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Should CEOs Star in Company Ads? Just ask Warren Buffett

A move to put the famed investors’ face on Chinese Coke cans begs the question of whether it’s a good idea for CEOs to feature in marketing campaigns.

Warren Buffet has made no secret of his love for Coca-Cola. He claims to drink five cans a day and always has one close-by at Berkshire Hathaway’s popular annual shareholder meetings. The investment company, of which Buffett has been CEO since 1970, also holds a 9.3% stake in the soda giant.

It’s also no secret that investors in China are Buffett-mad, as they try to emulate the so-called Oracle of Omaha’s talent for stock picking.

To leverage his appeal there, Buffett has allowed his face to appear on all cans of Cherry Coke sold in China, in what must be one of the biggest ever attempts by a company to use a CEO in a marketing campaign.

“I can’t think of a better way to launch Cherry Coke than with its best-known fan on the package,” Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent said. “It is an honor for us to be able to feature Warren on his favorite drink as it rolls out in one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic consumer markets.”

“ADS FEATURING CEOs NOTCHED CONSIDERABLY HIGHER SCORES FOR DESIRE, RELEVANCE AND INFORMATION.”

Buffett, of course, isn’t your standard businessman. Along with the likes of Richard Branson and Elon Musk, he’s among that rare breed of CEOs to attain international celebrity status. But what about the average executive? Should they be appearing in company ads?

The tactic isn’t commonly-used, though some companies have done it well: think Dave Thomas at Wendy’s, John Schnatter at Papa Johns and Frank Perdue at Perdue Farms. In fact, a recent study conducted by advertising analytics company Ace Metrix, found that, on average, ads featuring CEOs outperformed ads that didn’t.

Putting CEOs in campaigns can give the company a human face, and, if they’re good in front of a camera, make its offering seem more genuine. Ace Metrix’s analysis found ads featuring CEOs notched considerably higher scores for “desire”, “relevance” and “information”.

CEOs have a tendency to know their product better than any actor and are more likely to show genuine enthusiasm while discussing their own wares—something consumers are likely to notice.

And they need not come across as particularly polished. according to advertising agency Wingman, which opines that there’s no better person for a radio ad than a CEO—especially if they’re a tad nervous. “Slick doesn’t always mean successful. Actually, it usually means the opposite,” the agency said in a recent blog post.

Of course, averages are averages and there’s always going to be a relatively poor communicator who’s just not suitable for the limelight. There’s also big risks associated with consistently featuring a CEO as the face of a brand, should they one day retire, or, even worse, get forced out for poor performance.

That was a problem faced by Men’s Warehouse, which sparked outrage on social media by dumping its founder and long-time face of the company George Zimmer.

For any other CEOs thinking of taking the plunge, Ace Metrix has some advice: test ad performance and have a Plan B ready to go should they fail. “In the case of CEO ads, there is a lot more at risk, because it is not only the ad that could fail, but also the CEO’s image and reputation that could be irreparably tarnished,” it said. “Make sure you test the ads and the message.”

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About Ross Kelly

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.