Are 12-year-old girls in charge of public corporations now? I was just wondering because the highly profitable Men’s Wearhouse retailer did what seemed like an impulsively 12-year-old thing this week; they fired their founder and 30 year spokesman, George Zimmer, of “You’re gonna like the way you look, I guarantee it” fame ( not the George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin murder infame…could the board have been confused?).
Of course, it makes perfect business sense. After all, the company is apparently very healthy, made a record 23% jump in profits last year, is beating the bejeezus out of competitors Jos.A.Bank and Macy’s, and had one of the strongest brand positions in its field. So, obviously, what better time for the board to act on a brain fart and shoot itself in the breadbasket? Of course, as in all cases like this, nobody at the company could be reached for comment other than with the boilerplate we-have-tremendous-confidence-in-our-current-management-team variety (which makes you think it was a hormonal, mean-girl decision on the board level). And Zimmer himself has not been talking either (making you think there are lawsuits a-flying). But the board and all concerned won’t be able to keep this quiet for long. You know they didn’t consult with their PR firm first before whoever it was had their hissy-fit.
So there’s a vacuum of information coming out of the corporation. And in the absence of information, people just make stuff up. Like I am. And once that starts happening, you’ve lost control of your brand. You’ve ignored Rule #2, Perception is Reality.
They probably had their good reasons.
Now, I’m sure the Men’s Wearhouse board probably had their good reasons. Maybe we just didn’t realize how difficult it was to work with Zimmer. Maybe we didn’t realize the Machiavellian environment over there. Maybe somebody didn’t like his personal support of certain lefty political causes. Or maybe they thought they could get more Millennials to buy suits if they didn’t think they were buying them from their grandfather (newsflash: Millennials aren’t going to buy suits anyway, even if you got The Bieber to sell them). But we don’t know. We’re just dumb customers. Yet, in the tweeted words of one of those dumb customers (who identified himself as a Millennial), “You’re gonna miss the way I shop, I guarantee it.”
In our new, highly leveraged economy in which mundane things like, oh, sales, productivity, earnings ,or customer loyalty have no relevance any more–and all that matters are rents–one can laugh at the naiveté that the rules of marketing would apply to how a board conducts itself. But they will. The rules don’t give a shit about the minutiae of corporate politics.
For us, this becomes an ideal experiment to observe. We should grab some popcorn, pull up to the rail, and see what happens when a company violates nearly all the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing at once. It’ll be fun. We might very well be witnessing a brand suicide.
Consistency vs Creativity
Now, nobody ever accused the Men’s Wearhouse of being particularly creative or entertaining with its advertising. But George Zimmer, with his charming New York accent, repeating his corny, I-guarantee-it tagline, ad infinitum et ad nauseaum, helped the retailer become, over three decades of consistency (and some $90 million a year in advertising), one of the strongest brands in America. It grew from a single store in Houston in 1973 to over 1200 stores, with annual sales of $2.5 billion.
That phrase, “You’re gonna like the way you look,” with Zimmer saying it to you directly, meant that this guy personally cared about your appearance. That was a very compelling idea. Very empathetic. Very persuasive. Realistically, you know he wasn’t going to be fitting you when you went in to get your interview suit, but it certainly wasn’t beyond your expectation that he could. He had that credibility.
It would certainly have helped even more had the advertising been more entertaining. But Zimmer, having obeyed all the other Nine Unbreakable Rules of Marketing, especially the Give Love to Get Love Rule, made his company unbelievably successful. And his board, ignoring all those rules (especially Rule #9, Everything is Marketing), are setting themselves up for, as the Chinese curse goes, “interesting times.”
In history we’ve seen what happens when companies have fired their popular founders and spokesmen. It happened to Apple back in the 1985 when John Scully manipulated a boardroom coup to fire Steve Jobs, only to come crawling back to him ten years later to save them again. It will be interesting to see the direction of the Apple brand now that Jobs has gone where no board can crawl back to him.
But it’s one thing when a founder who has become the personification of his brand dies (Jobs, Wendy’s Dave Thomas, Frank Perdue of Perdue Chicken). It’s another thing when the board fires him. That just smacks of bad mojo. Nobody likes a family fight. People on the outside don’t want to take sides. All they know is that there’s a stink in the air and they want to get up and leave.
Among their non-statements about the incident, Men’s Wearhouse has said that they haven’t made a decision about whether to continue to use Zimmer and his famous phrase in their advertising. I’m sure they hadn’t thought it through that far.
But Zimmer will probably land on his feet. At the very least he can stand in for The Most Interesting Man in the World, which is who I thought he was anyway.