Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jimmy Dean and other Founders Turned Spokesmodels

The passing of Jimmy Dean over the weekend has got me thinking about the longevity, or lack thereof, of founders with the companies that they founded.

In rare cases, one of the company's founders who helps the small company grow actually has the skills to stick with the company even after it has grown. Bill Gates is the obvious example here of someone who could head a small company and a large one.

If you don't know "Big Bad John," you may know Jimmy Dean from his namesake sausages. Dean started the company in 1969, running it for 15 years until it was acquired by Consolidated Foods (now Sara Lee) in 1984.

When a company is intimately identified with its founder, you often want to keep the founder around for marketing purposes. After Harlan Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken, he continued to appear in commercials until his death - in fact, an animated Harlan Sanders appears in KFC commercials today, almost 30 years after Sanders died.

As time passed, however, Jimmy Dean the man became less and less associated with Jimmy Dean the product. They say that nobody doesn't like Sara Lee, but by January 2004, Dean appeared to be an exception:

Country singer Jimmy Dean said Sara Lee has dropped him as spokesman for the sausage company he founded.

The 75-year-old native of Plainview, Texas, said the maker of food, apparel and household products told him he no longer meets the company's marketing needs.

A spokeswoman for Sara Lee said the company chose not to renew Dean's contract in May because the "brand was going in a new direction'' that demanded a shift in marketing.

Now one can certainly say that tastes change, and sausage is certainly a more controversial food than it was in the 1980s, or the 1960s. But Jimmy Dean without Jimmy Dean still sounds a little odd. By 2009, ADweek agreed:

The spot's vignette is hilarious as the "sun" copes with a solar system beset by mid-morning slump -- Mars sinking to the floor, another planet collapsing onto a table, etc. After confessing that they didn't have their Jimmy Dean breakfast this morning, the planets dig into some Jimmy Dean Croissant Sandwiches (filled with sausage, egg and cheese), and cosmic order is restored.

Uh, yeah. But the reviewer noted:

[M]aybe it's just a sense that there isn't anything intrinsically Jimmy Dean-ish about the spots, which could as easily (or, indeed, more easily) be built around a number of other breakfast foods.

However, despite the presence of a slew of brands (Ball Park, Hillshire Farm, Sara Lee itself, etc., etc., etc.) on its roster, Sara Lee took a moment to express its deepest corporate sentiments:

"All of us at the Sara Lee Corporation are deeply saddened by the loss of such an iconic figure,” said Daryl Gormley, vice president breakfast and snacking, Sara Lee North America Retail. “His legacy extends far beyond his development of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand and he will be missed by millions. We extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Dean's family and loved ones and we will keep them in our thoughts during this difficult time."

One founder turned spokesmodel who had a happier experience with his creation was the late Dave Thomas of Wendy's fame. Thomas' biography notes that Thomas (who learned much from the aforementioned Harlan Sanders) opened his first Wendy's restaurant in 1969. He ended his day-to-day involvement with the company in 1982, but came back in a way in 1991 (again, from his corporate biography:

In early 1989, Dave agreed to appear in a few Wendy’s commercials. During his nearly 13-year run (and 800+ commercials) as Wendy’s spokesman, Americans came to love him for his downto-earth, homey style. This campaign made Dave one of the nation’s most recognizable spokesmen.

This commercial run only ended because of Thomas' death in 2002. It's safe to say that Wendy's has a higher regard for Thomas than Sara Lee has for Jimmy Dean.

Incidentally, a more detailed corporate history of Wendy's can be found here.
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