CEO brand builders

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Much has been made in the media of the death of Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain and star of roughly 800 corny, straightforward TV commercials.

Mr. Thomas was one of the last of the great corporate-honchos-turned-brand-spokesmen. Not coincidentally, he was a protege of Harlan Sanders, the beloved founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mr. Sanders became such a powerful advertising icon in his own right that today, decades after the colonel's death, the brand still hasn't figured out what to do next. (The Colonel must be doing 11 somersaults in his grave right now, watching the strained performance of Jason Alexander hawking slow-cooked wings and legs.)

Mr. Thomas' company, Wendy's International, will now have to chart a perilous course in the post-Dave era. Appropriately, branding experts will call for a new focal point for their campaign. But the basic problem for Wendy's is that Dave tended to carry most of the company's spots, even if he was on screen for mere seconds. Waiting for Dave to show up in a Wendy's spot was like watching for Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in "Psycho." We knew it was coming, and it was always worth the wait, no matter how fleeting his moment.

HEINEKEN'S DEFT TOUCH

But Dave wasn't the only corporate chairman who had a major impact on the ad world to leave us recently. Little has been said about the death in Holland last week of Alfred Heineken, the 78-year old grandson of Gerard Heineken, founder of the Netherlands' Heineken beer.

Better known as Freddy, Alfred Heineken was, simply put, a marketing genius. His passing has an even greater significance for the advertising world than does the death of Wendy's Dave. While Mr. Thomas made himself the public face of Wendy's marketing communications, and was always identified as such, Wendy's will never be the case history on marketing brilliance that Perdue Farms was.

But Heineken is different. Here was a brand that was deftly touched by the marketing savvy of its chairman. Freddy was widely quoted as admitting "had I not been a brewer, I would have become an advertising man." The irony is that he managed to excel as both.

Beer drinkers may recall that, back when imported beer was something of an oddity and fruit-flavored microbrews were the province of home-bottling enthusiasts, Heineken was the badge of affluence and sophistication. But they will need memories longer than the necks of those Corona bottles that eventually edged Heineken out as the top American import. "Come to think of it, I'll have a Heineken" was the theme of a none-too-dazzling campaign from the old SSC&B agency. It was pure and simple, focusing mostly on the distinctive green bottle that came to represent the brand throughout the world.

Indeed, Freddy Heineken understood that, for his brand to triumph globally, it had to be iconographic. He did this on two levels: not just with the shape and color of his container, but with the prominent red star on the label.

In the strangely quixotic world of beer brands, you can't discount the importance of the package and the subtle messages of attitude it telegraphs. For example, as idle youth growing up in Maryland, my buddies and I understood that Rolling Rock was bargain-basement brew. It was what we bought when our pooled allowances (coupled with a fake ID) couldn't get us a six-pack of Bud. But, thanks to the nostalgic charm of its painted label and sleek long-neck bottle, not to mention the mysterious "33" on the back, "Rollies" were transformed a decade ago into an upscale brand. Same beer. New badge. Go figure.

dna of marketing

Mr. Heineken was one of a dwindling group of aging heroes from the days when heads of companies understood and appreciated the DNA of marketing. They knew how the entire mix had to fit together, from cheeky ads to a cool product wrapped in a package that consumers imbued with meaning, that transcended what the stuff actually was. The International Advertising Festival in Cannes recognized this when it named Heineken its "Advertiser of the Year" back in 1995. What was most appealing about that was that Freddy himself came to accept the award, as Phil Knight of Nike, another CEO whose personal influence on his brand is indelible, did one year before him.

The passing of Freddy and Dave should give us pause. In this era of public ownership, corporate consolidation and boardroom musical chairs, what other CEOs can we point to today who have made marketing their personal mission, who have invested themselves so thoroughly with the image of their brands that you can't help but see the results?

How many other top client executives might look at the careers of Freddy and Dave and realize that, in an age of product parity and price-cutting, the design and marketing of their products are all that's going to set their brand apart?

There's something to think about while you wash down those Biggie Fries with a cold Heine.

Freelance writer Anthony Vagnoni is the former creative editor of Advertising Age and the former editor of Ad Age sibling publication Creativity.

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