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Become Your Company's Hero

by Marcia Yudkin

Since the O.J. Simpson murder trial, practically everyone understands the perils of a corporation hiring a celebrity spokesperson. The company can't prevent a precipitous plunge in reputation that turns the endorsement into a liability. Here's an alternative. Assuming you know how to keep yourself from murdering, swindling or jumping into a puddle of scandal, make yourself the icon of your company. According to James B. Twitchell in a terrific book, Twenty Ads that Shook the World, this strategy goes back more than 120 years.

In the 1880s, the visage of Lydia E. Pinkham appeared in so many newspaper advertisements and on so many collectible cards given away at stores that the founder of this patent-medicine company rivaled Queen Victoria in fame. In outline, Lydia E. Pinkham appears as the prim, archetypal grandmother who knows best. The accompanying copy promises a sympathetic ear and invites letters about what ails you.

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The personality of Lydia E. Pinkham struck such a chord with the public that when the company pulled her image from their advertising, sales plummeted almost 80 percent. When they restored her in the company marketing, sales surged to new heights. Pinkham's husband and son, running the business, made no attempt to hinder her identity from becoming the butt of humor in popular culture, especially in college 
drinking songs.

Eventually Ms. Pinkham died, making her countenance function more like a 100 percent mythical company figurehead like Aunt Jemima, Miss Clairol or Mr. Clean. That consumers don't still know her well has more to do with the demise of unscientific concoctions than with the antiquated appeal of 
her image.

Can this strategy still work today? Dave Thomas, CEO of the Wendy's hamburger chain, reportedly had little aptitude or fondness for acting, but continued starring in his company's ads because it increased business. 

On a smaller scale, a macaroni-and-cheese company called Annie's echoes Ms. Pinkham's success by personifying the all-natural approach of the product in Annie, her pesticide-free farm in Connecticut and her rabbits. I doubt any of Annie's competitors receive even a fraction of her fan mail.

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According to Kevin Nunley, an expert in Internet marketing, this strategy works well in promoting businesses on today's World Wide Web. "Back in the prehistoric days of 1996, home pages on the web were personal pages," he says. "That was a happy accident. Because the early sites looked a lot like letters, the web site borrowed the special power of personal letters. Put your photo on your web site. Provide a visual way for prospects and customers to know you."

I would add one point to Nunley's advice. Whether on the Web, on paper or on product packaging, personification works best when you polish off the rough edges and highlight the characteristics that make a good story or give a visual image symbolic resonance. Give yourself the stature of myth and your business likewise soon grows to the proportion of "larger than life."

Copyright 2001 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved. 

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