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Men’s Wearhouse brand hurt by Zimmer’s exit

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Updated June 28, 2013, 5:13 PM ET: George Zimmer’s very-public exit from the company he founded and hawked on TV, Men’s Wearhouse, appears to have damaged the company’s brand among consumers, at least according to YouGov BrandIndex, a consumer perception research firm.

When asked “Have you heard anything positive or negative about this brand, either in the news, the press, or by word of mouth?,” consumers responded with their lowest scores for Men’s Wearhouse since 2007, when the brand was first tracked.

The response may not be entirely surprising, considering the headlines of the past two weeks. On Thursday, Zimmer responded publicly for the first time after his former board of directors’ ousted him from his chairman post he had held since 1974.

Zimmer said the board was trying to “marginalize and then silence” him and that he was inaccurately being portrayed “as an obstinate former CEO, determined to regain absolute control” working for his “own personal benefit and ego.” 

Earlier in the week, a rather blunt statement from Men’s Wearhouse read:

Zimmer “had difficulty accepting the fact that Men’s Wearhouse is a public company with an independent Board of Directors and that he has not been the Chief Executive Officer for two years.”

Ouch. Though not always given such a swift kick, founders get bounced from the companies they created all the time. Not all entrepreneurs have the skills to guide a start-up after their baby becomes a national or global brand.

But firing Zimmer (who severed all ties by resigning from the board) presents a special challenge to the business-wear retailer. He’s not just the founder, but also the star of the company’s ad campaign. His bearded face appears in TV commercials where he delivers the slogan, “You’re gonna like the way you look. I guarantee it.” 

Here’s how some other companies dealt with losing their founder/spokesperson:

Martha Stewart was convicted of lying to prosecutors in 2004 in the ImClone insider trading case. She served five months in prison, but even upon her release, her settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission barred her from being an executive or board member for five years. She is now back as non-executive chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The company has had a rocky ride before and after her incarceration, sued by its merchandising partners and dealing with the dismal advertising prospects dogging all media companies.

Colonel Harlan Sanders famously turned a secret fried chicken recipe and a Corbin, Kentucky, gas station into one of America’s most iconic fast food chains. Even after selling his stake in the business, he stayed on as pitchman until his death at 90 in 1980. Actors (and sometimes cartoon characters) have slapped on frosty goatees and string bow ties to impersonate him in the years since. KFC is now a worldwide brand, with the Colonel’s likeness popping up in more than 100 countries.

Wally Amos launched his Famous Amos Cookie Company in 1975 and saw his company’s fortunes rise as his cookies exploded in popularity. His signature Panama hat and shirt even entered the Smithsonian’s collection. But Amos ran into financial difficulties in the 1980s and he gradually lost control of the company to a series of investors. With that, he even lost the ability to use his own name and likeness. An attempt to sell cookies again as Uncle Noname went bankrupt.

A private equity firm was eventually able to turn the Famous Amos brand around. It’s now in the hands of Keebler, which briefly hired Amos back as a spokesman in 1999. In recent years, he has tried launching other businesses, has written books and taken to the motivational speaking circuit.

There are some parallels here to Zimmer. Men’s Wearhouse can still use his likeness in ads if it wants, though it’ll have to pay Zimmer a licensing fee of $250,000 a year to do so.

Reuters reports that Zimmer is stroking his iconic beard and talking to advisors about staging a comeback.

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