Papa John, One of the Last CEO Ad Stars, Will Remain the Face of the Company for Now

But how long will the outgoing leader stay on as spokesman?

John Schnatter will step aside as CEO on Jan. 1, 2018, being replaced by COO Steve Ritchie.
Papa John's via YouTube

“Papa” John Schnatter may be stepping aside as CEO of the pizza empire he founded in 1984, but don’t expect him to vanish from the brand’s ads and packaging.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, the pizza chain will be run by new CEO Steve Ritchie, who has been serving as chief operating officer, the company announced late this week. Schnatter will remain chairman of the board, and it appears he will also remain the face of the company.

“We have no plans to remove John from our communications,” a Papa John’s spokesman told Adweek today. “This was the right time for Steve to step in the CEO role, who has been with Papa John’s for 21 years and started as an hourly employee. We want to focus on what we do best—our people and our pizza.”

Schnatter previously stepped down from the role in 2005, only to return three years later. He has consistently appeared in the chain’s advertisements and on almost all of its branding materials, from pizza boxes to in-store signage.

However, his iconic role with the company hasn’t always been a positive. On a Nov. 1 call, he said “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” by not resolving the high-profile “take a knee” movement embraced by some players in protest of violence and injustice against black Americans. Papa John’s is an NFL sponsor.

Schnatter’s comments sparked backlash and accusations of racism online, leading him to subsequently clarify publicly that “we condemn racism in all forms and any and all hate groups that support it.”

It’s unclear how much, if at all, the issue led to Schnatter stepping aside as CEO. Given that Schnatter will remain as a spokesman, however, it’s unlikely that any of his critics will be placated by the move.

Is the CEO spokesman era ending?

The dual role of CEO and advertising spokesperson was a relatively common sight in the 1980s and ’90s, thanks largely to the success of chicken pitchman Frank Perdue. Put in front of the camera by agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves in the early ’70s, the avuncular Perdue proved to be a natural salesman and is credited with pioneering the idea of branding for a product like chicken.

In the 1980s, as American car companies faced an existential threat from overseas automakers, tough-talking Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca became a symbol of pride in U.S. craftsmanship, captured in his tagline, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

From the 1990s through today, inventor James Dyson, who revolutionized the vacuum cleaner industry before creating a wide range of other household gadgets, brought a tone of sophistication and expertise to his company’s ads, helping justify his products’ higher price points in categories crowded with legacy brands.

Michael Dubin, CEO of Dollar Shave Club, is another modern example of an iconic leader and spokesperson, one whose mainstream appeal likely stems from the fact he began as a content creator before becoming a successful entrepreneur and selling  his creation to consumer good behemoth Unilever.

A CEO spokesman can, of course, be a liability as well. The fates of executives rise and fall, making it hard to predict or ensure the longevity of a nonfictional spokesperson. When a CEO is deposed, the ads can end rather abruptly and create a consumer PR headache that most corporations wouldn’t experience from boardroom politics.

Take, for example, George Zimmer. The Men’s Wearhouse founder and CEO starred in countless ads from the 1980s and into the 2010s, turning his tagline—”You’re going to like the way you look, I guarantee it.”—into a piece of pop culture and, eventually, even a meme.

So when Zimmer was ousted abruptly by his board in 2013, it wasn’t just another faceless CEO rotating off, but rather a high-profile spokesperson. After more than a month of pressure, the board finally released as a reasoning for firing Zimmer, who they said had wanted too much personal control of the company. He has since gone on to launch two startups—zTailors and Generation Tux—to compete with the brand he spend decades building.

One executive at MullenLowe, the network that acquired Perdue agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves, says the CEO spokesman can still be a strong approach—but only when it’s driven by the message, not just the personality.

“Perdue’s use of the CEO spokespeople was based in a strategy around quality and helping consumers understand where the meat was coming from,” said Lee Newman, U.S. CEO of MullenLowe. “But when use of a CEO is mandated with no clear strategic reason, it’s usually not effective.”

Can the founder remain the face?

Will “Papa” John Schnatter drift out of the limelight and become a ghost of brand marketing past? Unlikely.

In the same way that Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas served as spokesman long after his official tenure with the brand ended, Schnatter could remain the face of the brand indefinitely, unless the company feels his presence in ads could do more harm than good.

His story could play out much the same as that of Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, who stepped down as CEO in April—both he and Schnatter having been replaced by their chief operating officers.

Schultz—characterized as the altruistic self-made billionaire who grew up in Brooklyn housing projects—has definitely not taken a back seat since stepping down. In fact, he’s made so many recent nationwide tours to Starbucks shops and taken hard stances on political issues, some major publications have begun questioning whether he is gearing up for a 2020 presidential run.

Whether Schnatter will, or even could, be that active on behalf of Papa John’s remains to be seen. And, it appears from the company’s release announcing his resignation that Papa John’s could already be trying to set his successor, Steve Ritchie, up to be the brand’s new face.

Painting Ritchie as a star minimum-wage employee turned C-suite exec, the company detailed the new CEO’s progression through Papa John’s, having first joined as a customer service rep at $6 an hour and then slowly working his way up the ladder, becoming a franchise owner and operator, COO and, as of New Year’s Day, CEO.

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