Ten Things to Think Hard About Before Featuring the Chairman in Advertising

GM's Whitacre Fronts Its 'May the Best Car Win' Spots, but Is That Wise?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It surely isn't a new idea for General Motors to star Chairman Ed Whitacre in advertising, but is it a good one?

Discussing with reporters its "May the Best Car Win" campaign, from McCann Erickson, Birmingham, Mich., GM marketing chief Bob Lutz -- who batted back rumors that Mr. Whitacre demanded to be made the "new Lee Iacocca," of the Chrysler ads back in the 1980's -- said "what we were looking for was a highly credible spokesperson who would be a new fresh face."

Ed Whitacre, chairman, GM
Ed Whitacre, chairman, GM
The strongest argument for Mr. Whitacre's ad debut is just that; for a company that's been in as much distress over the past year as GM, it could be effective in signaling change. Credibility is another story.

The annals of ad history have shown that marketing campaigns featuring a chairman or a CEO can add tremendous value. Among those frequently cited as the gold standard are Frank Perdue, who made his chicken a household name; James Dyson, the inventor of high-end Dyson vacuums; Wendy's founder Dave Thomas and the zany head of the Virgin empire, Richard Branson. These efforts worked because the execs built these companies, and as such, were not viewed as pitchmen. They're memorable faces and voices that actually embody the brand.

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A recent study by Euro RSCG about the "Future of the Corporate Brand" found one-third of consumers polled think having a CEO who is highly visible in the media is an important factor in whether or not they trust the company. Of course, featuring one that doesn't resonate with consumers can also help sink a brand.

Ad Age canvassed top creatives and agency heads around the country, who agreed on one thing: Campaigns featuring company executives can be risky. If you're considering such a strategy, here are 10 points to ponder.

  • In the digital era, everyone's a critic, so make sure your executive is steeled for any potential knocks.

    "Advertising in the YouTube age can be a dangerous forum for the boss to personally deliver the brand's message," said Harry Woods, partner-creative director at Woods Witt Dealy & Sons. "You'd better be sure your CEO is capable and believable, and that his or her message is likable and worth watching before you put him or her in front of the camera and in the line of fire from digital tomato throwers."

  • Consumer confidence in corporate America has waned, thanks to the Bernie Madoffs of the world, so top executives might not come off as trustworthy as they once would have.

    "These days, MC Hammer has more credibility than the average CEO," said Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen, Watertown, Massachusetts.

  • If a top officer is seen making grandiose promises on behalf of the company, he or she had better deliver, or it could harm consumers' feelings about the brand even further.

    "Creatives are always looking for the perfect voice in our ads, and it might make sense to use a top executive or a CEO when they have something really newsworthy to share or are saying something large and epic," said Roger Camp, chief creative officer at Publicis & Hal Riney. "But you have to make sure that the person follows through and it's not an empty promise."

  • Part of being authentic, is letting the executive featured in the ad be him or herself and have their own personality.

    "The reason Frank Perdue worked is because the man looked and sounded like a chicken. He was believable, powerful and had a really particular personality," said Paul Venables, founder and creative director of Venables Bell.

    "If you can see the fingerprints of the agency on the ads, you've blown it," said Phil Johnson, CEO of PJA Advertising in Cambridge, Mass.

  • There's always the chance the ad could be seen as a desperate, Hail Mary play.

    "The chairman-as-spokesman tactic usually means you're at the end of your rope," said Chief Creative Officer Rob Schwartz of TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles, which handles creative for Nissan and Infiniti. "As a consumer, that looks like to me that the company is in the toilet or about to be swirling."

    "With a guy like Dave Thomas, I saw him through good times and bad," said Mr. Camp. "A lot of times when CEO's are trotted out, it's when they're getting hammered."

  • Rather than using a newbie merely to signal a change, consumers might respond better to those that have worked hard to keep the brand alive.

    "I look at someone like Fritz Henderson, and he was the one who had to make all those really tough decisions, and he shepherded GM through a really tough time. And there's still some fantastic people creating these cars at the assembly plant level," said Marty Donohue, founding partner and co-creative director at Full Contact Advertising, Boston. "This guy is brand new and he doesn't have the experience, so why should we trust him? Because he's new? Maybe they're trying to tell America that this is a brand new GM, but what America loves is that phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes story. And rather than put a brand new face on it, why don't we see some of the faces on the plant floor, and work your way up, and maybe end the campaign with the new guy?"

