Suits University" lectern, told men to don mock turtlenecks. (It was the '90s.)
In 2010, the company experimented with a different tagline for Zimmer: "There's a place men belong. That place is Men's Wearhouse. I guarantee it." But that didn't stick, and the company quickly reverted to the original.