Latching your brand to a celebrity or spokesperson is a tempting proposition. In theory it leaps a brand ahead in the authenticity game by having someone with unique qualifications who can vouch for a product’s claims. It’s an especially tempting tactic for brands who are looking to grow into bigger markets with larger footprints where their locality no longer carries clout. With all of the perceived power a spokesperson can wield, they come with just as much liability in tow, especially in the digital age.

Take the cases of Jared Fogle and John Schnatter. These two people very well may have been the most iconic restaurant spokespeople in the 21st century. If not the most iconic, they certainly were the most prevalent. Each rose to the top, and toppled like the end of a Jenga game when their true selves reared their ugliness. And right along with them were the brands they represent.

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It begs the question: With that much at stake, why even risk a spokesperson strategy at all? In theory the brands that find spokesperson strategies most appealing are the ones with little beyond the baseline “good food and good service” offering. They have gotten so large and neutralized because of their size and the needs for systems to be maintained consistently across the network. In short, they lack a purpose.

The models employed by most large restaurant brands worked at their inception. Throughout the last half of the 20th century people were attracted to the predictability of a consistent meal and experience. Having risen above the greasy spoon diners, fast food and casual dining brands served as a new experiences one could depend on. Quality and service for a good price was the baseline necessary to thrive because competition was scarce.

As we moved closer to the end of the century, however; competition was beyond plentiful. To compound the complexity of competing, changes in generations brought forth changes in consumer needs and desires. The very act of dining out became less a luxury, and the multitude of options gave customers abilities to choose based on factors other than offering. The result was good food, good service, for a good price became cost of entry, and not a successful positioning strategy.

Flash forward to today, and we see a landscape fueled by cultural phenomena. Food television programming has opened the public’s eyes to a world of culinary possibilities. Restaurant options are plentiful, unique, and popping up constantly. Furthermore, a backlash against over-produced, manufactured food took hold, and continues to grow in strength and prevalence.

All of this contributed to independent restaurants rising in popularity. They now dominate local areas because they are the opposite of the corporate, manufactured experiences. They’re more daring, more vibrant, and have a stronger brand offering. The predictability that once made big brands great, is now their Achilles’ heel.

The result is restaurants with weak brand positioning clamoring to find a way to connect with an market that’s inherently skeptical.

There may be a time and place for a spokesperson, but they should be employed with caution. Leveraged in short terms, a spokesperson can boost clout and credibility on new claims. However, those claims must be rooted in a genuine purpose, and they should connect with a group of people. The operative word is “group” and very much not “all.” A restaurant, just like other organizations, must align its purpose with a group of people to whom that purpose matters. That purpose must be genuine, company-wide, network-wide, and tangible. It cannot reek of a marketing ploy, which means it has to come from the top down, inside out, in that order.

Example: People choose Starbucks because they want to be seen as a busy professional. Yes, Starbucks serves coffee and ancillary items, but it’s the overall experience that attracts people. That experience is a direct manifestation of their purpose: to create the third space. As a result of their purpose, and their complete ownership of it, when Starbucks hits a snag, the barely miss a step in recovering. Starbucks, and brands that have a clear purpose, don’t need a spokesperson, because that purpose is clear in everything they do. It’s authentic.

When a brand uses a spokesperson it gets the good with the bad. The bad isn’t always clear or readily available especially with average folks who aren’t in the spotlight. After all, the internet never forgets, and the internet will always find a way. It’s one of the few guarantees in life in the digital age.

For Subway and Papa Johns, the path to recovery is a steep uphill battle. In Papa John’s case, John Schnatter refuses to leave without a fight, and his likeness is smattered across everything. That alone is a crippling financial investment to remedy. Most importantly, neither brand has a clear purpose, and, therefore; people cannot adopt the brand into their curated personas. Without a purpose, a brand is relegated to commodity and will always clamor to compete on utilitarian principles. Once that brand is tarnished at the hands of a spokesperson gone wrong, recovery is a steep hill to climb.

Joseph Szala is the principal and brand strategist of Vigor, a restaurant and beverage branding and marketing studio. He’s the voice behind the Grits X Grids podcast, and avid blogger and author, and thought leader for the food and beverage industries.
Outside Insights, Story, Papa Johns, Subway