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  Risky Business: When Personalities Promote Brands   Risky Business: When Personalities Promote Brands  Mya Frazier  
Risky Business: When Personalities Promote Brands In the online spot, the bootmaker’s executives—including its head of “values marketing,” Jay Steere—are the talent. Amid a surreal forest landscape with a watercolor hue, Steere touts the brand’s online social networking site and “Earthkeepers” campaign aimed at recruiting one million people to become part of an online network to “inspire environmental change.”

Is Timberland’s campaign setting precedent for other brands to promote their values alongside notable employees? Perhaps, but they should do so with caution.

Including marketers—or any other employee for that matter—as brand representatives in marketing campaigns raises a bevy of questions, especially considering the propensity for real people to get into trouble. Think Kate Moss snorting cocaine in a British tabloid and the immediate scrubbing out by H&M, Chanel and Burberry of the supermodel’s image in ads. Or consider Kobe Bryant. Or Michael Vick. Or Michael Phelps. The list of brand representatives falling prey to their own humanity goes on and on. It’s why fictional brand icons, from the Pillsbury Doughboy to Tony the Tiger, remain so popular in the history of advertising.

By branding around marketers and other employees, brands might save money (presuming internal employees aren’t paid royalties), which is a savvy approach considering the down economy. Jeff Bezos, for example, represents both Kindle 2 and—a brand doing exceptionally well in these exceptionally challenging times. Also, such brands avoid worrying about a strike by the Screen Actors Guild. It should be noted, however, that CEOs and marketers are not the most trusted people these days.

It’s certainly arguable that the inclusion of employees is an inherently risky venture, though perhaps not in the trainwreck style of Moss. But just imagine if Walmart had created a spot featuring ousted and disgraced marketing executive Julie Roehm.

Granted, most high-level employees and marketers aren’t a scandal-prone bunch, but they do jump around. Take, for example, the revolving nature of many marketing positions. The average tenure of a CMO is short—less than two years, according to recent studies—which means a marketing star might not even be around by the time a spot airs.

In the case of Timberland, there was no scandal, just the kind of change that happens every day in marketing departments. In early June 2008, just as the campaign launched, Steere, a longtime Timberland executive, ended up transitioning back to the product side “after a short stint in marketing,” according to Timberland spokeswoman Kate King. Margaret Morey-Reuner was named to his position.

When asked why the spot wasn’t revamped to feature Morey-Reuner, King said, “I think who was in the position didn’t matter. The Earthkeeper spot could have had anyone at Timberland up there talking because it is a corporate-wide ethos.” She added, “There was no reason to swap out Jay for Margaret after he left the role.”

The popularity of celebrity spokesmen (think William Shatner for or Dennis Haysbert for Allstate) remains relatively steady, perhaps for the degree of separation from the company. After all, if a scandal erupts, most consumers understand that despite being held up as the personification of the brand, the celebrity isn’t the brand.

However, a marketer or other employee is an entirely different beast. It’s the ultimate merger of person and brand. They embody the company more completely simply by being an employee. He or she also bears a level of responsibility and accountability for corporate actions, especially a brand’s environmental impact, particularly if the campaign carries a green message.

That’s perhaps why when employees such as marketers are held up publicly as the stewards of a brand—as they are in the Timberland spots—critics are even more emboldened to attack.

The Earthkeepers campaign is part of a broader product campaign for a line of “recycled and earth-conscious” gear made with recycled plastic bottles, organic cotton, recycled rubber soles and the like. On, the two-minute-and-four-second spot hasn’t exactly been a hit. By putting marketers center stage, the spot perhaps attempted to elude the greenwashing police, but based on the response on (more than 290 comments and more than 185,000 views), the presence of marketing executives arguably may have spurred more cynicism than it suppressed.

One post notes, “This is nothing more then a buy my product couse we care video blah blah. Sales, Numbers, nothing more...” Another gripes, “It’s a commercial for a business. Like a tv commercial. Just polished up to brain wash you.” Yet another says, “The pandering ‘Green’ marketing craze makes me ill to watch.”

