Starring in Your Own Ads

By Anne B. Fisher

Promoting the family can give your company a strong personalimage--and an edge on bigger competitors.

There's no mistaking that Daw's Home Furnishings in El Paso, Texas, is a family business. The store's full-page ads in local newspapers proclaim "HOME OWNED AND OPERATED FOR OVER 38 YEARS!" The smiling mugs of eight members of "the Daw Gang" look out from the listings of weekly specials on items such as frost-free refrigerators, microwave ovens, and mattresses. Each photo has a caption with the family member's name and number of years in the business ("Linda Daw Hudson, 19 years of experience"). Just in case anyone has missed the point, a small map of Texas in the upper righthand corner is accompanied by the legend: "We're from El Paso! ... We live, bank, and spend here! We buy, hire, and like it here! We've been here 38 YEARS."

Although more emphatic about it than most, the Daws are hardlyalone in touting their company's family ties. Through the years, many others, small and large, have designed their marketing strategies around a family theme, often memorably.

Older television viewers in the New York metropolitan region will remember the Castro Convertible commercials back in the late forties and early fifties, in which little Bernadette Castro opened her father's convertible beds and showed how easy it was. Bernadette is now president of the company and her children appear in commercials nationwide. East Coast viewers also came to know the Potamkin family, which ran a gigantic Cadillac franchise, through their TV ads, first Victor Potamkin and Mrs. Potamkin, then their son Robert. More recently, in a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that ultimately backfired, HarryHelmsley built up his wife, Leona, as the "queen" who stood guard over every detail at his opulent Palace Hotel and other high-priced hostelries in Manhattan.

The selling of the family is an old and hallowed marketing strategy that may enjoy a resurgence now that family values are back in style. From small businesses that advertise locally, like Daw's Home Furnishings in El Paso and Kakas Furs inBoston, to large companies trying to reach a national audience or segmented markets, such as Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon, and Marcal Paper Mills in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, the family pitch is still common.

Using the family in advertising the business has its risks. Does it really work? As with so many other questions, the answer seems to be, "It depends." According to those who have tried it,putting the family out front can distinguish a small company or one that is new to a given industry, from giant, well-entrenched competitors. It can help to convey, convincingly, a concern for quality and integrity. By making customers feel they know the people behind the product, it can endow the company and the product with a strong personalimage.

But promoting the family may be more appropriate in certain industries and market segments than in others. To some people, the family-owned company still carries a stigma of amateurish management and nepotism. James Lebenthal appears in commercials for the municipal-bond dealer,Lebenthal & Co., which was cofounded by his mother and father in 1925. His daughter Alexandra is coming into the business now. But when asked whether he would consider emphasizing the family connection in Lebenthal & Co. ads, he gets down-right angry: "I hate the whole subject so much that I don't think my cardiologist would let me be interviewed on it," he says.

Hard evidence is lacking on the question of whether a family-centered ad campaign works. That's because most family businesses are too small, or simply too busy, to do the kind of detailed market research that huge corporations routinely use to gauge customers' reactions to advertising. Tom Garbett, an adman with Doremus & Co., suspects that most smallbusinesses that advertise are "flying in the dark." Stores that advertise locally, for example, may audit customer traffic after their ads appear, but Garbett doubts that they take the next step and attempt to measure whether the increased traffic is converted into greater sales.

To get an idea of whether or not such campaigns have been successful, we can only rely on the personal testimony of those who have tried it.

The Daws, who created their own ads without an agency's help, have been using the "Daw Gang" theme for 15 years. Three years ago, when they began featuring family members' pictures in the ads, sales started bounding upward. "It makes a difference, and not only because customers recognize you when they come in," says Wade Daw, a son of the founder who has been in the business for 23 years. "I was on an airplane last week and the man sitting next to me said, 'Hey, I know you! I saw your picture in the paper.' Things like this make you realize how much the family photo ads increase public awareness of your business."

The ads distinguish Daw's from its big national competitors and give customers the feeling that they are getting personal attention from people they know. "Our main competitors are Sears and Montgomery Ward," Wade says. "Retailing, especially in appliances and electronics, is intensely competitive. So apart from comparable prices, you have to offer something extra. People like the fact that in our store it's going to be a family member, whose name and face the've seen before, who iswaiting on them--not just a clerk who could be here today and gone tomorrow."

It's difificult to quantify the dollars-and-cents impact of the family's celebrity. But one clue to the campaign's success may be the company's spectacular growth in the last three years: Since the family-photo ads began appearing in 1987, Daw'ssales have doubled, from about $5 million a year to more than $10 million, and the Daws have recently moved to a new 45,000-square-foot store.

A similar, if somewhat more subdued, marketing strategy has helped Redmond Products, a Minnesota company that sells Aussie Mega Shampoo, Australian 3-Minute Miracle Conditioner, and other hair care products developed Down Under. The company's ads in national magazines feature photographs of seven family members involved in the business. One shows the whole three-generation clan, including toddlers, dressed up in kangaroo costumes--a spoof of the company's kangaroo logo. "Now This Is Dedication," the headline says. "While our family may continue to grow and change, one thing in our business won't," the ad promises. "And that's our pledge to you: 1) We willnever change formulas. 2) We will never skimp on ingredients. 3) We will never cut corners."

