Opinion: The perils of marketing the celebrity-in-chief

If a person who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, why do so many CEOs cast themselves as corporate spokesperson?

Often, they don’t. But in an era of such strong personal branding, where even those of us who don’t run multibillion-dollar companies are constantly thinking about our public profile, this was to be expected. The line between celebrity and CEO has been blurring for years: blame Oprah, Martha and the Donald, the lions of the lifestyle brand. It even works the other way: actors and singers launch eponymous clothing lines and perfumes, even wines and vodkas. If celebrity can open the door to being a CEO, why can’t being a CEO be the launching pad for a career as a spokesperson? But in the words of one of the most famous celebrity-in-chiefs out there, is this really “a good thing?”

Well, that depends. It is in the case of Martha Stewart – she built her personal brand based on a series of skills that she developed over the course of a career as a caterer and homemaker. It lends a great deal of credibility to her cookbooks, housewaresand other lifestyle products. I’m not sure she should shill for E-Trade, mind you, but in her particular arena, she’s a great spokesperson because she’s so good at her job. If she tells me that her signature paint collection is great, I’m going to believe her. She was a lifestyle expert first, and a CEO second, and that’s what makes her effective at pitching her products.

But in Canada, I’m not so certain about most of our highly marketed execs, who tend to be business people more than anything else. Take the marriage of Galen Weston Jr. and the marketing of President’s Choice. He’s a smart, decent guy (I’ve met him a couple of times) and comes across as entirely likable. But I have a great deal of difficulty believing that PC products are actually the “choice” that the scion of Canada’s third-richest family makes when he entertains at home. Everybody over to G2’s house for some PC Blue Menu lasagna? Sorry, I just can’t see it happening.

These commercials made more sense to me when Dave Nichol was pushing the President’s Choice label. After all, this was a guy who looked like he ate a lot – I could picture him on vacation eating something terrific one week, smuggling it home, and a Loblawsified version showing up on store shelves as the latest “memories of” product the next.

So if Weston doesn’t embody the brand, why put him out there, front and centre? It may well be because the last time Loblaws had a strong branded presence was in the glory days of the aforementioned Nichol. Whatever the strategy, at least I can say this: at a minimum, Weston is always at the service of the products inhis advertising, emphasizing the food itself rather than his role in its development. That’s a smart move, and one lots of other CEO spokespeople forget.

Consider Heather Reisman and Chapters/Indigo. As much as I appreciate the way her stores promote reading and Canada, I don’t think the brand is served by her personal “picks” being highlighted as much as they are: the only reason I know that she knows anything about books is because she’s constantly telling me so. It makes more sense to employ a spokesperson with a stronger existing pedigree. It would be great to have a recognized Canadian author – someone who writes and reads for a living – as the chain’s “chief book lover,” rather than the president of the company, who has a lot of non-reading responsibilities on her plate.

And that’s the danger with presenting the CEO as the brand itself: good corporate execs don’t necessarily represent the brand best in the public eye. And a good ad agency should be making that recommendation, in the best interest of the brand. But unfortunately, in these cases, the final decision as to how to use these figureheads rests with the spokespeople themselves, and that can lead to a bad marketing decision. Sometimes, to create good marketing, you have to tell a client something that they don’t want to hear – and this is where it can get personal. It’s tough enough for agencies to create a good spokesperson without also having to worry about the fact that they’re the one signing your paycheque.

Max Valiquette is a Toronto-based consultant on marketing, media and modern consumers.