What Do You Do When Your Spokesperson Dies?

How We and a Client Mobilized to Craft Thoughtful Solution to Worst-Case Scenario

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Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
There are moments in all of our professional careers that we will never forget. They may be pinnacle achievements, hard-fought victories, sudden losses or navigating through crises. Recently, I had the latter. Allow me to explain.

On March 13, 2009, Brownstein Group and client J&J SnackFoods shot a new TV commercial for the SuperPretzel brand. It featured the legendary broadcaster of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, Harry Kalas. The product is no stranger to Harry or baseball fans, as it is sold in just about every Major League Baseball stadium in America. This was the first time SuperPretzel and Harry Kalas had worked together, and there was much anticipation regarding the launch of this new advertising campaign.

It has been my experience that when you sign on with a spokesperson, anything can happen, and you need to be prepared for it. My client takes the same approach, as he has had a few war stories with spokespeople as well. Exactly one month after we shot the commercial with Harry, we got word that he had passed away. In the broadcast booth, just prior to the start of the Phillies-Nationals game. Once the initial shock wore off, I reached for the phone to call my client. As I did, he was calling me. Word spread fast, and we needed to have a plan. This was a crisis-management situation, for sure.

Brownstein Group's ad for SuperPretzel featuring Harry Kalas.
Brownstein Group's ad for SuperPretzel featuring Harry Kalas.
The questions that we needed to consider were:
  • Do we run the same commercial, even though Harry passed away?
  • Do we re-cut it, so we lose his likeness, but keep his voice?
  • Or, do we determine that it is simply too creepy to see a spokesperson, now deceased, in a commercial, scrap the spot and shoot a whole new spot?
We considered organizing a focus group and asking them what they thought. As it turned out, there was so much fan interest in the Philly area, and nationally (Harry's passing was featured on ESPN for several days), that we (agency and client) conducted informal, one-on-one interviews with people. Opinions were all over the place. Some people thought we had to show the spot as is. Others said there's no way we could show it -- too disrespectful to Harry's memory. There was even a split in our agency: half of Brownstein Group (including my father, who is our chairman and founder) believed we needed to start over. I always believed we should show it, as the spot was humorous, in good taste and people needed/wanted to see more of HK. The critical learning is that we didn't panic. My client and I were in contact several times daily, and we monitored the emotional temperature of the marketplace daily. After a week, we met and presented script options.

In the end, we decided to run the spot only during the Phillies-Mets series in early May. We added 15 seconds onto it with a memorial tribute. The spot aired for the first time during game one of the series. Game two was rained out, and didn't air -- which was fine. In its own way, it seemed appropriate to salute Harry just once.

We also made the video available online and launched a media-relations program.

The results of this impromptu campaign are still being measured. And our plans to market the SuperPretzel brand moving forward are still being determined. Once they are, I will bring you up to speed with what the results are, and what we decide to do for the remainder of the brand's media schedule.

As I said to my team that was involved in this, although Harry's passing was a tragedy, we can learn from this as way of solving a marketing crisis situation.

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