Tom Redmond Sr., who started the company in 1980 with his daughter Patricia, says: "When you're a small company competing against Revlon, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive, you can't outmuscle or out-advertise them. If you mimic their marketing, they'll eat your lunch. So you have to do what they can't do."

Redmond believes that the family-oriented strategy also creates what he calls "an honest, credible image." Most of the giant companies use celebrities or "beautiful, perfect young models" in their ads. "Does anyone really believe that someone like Farrah Fawcett uses Prell?" he asks. "Give me a break."

Women buy shampoo for their families, and Redmond feels they identify more readily with someone else's family than with a glamorous model or actress. What's more, he believes consumers trust a family company not to deceive them. "When you are the head of a family company, you have to set an example for your children," Redmond says. "Nobody raises their kids teaching them to lie, cheat, and steal. So certain values are likely to be ingrained that have to do with what kind of citizens you want your kids to be. And, I think, if your advertising focuses on that, your customers pick up on it and respect it."

The Redmonds don't do research to determine if there's a link between their values and the company's revenues. But at the very least, the ads do seem to reinforce the success of their hair products. Last year's sales were expected to reach $110 million, a 28 percent increase over 1989.

If a family-centered campaign can build trust with customers, it can also identify the product with a particularly vivid personality. Columbia Sportswear,the $130 miIlion manufacturer of upscale ski parkas and other outdoor gear in Portland, Oregon, provides an outstanding example.

In Columbia's ads, Gert Boyle, the chairwoman, is portrayed as a dour, overbearing, perfectionist mother who is a constant--and comical--trial to her son, Tim, the company president. A recentmagazine ad, designed to highlight the fact that Columbia's ski parkas are actually three garments in one, shows a photo of an empty wire hanger. Underneath is a quote from Tim Boyle: "Mother wouldn't approve a single ski parka for this ad." Turn the page and a big headline across a two-page spread screams,''There are three damn good reasons why--Mother Gert Boyle." The ad goes on to explain this apparent family feud by showing that the parka actually is three parkas and describing how it works.

Columbia's television commercials are downright hilarious. In one that made its debut this fall on ESPN, MTV, and the Weather Channel, Mother Gert calls on Tim to demonstrate that Columbia's parkas are waterproof. How? By going through acar wash wearing one--without a car. The resigned, compliant heir obliges.

Consumers respond to the ads by calling and writing Mother Gert with all sorts of comments, complaints, questions, and reminiscences. She answers her own phone and hears from about 100 customers in an average week.

The Boyles credit the current campaign with playing a critical role in Columbia's remarkable turnaround. Just 12 years ago, the company was barely making ends meet, with $1 million in annual sales. In the past decade, revenue has skyrocketed. Most of that growth has been in the six years since bossy Mother Boyle has dominated advertising. According to Mary Marckx, a spokesperson, the firm's previous ads were "pseudo-techie"--emphasizing, for instance, the scientific reasons that Columbia clothing keeps customers warmer thancompeting products. Columbia's ad agency, BP&N in Portland, devised the tense Gert-and-son relationship. "Some of the growth in the past few years has been because of new product introductions," says Marckx. "But the mother-and-son ads haveplayed a huge part--because you can have the greatest product in the world, but it won't sell if your ads are so boring that no one notices them."

Some companies have figured out that a family pitch connects with certain audiences even more than others. Marcal Paper Mills, a $200 million-a-year maker of household paper goods, has tailored its image to appeal to two distinct market segments in the northeastern United States: supermarket owners and Hispanics.

The company's ad campaign recently shifled from a slogan stressing value ("Marcalculate and Save") to one that points up its products' environmental soundness: "Paper from Paper--Not from Trees." The environmental strategy highlights aspects of the company's history. Shortly after he incorporated the business in 1932, founder Nicholas Marcalus was taken with the idea, eccentric in those days, that paper could be recycled. Now hisson, Robert, and grandsons, Nicholas and Peter, are running the business and capitalizing on the fact that for nearly 50 years the company has tumed old paper into new: Marcal makes paper towels and tissues from 100 percent recycled fiber,with no added chlorine bleach.

But in the supermarket trade press and other advertising to vendors, Marcal emphasizes that the company has been family- owned and operated for three generations. Peter Marcalus, vice president for corporate communications, says supermarketsthat stock Marcal products identify with family ownership for the simple reason that many of them are multigeneration family companies, too.

Likewise, he says his research reveals that Hispanic shoppers respond even more warmly to the family connection than do "Angles." Thus, marketing aimed at flourishing Hispanic communities in the Northeast uses the slogan: "Calidad que va de familia a familia"--which translates roughly, "Quality from our family to your family."

In New York, Connecticut, and parts of Pennsylvania, Peter Marcal says, advertising the company as a family business over the years has instilled the loyalty of at least two generations ofcustomers. And some of the most loyal overlap the two market segments: They are grocery stores and other small businesses run by Hispanics.