The inclusion of “real” people—such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Sprint’s Gary Foresee or the Body Shop’s late Anita Roddick—arguably brings a level of authenticity to ad campaigns in a way the no-name commercial actor can’t. But striking the right tone is not easy.

“I do think we’ll see the face of more executives in advertising about brands, with or without green,” says Pete Blackshaw, executive VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the new book Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000.

“Consumers demand more authentic connections with brands. Authenticity is one of the six drivers of brand credibility in my book. Transparency is another one, and in a transparent environment consumers can quickly vet out what the CEO believes and stands for anyway, so the executive might as well be proactive,” Blackshaw added.

Timberland’s execution could have gone further in meeting that consumer demand for authenticity. “I would have focused on less polish with the video,” Blackshaw says. “There’s no question this executive is passionate about the green movement. The campaign asks for scrappy user-contributions on the same topic. I’d keep the look and feel of the executive videos consistent with the user-contributions. I would also take the consumer on a deeper-dive tour into how the products are actually made. Consumers need to ‘see to believe,’ and Timberland in particular may be in a great position to create a great, authentic green tour relative to other brands.”

Building trust, of course, is key. And when claims of going green are made, consumers can sense when brand representatives are coloring the truth.     



Mya Frazier is freelance business journalist. She can be reached at

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Risky Business: When Personalities Promote Brands
 In Australia, we seem to be using that technique more and more. Big brands that are currently featuring 'real employees' with huge success are; Bunnings (big hardware chain), Bakers Delight (bakery franchise), RACV call centre (re. motor insurance).Employer branding is crossing more and more into the mainstream and companies are seeing the real benefits to cross promoting to consumers and potential employees. Of course it won't work for anyone and it does become difficult if you use certain or named employees as spokespeople. 
Erika McInerney, General Manager, Advertising Energy Group - April 20, 2009
 Using employees as 'props' is just a symptom of the old definition of brands: they are part of the image, however authentically presented, with which consumers are supposed to engage.Of course, the real impact of employees to the brand is if they actually DO things that truly differentiate the brand or, similarly, if the business DOES things that make said employees better, different, whatever.I wonder whether employees 'represent' the brand as much as REALIZE IT through their actions? As such, perhaps using them as cheap props -- however creatively or tastefully presented -- is missing on the most useful and sustainable benefits they could deliver? 
Jonathan Salem Baskin - April 20, 2009
 Using employees can bre a powerful tool if employed in such a way that the true spirit of brand values is authentic and maintained. I think there will be a greater proliferation of employees involved in the era of social networking and the like. 
michelle vasquez, Free lance brand strategist - April 20, 2009
 Who is the hero or central character of your brand story matters - and ideally you make it your customer. In some cases, employees can serve as strong messengers and spokespeople for the brand, but only when it translates as geniune. We've all seen it done well with Columbia Sports Gear, Perdue Chicken, even Wendy's - its best when the character represents an everyman or woman people can relate to. At the end of the day though, the story is about your audience - whether they can locate themselves in the story. That should be the primary concern.Michael MargolisBrand 
Michael Margolis, President and Founder, THIRSTY-FISH - April 20, 2009
 To me, your brand promise is authenticated by your people. They better be able to represent what you're all about.

This particular piece to me says more about executional problems - it talks about honest values yet uses visual tricks that distract from that story. It's preachy, which doesn't work for the hard-core green citizen, who is already far more radical than Timberland's story. It doesn't have a hook for the average consumer, so they'll tune it out. It's a high brow visual telling of a down to earth message (thus not fulfilling an emotional need).

Who it was in the video is far less important than why they needed to tell it, and why they chose to do it this way. This could have been far more effective as a low budget call to action from Timberland people that are making a real difference, seen in real places, IMHO.

We've used employees in branding campaigns to great success; execution is the difference-maker. 
Dan Reus, Senior Creative Director, Switch Liberate Your Brand - April 20, 2009
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