OPINION: Brand figureheads are potential turkeys

The man whose smiling face brought 'bootiful' turkeys to our tables has rapidly become the bird who has flown.

Amid a welter of damning headlines, the only glimpses of Bernard Matthews himself have been strained pictures through car windows.

The trust engendered by his personal touch on the brand has been incinerated faster than the thousands of carcasses, with the avuncular ‘cheeky chappie’ image going up in smoke.

For PR practitioners, a Matthews-type embodiment of a brand has obvious attractions. It creates powerful editorial collateral, particularly when innovation and rising profits are the story.

Who better than, for example, the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Stelios Haji Ioannou or Sir Philip Green to announce the latest consumer offering or brand extension? They maintain a persona that drives loyalty; their polished image guarantees a regular media presence; interviews and photoshoots with them appeal to business, news, diary and feature writers alike – all ensured through rapacious and brilliantly orchestrated PR campaigns.

The same personal touch can also be engendered through advertising that joins celebrity and product at the hip.

Think James Nesbitt and Yellow Pages, Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury’s, David Beckham and Gillette. In these cases and many more, clever PR amplification of ads gains valuable editorial coverage, playing a crucial role in commercial success.

But the wider lesson of the Bernard Matthews story is surely that personality-driven brands are potentially a double-edged sword. When crises strike, the consumer looks for reassurance from the trusted face – his or her absence or misplaced statement wreaks additional damage. PROs should be aware of the need for a specific type of issues management planning to limit such potential damage to brand reputation.

This planning should take account of the fact that Matthews et al are positioned as trusted salespeople and that consumer trust cannot be seen to be betrayed in tough times. To a certain extent the same is true of the celebrity brand icons.

By allowing him to appear to be ducking the flak, Matthews’ image team is forfeiting the personal trust built up in him. I have a hunch that, should a crisis strike, the advisers of Branson, Ioannou and Green would ensure their leaders were visibly positioned to personally reassure or apologise.

After all, leading one’s brand from the front is not a part-time occupation.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and TheSun.

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