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Wendy's Challenge: Maintaining Its Brand Image Without Dave

Advertising: The folksy pitchman's role had been reduced, but the chain hopes goodwill he fostered will live on.

January 09, 2002|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just as consumers view Charles Schwab as the personification of low-cost investment services and saw Herb Kelleher as the voice of Southwest Airlines, Dave Thomas was the public face of Wendy's International Inc.

But after Thomas' death Tuesday of liver cancer, Wendy's said it no longer plans to use the founder in its advertising. The Dublin, Ohio-based company years ago had started reducing his ad presence.

Now, branding experts say, the nation's third-largest fast-food chain faces the challenge of transferring goodwill generated by the affable burger baron into enhancing the company's overall brand image without him.

Branding experts say it's dangerous to lean so heavily upon a single person.

"Some figureheads represent all about a company that is grand," said Noah Manduke, Los Angeles-based managing director of Siegelgale, a corporate-identity firm. "And in those cases, the sudden absence can be quite destructive."

But like Chrysler Corp. after Lee Iacocca's retirement or Kentucky Fried Chicken after Col. Harland Sanders' death, strong brands can survive the loss of a person who put a human face on a big corporation.

And companies won't stop seeking out leaders with a distinct commercial appeal if it can give them a competitive edge, experts say.

Despite the growing sophistication of consumers raised on music videos and other high-octane Hollywood entertainment, Americans remain willing to embrace a straight-talking spokesman.

"Look at New York City with [former Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani," said Michael A. Kamins, a USC marketing professor. "If that man told you to come to New York City and spend money, you'd do it."

Few of the corporate world's public faces are as well known as Thomas, who was 69. Thomas founded the Wendy's chain in 1969 and retired from active management in the early 1980s. He agreed to return as product pitchman in 1989 and subsequently filmed 800 commercials for the chain, including spots with such diverse co-stars as blues singer B.B. King and soap opera star Susan Lucci.

Wendy's said it has no plans to replace Thomas with another highly visible spokesman.

The chain on Tuesday suspended advertising nationwide, but when commercials return, the same spots will be running-- but without Thomas.

"David will certainly not appear in advertising going forward," said Donald F. Calhoon, a senior vice president and longtime Thomas associate.

Wendy's began to trim Thomas' role in advertising several years ago after the company's marketing team met to plot long-term advertising strategy and Thomas' role in it.

"It was a legitimate question, one that any responsible marketing manager would ask and begin to plan for," Calhoon said. "There's been less and less of him in recent years, and that's by design."

Thomas used to dominate Wendy's television commercials. But in the last two years the company founder made "cameos" that were tacked onto the end of spots, Calhoon said. Wendy's and longtime advertising agency Bates Worldwide will run the same spots when advertising resumes this month, but Thomas' segments will be dropped.

Wendy's challenge will be to transfer what consultant Manduke described as Thomas' special qualities--"the hometown feel, the genuineness and authenticity" that Thomas brought to the screen. Because few viewers believed Thomas was actually in the kitchen, the transfer might move smoothly.

The chain's biggest danger "is if they're asleep at the switch and do nothing," said Kevin Walker, a partner with Boardwalk, a Glendale-based brand management firm. Despite its successes, Wendy's remains a small player in the fast-food arena, and it is competing for customers with such giants as McDonald's Corp., Burger King and Taco Bell.

Branding experts say it might be more difficult to weather the loss of an active executive such as Schwab, who helped create the concept of low-cost brokerages and clearly remains at the helm of the discount brokerage bearing his name. At Schwab, the founder is more than just the personification of the company, Manduke said. "Schwab seems much more obviously dependent upon his stewardship."

Branding experts also caution against believing that a company will necessarily struggle after losing a well-known founder.

Ed Rice, a San Francisco-based executive director with Landor Associates, a brand identity consulting firm, points to Walt Disney Co. as an example of a corporation that successfully harnessed the image of its founder.

"Walt Disney was a dominant part of everything Disney was about," Rice said. "The company acknowledges his role and pays homage, but [the company] has evolved in a way that's entirely appropriate."

Shares of Wendy's rose 84 cents to $31.03 on the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday.

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