Although advertising the family may seem as innocent and harmless as mom and apple pie, there are reasons for proceeding with caution. One of the obvious risks is that a high profile will expose the family to personal and practical danger. John Grace, an executive vice president of the New Yorkimage consultants Lippincott & Margulies says, "Lots of family businesses come to us asking whether they should market themselves as such. Often we think so, but we try to point out that when you and your family are out there in the public eye, as the owners of a prosperous business, there can be security problems. In our society, unhappily, visibility spells kidnap risk." Particularly for families with young children, the worry mayoutweigh any potential gain.

There are also strong business reasons why some companies do not want to emphasize family ownership. The business that aspires to become a high-tech, global company may want to keep its family origins in the background. Susan Hayward, a vice president of the market research firm Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, explains: "If you're selling consumer goods or marketing a retail service, that's one thing. But if you're building jet engines, the cozy little family workshop is not exactly the best image for you to convey."

Image-makers frequently cite IBM and Ford as examples of global leviathans that, at least in recent years, have played down their family roots. Although Ford remains in some ways a family company--Henry Ford's direct descendants control some 40 percent of shareholder votes, and two of his grandsons hold top management positions--the company's marketing never mentions the colorful and turbulent Ford family at all.

Tom Garbett of Doremus & Co., author of two books on corporate image advertising, emphasizes that using the family does not, by itself, ensure the success of an ad campaign. By picturing themselves in their ads, the Daw Gang identifies thefamily with the business. But effective advertising can raise the visibility of the business even without the family.

"The family can only be a means of demonstrating your idea or selling message," Garbett says. "It's not a substitute for an idea, but a way of dramatizing it and making it credible." For example, Bernadette Castro was darned cute, but her appearance in the commercials was effective, says Garbett, because it dramatized the message, which was that opening Castro convertible beds was so easy that even a child could do it.

Also, suggests Garbett, using the family in commercials may not succeed unless the members somehow personify the product. "If the family comes across as warm and friendly, that might bethe right persona for a restaurant such as Mama Leone's in New York City. But if you own a store that sells computers and other electronic equipment, the family members would have to comeacross as technical whizzes who are very knowledgeable about these things."

Whatever the message, family-owned companies that play up ties to kith and kin may enjoy an advantage in the nineties. According to demographers and other professional trend-spotters, the next 10 years may be the most home- and family-oriented decade since the fifties. One researcher,Geoffrey Greene of Data Resources, notes that the prosperous baby boomers are coming into "the most intensely home-focused stage of the life cycle--settling down, raising kids." As this huge cohort concentrates on child-rearing, marketers of every stripe will rediscover family values such asstability, integrity, quality, and a more nebulous sort of warm, fuzzy concern for people and prosperity. Slogans like "From our family to your family" are likely to pluck consumers' heartstrings for the rest of this decade.

Anne B. Fisher has written forFortune, Inc., Barron's, and others. Does your family have the right stuff? By Tom Garbett

You don't want to put your family in your ads just for the fun of it.If you don't think about how it can help the company image, thestrategy may not work.

Corporations take on many human characteristics in theminds of their employees and customers. A company may bethought of as honest, friendly, trustworthy, and very demandingin its standards of quality and service. Or, unfortunately, it may bethought of as cold, sloppy, nondescript, or even untrustworthy.

The family can personify some of the company's most appealingtraits. But before deciding whether to use your family in your advertising, you should first examine the qualities customers look for in your product category.

Do they base their buying decisions mostly on attributes of theproduct, such as usefulness, style, color, or prestige value? Ifso, an advertising strategy that focuses on the family can get inthe way of selling the product.

In some categories, however, attributes of the company are thebiggest influence on the buyer's choice. For example, insurancecompanies, banks, brokerages, and other financial institutionsoften spend more on corporate-image advertising than on product advertising. After all, money is a commodity; what distinguishes one source of money from another is the institution behind it.

In selling a company image, four of the most important attributes are trustworthiness, credibility, service, and quality. These features can be very effectively personified by the family.

Don't take the family approach just as a way to tie a campaign ofads together, however. The family is no substitue for a message.And don't use family members unless their personal characteristics somehow express qualities of the product or the company that you want to emphasize in your message.

Tom Garbett is a veteran advertising executive with Doremus & Co.

Article categories: 
Print / Download
January/February 1991

Other Related Articles

  • 5 keys to success in any family business

    Running a business is hard. Family life can be hard. Running a family business can seem impossible at times. In addition to the difficult decisions you must make every day for the company, you must al...

  • Risk Management in the Age of Uncertainty

    In the 1600s, merchant ships faced enormous uncertainty while delivering cargo throughout the world. Rough weather, pirates, foreign gunships and disease consistently threatened their voyages, and the...

  • GOJO doubles production to meet ‘staggering’ Purell demand

    GOJO Industries, the third-generation family business that makes Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer, has doubled production across all operations in order to ship twice as much product as it delivered to s...

  • Family giving during COVID-19

    Over the past several months, we have heard time and again: We are all in this together. Truly, not a single person in our country has been unaffected by COVID-19. Whether you or someone you know is a...