Companies have used their founders as spokespeople in their TV commercials for decades — as with Colonel Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dave Thomas for Wendy’s. And these founders often become extremely popular brand personifications of their firms. So, it is with great trepidation that firms and their founders part.

George Zimmer founded the  Men’s Wearhouse about 35 years ago. And he regularly appeared in the company’s TV ads beginning in 1985. He was truly the voice of Men’s Wearhouse as it grew into a nearly 1,250 unit chain.



So, publicly, it was more than a little surprising that Zimmer was fired on June 19 by the board of the company he created — especially since sales and profits were up. Clearly, behind the scenes, Zimmer and the board had problems.

Consider these observations about iconic company founders by Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times:

“Companies do face risks when they tie an executive’s personality to their businesses, advertising executives said. But it is a popular approach, with executives like Dave Thomas at Wendy’s, Frank Perdue at Perdue Farms, and Martha Stewart becoming the face and voice of their companies. The appeal of doing so is obvious, said Ellis Verdi, co-founder of the ad agency DeVito/Verdi, which has made ads for retailers like Kohl’s and Coldwater Creek. It’s relatively cheap, rather than hiring, say, celebrities like LeBron James or Taylor Swift, and it allows for flexibility — an executive can credibly promote a Presidents’ Day sale or talk about the brand’s origins.”

“When Mr. Perdue handed the company to his son, Jim, Perdue’s ad agency ran spots featuring both men before using Jim as the lone spokesman. But, other transitions have not been as smooth. When Orville Redenbacher turned 88, he was bounced from his popcorn ads as the company tried to appeal to a younger, microwave-popcorn-eating demographic. When the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Col. Harland Sanders, died, the company could not decide how to react. It tried ads with an actor impersonating the colonel, and a cartoon version of him, leaving consumers confused. And after the Wendy’s founder and ad star, Mr. Thomas, died in 2002 after appearing in more than 800 commercials, Wendy’s immediately edited ads to remove him. But the company underestimated his bond with consumers, executives later said. Within five months, Wendy’s released new ads promising diners its food was still done “Dave’s way,” and sent posters featuring Mr. Thomas to its locations nationwide. Almost a decade after he died, Wendy’s started featuring the original Wendy — Mr. Thomas’s daughter Melinda Lou Morse, nicknamed Wendy, and by then 50 — in its ads.

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Photo by Wendy’s


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