Remembering Paul Newman, Marketing and Brand Guy

Actor's Legacy Includes a Philanthropic Model That Holds Lessons for All Businesses

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Tim Manners
Tim Manners
Paul Newman will be remembered as many things: actor, philanthropist, race-car driver, husband, father, grandfather.

I will always think of him as an incredibly astute marketing guy.

About 10 years ago, I visited the Newman's Own offices in Westport, Conn., and interviewed the company's president, Tom Indoe. Mr. Newman wasn't there at the time, but Mr. Indoe gave me a tour of the place, including Paul's office.

Mr. Newman's desk was one of those plastic, poolside tables, with the umbrella up. According to the nameplate, his title was "assistant lifeguard on duty." My fondest memory was a small sign tacked to the wall that read: "'You can get straight A's in marketing and still flunk ordinary life.' ~ Paul Newman to Lee Iacocca after his Ford Pinto caught fire."
Paul Newman
Paul Newman Credit: Stan Honda

As far as I'm concerned, that says it all -- and with the sense of humor that is the signature of the Newman's Own brand.

Brand recognition
It was, after all, only salad dressing. Mr. Newman recognized that people might buy his brand once because it had his name on it and twice because all profits went to charity. But he also knew they would become loyal, long-term customers only if it was a really good product. And they have, because it is.

Just as important, Newman's Own never deviated from the core idea that every one of its products was either created or inspired by the man himself. As Mr. Indoe explained to me, "It's really items or products that Paul would actually make in his own kitchen." Mr. Newman made certain of that by approving every one of the brand's products, of which there are now more than 150.

That legacy is now largely in the hands of Paul's daughter Nell, who in 1982 persuaded her dad to launch a line of organic food. Nell told The New York Times her dad didn't plan to help revolutionize the market for organic products. "He did know that it was a big thing, but I don't know that he realized he changed snacking in America in terms of natural foods," she said, adding, "He probably would have laughed at that."

As Nell explained, "Everything had to be something that my father, who was born in 1925, would look at, recognize and eat. We wanted people of his generation to say, 'That really tastes good,' and then say, 'Oh, it's organic.'"

Tim Manners is the author of 'Relevance: Making Stuff That Matters' and president of David X Manners, a thought leadership, content-development and communications firm.
According to the Times, Newman's Own also "pioneered the use of sustainable, organic palm-fruit oil. That led to the first trans-fat-free microwave popcorn and to a filling for Newman-O's [cookies] that was creamy without trans fat." His Fig Newmans actually built the market for organic fig paste.

Quality key
Mr. Newman's innovations don't end there, though. Third-parties make everything Newman's Own markets; all of its quality assurance and research and development is outsourced, too. "You see a lot of major companies doing that today, but when Newman's started out ... that degree of outsourcing wasn't done," Mr. Indoe said.

The idea was to keep costs low while keeping quality high and making sure there was as much money left over as possible to give to charities. "If the product isn't good, then this business won't grow, and we won't have any more money to give away," Mr. Indoe said.

The concept is still going strong after more than two decades. "Our net profits are equal to or better than most food companies'," Mr. Indoe told me. Charitable contributions have totaled more than $250 million.

Yes, Mr. Newman was an astonishing actor, a valiant race-car driver, a heroic philanthropist and one heck of a great family man. While it's unlikely he ever thought of himself as a masterful marketer -- or a marketer at all -- he set an outstanding example to us all without even trying.

He reminded us that the thin veneer of celebrity is no substitute for the enduring strength of a quality product. He demonstrated that innovation is not something you pursue purely in hope of gaining competitive advantage; you do it to transform unlikely ideas into life-changing breakthroughs. He understood that the strongest kind of brand was simply the kind that he, himself, would make in his own kitchen (or basement, as legend has it).

Spreading the wealth
For more than 20 years, Mr. Newman remembered what made Newman's Own Newman's Own, and never once rolled out a product that didn't meet the standard of his original, and very simple, idea. And he never made a nickel from any of it, instead enriching the lives of countless people who, as he liked to say, weren't as "lucky" as he was.

Mr. Newman created value by making others feel valued. That was just as true for the seriously ill kids at his Hole in the Wall camps as it was for anyone who ever bought one of his products. That is the Newman's Own "brand."

Granted, the Newman's Own approach may not be feasible for anyone other than wealthy, famous and insanely generous people. It may not be a business model corporations could follow even if they wanted to. But what would happen if more marketers began wrapping their heads around the connections Paul Newman made between charity, innovation, sales and profits?

We just might find our way to a different kind of ROI -- where the "I" stands for innovation and the return is also on responsibility. Where we get straight A's in marketing and pass ordinary life, too.
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