Lee Iacocca and the Art of the Celebrity CEO

Iconic automaker refined a marketing template many would follow

Jul 03, 2019
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Lee Iacocca, the charismatic visionary who stunned the business world when he steered Chrysler Corp. from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1980s, had a storied career. At Ford, he created the Mustang. At Chrysler, he created the minivan.

And in advertising, he created a still-strong template for the celebrity CEO.

Iacocca died this week at 94.

He’s remembered for his peerless understanding of the auto industry and the appetites of the driving public, for securing the controversial $1.5 billion auto bailout that helped finance the automaker’s turnaround, and for starring in a decade-long TV ad campaign that successfully implored American motorists to give his cars a try, even offering some consumers $50 just to test-drive a new model. “We’re not foolish. We’re confident,” he’d say in one ad.

“If you can find a better car, buy it,” he’d say in others.

“His performance was potent, to the extent of garnering celebrity status and credit for the company’s turnaround from near bankruptcy,” says Henry C. Boyd III, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Iacocca would elevate his personal brand as he elevated Chrysler’s, writing a runaway bestselling autobiography in the 1980s that would recount his ouster at Ford and his against-all-odds rescue of Chrysler.

His TV commercials would show Iacocca in shirt and tie, often walking the factory floors. He didn’t invent the notion of the CEO pitchman, but the brash Iacocca did take it to new heights.

Other CEOs have also stood in front of the cameras, seeking to grow or revitalize their company’s brand. Here are some of the more memorable ones, according to Boyd.

Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas: Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas replaced Clara “Where’s the Beef” Peller in the mid-1980s as the burger chain sought to shift its advertising focal point. “The new campaign projected the notion, ‘We’re old-school.’ And ‘We’re about great service,’ says Boyd. It was about authenticity and building trust. It suggested that you might one day stroll into a Wendy’s and see an apron-wearing Dave Thomas, himself, at the counter, hard at work (like in this 1989 spot). “It was telling that when he died in 2002, folks came into various Wendy’s restaurants expressing their condolences – signaling they had bonded with Dave Thomas even through the medium of television.”

KFC’s Colonel Harland Sanders: “With his white hair and goatee, and in his quintessential white suit and black clip-on bow tie, Colonel Sanders comes across like an uncle in your family sharing an amazing recipe with 11 herbs and spices,” Boyd says. “So, for TV viewers, say watching this 1969 ad, when it came time for Sunday dinner, you wanted to go with Kentucky Fried Chicken.” And there’s good reason for that, Boyd continues. “Ads like this were talking about that tradition of Southern cuisine. I think it moved a lot of folks. Both Colonel Sanders and Thomas became personality symbols. They really embodied the brand.”

Virgin’s Richard Branson: Richard Branson is another founder who has embodied what his brand stands for, but with a little more swagger than Sanders or Thomas, Boyd says. The Virgin Mobile “Life Story” ad depicting Branson from childhood through young adulthood, with his distinctive flowing locks and goatee – was “conveys that he thinks big, thinks bold and has vision. It conveys that it makes sense that he went on to found Virgin.”

Microsoft’s Bill Gates: Microsoft’s 1981 “Hello, I’m Bill Gates” commercial worked well to connect with viewers through its young founder Bill Gates. “Wearing those classic, huge glasses with a mop of hair on his head, he came across as geeky and unassuming as he talked about such emerging concepts as Windows, Excel, PowerPoint and Word. Later, when Gates handed the CEO reins to Steve Ballmer, the pair starred in a ‘Night at the Roxbury’ spoof. That also worked. It humanized them as leaders with a little quirkiness.”

Hewlett Packard’s Carly Fiorina: After the dot-com bubble burst, HP sought to burnish its brand and reassure consumers and shareholders. Its “Hewlett Packard Founders Garage” commercial, featuring Maryland Smith graduate Carly Fiorina, MBA ’80. “It’s moving to hear the narration by her, a pioneer in her own right among women CEOs in the tech space, describing these radicals in a Palo Alto garage creating what would soon define Silicon Valley. It’s rather interesting to revisit.”

Dollar Shave Club’s Michael Dubin: Three decades after “Hello, I’m Bill Gates,” Dollar Shave Club co-founder Michael Dubin introduced himself and his razors-by-mail startup with an ad campaign that went instantly viral. “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” branded Dollar Shave Club through its young, hip founder. And it was astonishingly effective, says Boyd.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Sometimes he’s not even pitching Amazon stuff, but e-commerce superfounder Jeff Bezos has taken on some interesting pitchman/acting roles. In this (kind of weird) 2001 Taco Bell spot, he obsesses over consumer appetites. More recently, he plays a troubleshooting executive in the “Alexa Loses Her Voice” Super Bowl commercial. “He projects a 24/7, hands-on approach to leadership,” Boyd says, “suggesting ‘I’m always there, trying to make it better.’” It’s not Iacocca-esque, but Amazon isn’t Chrysler, either.

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About the Expert(s)

Henry C. Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.

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