  • If you're doing this kind of campaign, make it for the long run; a one-off might not be perceived as believable.

    "When you look at the people who do it well, they make a long-term commitment to it, it's not just an ad, they do it over time. For it to work, people have to go beyond the ads, they have to be seen in public and be a real presence," Mr. Johnson said. "Express his thoughts on blogs, be on Twitter, make himself accessible to the press and participate in customer forums."

  • Ask yourself who the campaign is really for. Such tactics can come off as more about the client than consumers.

    "Using the chairman or a top executive can seem self-serving and reek of an agency stroking a client's ego," said David Angelo, chairman and chief creative officer of David & Goliath.

    "It's not the most advisable thing to put a CEO front and center because as a human being they are usually in another stratosphere, and it can be difficult for them to connect to popular America," Mr. Venables said. "Advertising is about winning people over and it's tough to do with a person who represents some pretty particular interests of a company."

  • There's a danger in associating an entire company with a single person. Putting a lone executive front and center means he or she could take down the entire company in one fell swoop.

    "The value of the CEO or Chairman as spokesperson can be especially high in high-anxiety categories such as finance," said Andrew Benett, CEO at Euro RSCG New York and global chief strategy Officer, Euro RSCG Worldwide. "There is danger, though, when the brand is all about the CEO rather than vice versa. Bill Gates let us know early in the game that Microsoft was about far more than him and that he would not remain forever at the helm. Contrast that with Apple and Steve Jobs. Steve's almost messianic role within the tech community (despite having walked away from Apple for a dozen years) has made him arguably as big as the brand, if not bigger. It was not unexpected, then, when his recurring health concerns earlier this year sent shockwaves through the company's investor base."

    "You're putting the whole brand in the hands of one person, but what if he gets fired, he leaves or gets caught up in a scandal?" said PJA's Mr. Johnson.

  • You might think the ad is distinctive, but in reality these spots are becoming more commonplace.

    "Lately, there's been a flood of executive testimonial ads out in the marketplace," said Mike Caguin, exec creative director at Colle & McVoy, Minneapolis. "Even if a brand has a truly captivating executive personality or story to tell, it's going to be very difficult in today's climate to grab someone's attention."

    The fine print on GM's guarantee

    What's to stop a person from heading to a General Motors dealership, laying out some cash for a new Cadillac, beating the hell out of it without making payments for two months and returning it to the dealer?

    Dean Crutchfield
    Dean Crutchfield
    Not a whole lot. Here are the parameters of the automaker's 60-day, money-back guarantee program, which runs through Nov. 30 and allows consumers to return their vehicles and receive full refunds if they are displeased with their purchase. The refund is applicable to purchases of 2009 or 2010 Chevys, GMCs, Buicks and Cadillacs only. Consumers must either finance or pay cash for their cars to be eligible. A consumer cannot return the car damaged.

    The deal requires that buyers keep the car for at least 31 days, be current on payments during that time period and not exceed 4,000 miles on the vehicle, according to Pete Ternes, director-communications for GM sales service and marketing.

    A returned car is counted as a sold vehicle for GM, but if it's brought back it's returned as a used vehicle and can only be sold as a used vehicle. The dealer buys it back at a pre-established pro-rated rate; the automaker has signed on with an insurance company to cover the difference so the dealer doesn't lose money on the depreciation. The consumer gets everything back plus sales tax.

    But will consumers see the program as a desperate act or a strong demonstration of GM's faith in its product ?

    Mark Hass, CEO and partner of MH Group Communications, is betting on the latter. Mr. Hass said one of the things the automaker's marketing has lacked is a "bold stake in the ground approach" telling consumers it believes in its cars. "That's always been the big problem. "

    "This is a statement of confidence that they are going to be around but they have to be careful about how they craft that message," said Dean Crutchfield, an independent brand consultant. He likens it to the "puppy dog" technique, i.e. leaving a dog with someone for a while. "They won't want to give it back after a couple of weeks."

    -- Michael Bush

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