When you consider firing your boss, you should also consider whether or not you're firing your brand.
When Men's Wearhouse chief George Zimmer was fired Wednesday, the brand was inundated with emails and social media posts from disgruntled customers vowing to never shop at the haberdashery again. The public relations push-back should have been expected for a brand that was built around its founder's iconic face and tagline, "You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it."
Many companies have parted ways with their founders, and often for very good reasons. The skills needed to start a company and grow it to success are very different from the skills needed to lead a large mature company and sustain that growth. Men's Wearhouse executives may have had very sound business reasons for removing Zimmer from the helm, but they could have done a much better job dealing with the man without firing the brand.
Not every company's founder is such an integral part of its brand.
When Apple fired Steve Jobs in 1985, the company felt the loss of the millionaire genius (he went on to found NeXT and Pixar Studios) and the innovations he continuously cranked out, but the Apple brand continued without him.
Jerry Yang, one of the two founders of Yahoo! was largely unknown outside tech and investment circles. When he severed all ties with Yahoo! last year after having been pushed out of the CEO's chair a few years before, consumers hardly noticed. In fact, current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Ann Mayer, a former long-time executive and spokesperson for Google, has a much higher profile than Yang ever did.
That means Yahoo! should be careful about how it handles Mayer. It's possible she could become a major part of its brand. That's what happened when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. Jobs' success turning Apple around and making the brand synonymous with technical innovation also made it synonymous with him. When he fell ill, Apple's sales and stock suffered with him. Since his death, the company has struggled to recover on two fronts: innovation and public perception.
This shows it isn't always a company's fault when it loses its founder and the face of its brand. In the years since Wendy's founder Dave Thomas' death, the company has struggled and steadily lost market share. Wendy's efforts to replace Thomas with his daughter (and company namesake) Melinda "Wendy" Morse have had mixed results. The brand has recovered a bit and, like KFC before it, is trying to resurrect its founder in its branding with archive clips and references to his charitable efforts.
A brand is not the products it sells, it is the image it creates in the minds of potential customers.
Most companies can get away with firing the entrepreneurs that founded them when the company outgrows the startup label, but when that founder is an integral part of the image it has created in its customers' minds, it's impossible to fire him without damaging the brand. Jos. A. Bank could fire Joseph A. Bank (if he exists) and get away with it but Men's Wearhouse made a foolish and potentially fatal mistake when it fired George Zimmer. I guarantee it.
Topics: public relations, reputation management, crisis communications
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