Having a brand built around one face and one name can have its benefits. It can evoke trust and create a real human connection with the customer. But in an age of social media and with an increased spotlight on both brands and their founders, does it still have its place in the modern consumer market?
It’s all in a name…or is it?
Many household brands owe their origins and success to one person. Dutch brewing company Heineken was named after Gerard Heineken in 1873, and Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage company, was named after Henri Nestle in 1867.
However, the majority of the companies that customers know and love were named way back in the 1800’s and 1900’s, in an era when business owners were not in the limelight as much as they are in the present day.
Founders originally opted to name companies after themselves as they were often respected within their field, so in a sense they were already a brand before they began to develop a product or a wider service offering. A great example of this is John Harvey Kellogg, who was a renowned doctor before inventing a cereal as a health food that would improve Americans’ digestion. However, since then, modern brands have distanced themselves from the legacy of their founders, and most customers are not aware at all who founded these companies.
While having a consumer-facing brand named after the founder has its benefits. It is certainly a risky move to have one active ‘face’ of an entire business, where employees and customers can be affected by the actions of that individual. For example, KFC’s founder Colonel Sanders is still a huge part of the brand’s image and reputability – even years after his death. Were he still alive and involved in controversy today, there would certainly be no escape and massive repercussions for the company and its business. And this is exactly the mistakes that Papa John’s has made – despite multiple opportunities to rectify the problem.
Papa John’s PR disaster
In 2012, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, aka ‘Papa John’, made the statement: “We’re not supportive of Obamacare, like most businesses in our industry… If Obamacare is in fact not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs and core strategies to pass that cost onto consumers in order to protect our shareholders’ best interests.” And as recent as 2017, Schnatter made comments criticising NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem stating that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” and that the protests “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” This obviously led to a huge dip in sales and – most significantly- brand perception, marking the beginning of one of many warning signs for the company’s board around its founder’s actions. These alleged comments are politically and racially motivated, which is by default alienating a huge part of Papa John’s core audience.
After the fallout following these comments, Papa John’s had the chance to distance themselves from the outspoken shareholder, removing him from the brand’s logo and marketing materials/packaging. Instead, they chose to carry on as normal – even using him within its TV commercials. Consequently, in May this year when Schnatter used a racial slur against African Americans and then stepped down as chairman of the board, the brand’s equity was damaged to a point of crisis. Papa John’s stock, previously trading as high as $80.80, closed at slightly below $39 per share, following an announcement that the troubled global pizza maker expected to spend between $30 million and $50 million to re-brand and help ailing franchises stay afloat.
John Schnatter is now embarking on a smear campaign following the actions of the board and the company, the epicentre of his campaign being a website called Save Papa Johns to bolster his bid to regain power of the company he founded and was once a mascot, for chairman and CEO. He’s stated that he intends to use the campaign to get the “truth” about his removal from the company out to the public, and clear his own name in the process. As part of this, Schnatter took an ad out in a local paper, the Courier Journal, to direct the company’s 120,000 staff to his website. It boldly reads: ‘I AM PAPA JOHN’, clashing with current chief executive Steve Ritchie’s claims that Papa John’s is much more than any given individual – even its founder and mascot.
This has led to the company embarking on a rebrand and repositioning of extreme pace. This is currently being rolled out across stores worldwide at an expense of an eye-watering $50 million, with an advertising campaign entitled ‘Voices of Papa John’s’ that shines the light on the company’s employees worldwide.
So, what now?
While this is a positive approach to repair the damage caused by the founder’s actions, this could have all been avoided and poses the question whether consumer-facing brands should still be so attached to their founder’s image within this modern consumer market.
In my opinion, the answer is yes and no. It’s beneficial for a company to include its founder’s name to create a sense of familiarity and trust; particularly within a climate where customers have distrust in larger organisations with corporate scandals surfacing almost every-week. However, this is as far as the founder’s presence should go with outward, customer-facing communications. The actions of one individual bring with them an element of unpredictability that companies simply cannot afford.
There are countless lessons that brands should learn from this PR horror story, and the debate continues to whether putting a face to a brand is the right move for modern companies. It’s time brands put their egos aside and create a brand known for its product, not its founder.