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Papa John's and the Personification of the Brand

16th July 2018

Grayling’s Jon Meakin reflects on what happens when personal and corporate brands collide.

Full disclosure: Up until a few years ago, Grayling represented Papa John’s in the UK. We did some great work for them, including some brilliant digital promotions around their sports sponsorships. I became tangentially involved, providing support to the team around some key events, including a visit to the UK by Papa John himself, then CEO and now former Chairman, John Schnatter.

So when thinking about Mr Schnatter’s fall from grace over the past few days, I bring a certain perspective, and a degree of first-hand knowledge. Not just about ‘Papa John’ the man, but also about brands whose identities are bound up with those of their founders, and / or their families.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of these brands – Patak’s, Baxter’s, Marriott. Having someone as the literal personification of a brand is a gift, because there is almost always a great story there. Kirit Pathak has an incredible rags-to-riches story, and he and Meena Pathak are among the best spokespeople with whom I have had the pleasure of working; the Baxter’s brand survives through every passing generation of the Baxter family, who still own the company; and Marriott is an example of a global brand so successful that it transcends the family name – although the Marriotts remain very much in charge.

In the early 2000s I had the pleasure of meeting William ‘Bill’ Marriott, when he officially opened the London Marriott Park Lane, a hotel whose launch I managed. He was charming. But rarely have a I seen such fevered preparation for a visit from the top brass. The floors of that hotel were so polished, one could see one’s reflection, and every fridge was well stocked with cranberry juice, Mr Marriott’s preferred beverage. I later learned that ‘Bill’ had a habit when visiting any Marriott property (which he did often) of picking a room at random and asking to inspect it, which he would do with white gloves, even getting down on his knees to check under the beds for dust bunnies. Mr Marriott recognizes that when your company brand is your family name, and vice versa, the two are indivisible: A poor quality product reflects badly on you, but also, anything you do or say is under scrutiny, and poor judgment can ruin your corporate brand. Just ask Gerald Ratner. Or ‘Papa John’ Schnatter.  

Reports vary as to what exactly happened on that conference call when Mr Schnatter used – as he has now admitted – the N-word, the moment that ultimately led to his resignation from the board of the company he founded. Schnatter says he was ‘pressured’ into using the word by the firm’s (now former) marketing agency. But all of this intrigue distracts from the key issue: He did use the word, and very quickly learned that actions have consequences – first his apparently forced resignation from the position of Chairman, and then his apparently forced removal from his office in Kentucky. It’s a lot for him to swallow, but he’ll be OK – he is still a multimillionaire. To what extent the brand that bears his name can survive, is another matter. Mr Schnatter’s likeness is already being removed from all packaging and marketing materials and the company is taking a leaf out of Uber’s book by bringing in an outside auditor to investigate and recommend changes to its culture, policies and processes. This is a company in full-on fire-fighting mode, as it scrambles to recover in the already-tough fast food market.  

So, what’s the lesson here?

In this age of ultra-transparency, the highest standards of probity are expected from a company’s senior leadership. They cannot say one thing in ‘private’ and another in public. They must live the values of the brands they represent. Whether they share their family name with the company or not, the CEO (or Chairman) should be the personification of the brand. Bill Marriott knows that. Kirit Pathak knows that. And now, John Schnatter does, too.

Perhaps someone should have a word with Elon Musk.

Jon Meakin is Grayling’s global head of strategic services.

Jon Meakin

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